FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas understands the significance of Sept. 15.
It’s the Southeastern Conference opener against top-ranked Alabama. It’s a game the Razorbacks have been anticipating a long time. It’s the chance to end a frustrating drought against coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, as well as an opportunity to take an important first step toward winning a division championship.
Arkansas guard Alvin Bailey didn’t want to hear about it this week, though. The junior said he and his veteran teammates remember how many uneasy moments the Razorbacks experienced in a 31-7 win against Louisiana-Monroe in 2010.
“Two years ago, we found ourselves in the same position and I think we kind of overlooked them and we went down there and didn’t play too good,” Bailey said.
“We found ourselves in a dogfight until the second half. So, that’s not something we want to do. I tell my teammates all the time, we don’t need to do anything different.”
Bailey and the coaches’ 10th-ranked Razorbacks (1-0) will find out if the message soaks in at 6 p.m., when Arkansas plays Louisiana-Monroe (0-0) in War Memorial Stadium.
It’s the second chance for Arkansas to make an impression before it moves into Alabama week preparation. But it’s also a second potential pitfall against a team now confident it can compete against the Razorbacks after the 2010 game.
Arkansas — with an offense led by quarterback Ryan Mallett, tight end D.J. Williams and receiver Greg Childs — struggled to produce against a defense that was physical and sound. The Razorbacks only held a 7-0 in the third quarter before a late push.
The 24-point win was anything but a smooth walk into the SEC opener at Georgia.
“It was a tough game for us,” said Arkansas coach John L. Smith, who was special teams coordinator at the time. “They played a heck of a game.
“I expect those guys are going to be looking forward to get after us again.”
ULM coach Todd Berry, who was in his first season with the Warhawks in 2010, is confident his program has grown since that game. He believes his second-team group is now better than his starters in 2010. There is more confidence, too.
The Warhawks went 4-8 last season, but returns starting quarterback Kolton Browning, his top two running backs and top three receivers this season. There is some youth on defense, but ULM does have five starters returning there as well.
ULM opens its season against the Razorbacks, kicking off a three-game stretch that also includes Auburn and Baylor. So Berry said his team is eager to play tonight.
“I think we are a better football team than what we’ve been,” Berry said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. We’ve certainly got more depth and we’ve got a lot of guys that have played an awful lot of football.”
But Berry said there’s no question Arkansas has improved, too.
Arkansas also has reason to be well prepared for ULM after showing a few cracks in its 49-24 win against Jacksonville State last Saturday.
The Razorbacks turned the ball over three times, struggled to slow the Gamecocks’ passing attack in the first half, and surrendered the most points in an opener since the 2008 season. The bumps, coupled with Alabama’s dominant win against Michigan the same night, left Arkansas feeling disappointed despite the win.
“We’re a good football team,” Arkansas running back Knile Davis said. “We know what we’re doing. We have some things to improve on, of course. But we’re going to attack those issues and have a better game this weekend so we can go into ‘Bama confident in ourselves, which we are.”
Smith believes the mistakes should motivate his team as it prepares to play ULM. He doesn’t believe anyone will be underestimating the Warhawks because of them.
“I think we’re mature enough and I think after this last week that if we go to the field and don’t concentrate on getting better then we aren’t a very smart football team,” Smith said. “I think they understand what we have to get done. … I think our guys are looking forward to another one before they actually play Alabama.”
Arkansas is playing in Little Rock for the first time this season. The Razorbacks have won 10 straight in War Memorial Stadium, dating back to the 2006 loss to LSU in the regular season finale. They haven’t dropped a nonconference game in Little Rock since a 6-0 loss to Memphis in 1995, a streak that stretches 20 games.
Wright said the Razorbacks won’t let it end by losing concentration tonight.
“We know the battle we had back then with ULM in Little Rock and we know what it is going to take to beat those guys,” linebacker Tenarius Wright said. “That is what we preached all camp and we are going to stay on each other and make sure we – as a team and as teammates – it is going to take more than we did last week.”
No one needs to remind Arkansas its showdown with Alabama is on the horizon.
The Razorbacks know the high-profile opportunity is coming next week.
But the nail-biting moments against ULM two years ago taught the remaining Razorbacks there’s something else they must take care of first.
“That’s down the road,” Bailey said of Alabama. “In time, those things are going to come. Right now, we’ve got to focus on Louisiana-Monroe.”