MEMPHIS — When Bobby Petrino was hired as Arkansas’ coach, his new team had one more game to play before he really took over.
On New Year’s Day 2008, with an interim coach from the outgoing staff at the helm, the Razorbacks were routed by Missouri in the Cotton Bowl.
“I’ve tried to remember nothing about it,” Petrino said.
Two years later, Arkansas is back in the postseason for the first time under Petrino, and the Razorbacks are eager to reverse an ugly trend. Since a 1985 victory in the Holiday Bowl, the Hogs are 2-12 in bowls. They play East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday.
“Our players are real excited,” Petrino said Friday. “Yesterday’s practice was probably as spirited and as well executed as we’ve had in a Thursday practice. Our guys are focused.”
Focus has been a priority for the Razorbacks, and it’s easy to understand why. After going 5-7 in the 2008 season, Arkansas (7-5) has improved quite a bit, but the program is still hoping for a victory that will validate its progress. The Razorbacks lost close games at Florida and LSU this season — and an impressive bowl win on national television would give everyone’s spirits a boost.
It’s clear Petrino means business. Earlier this week, he suspended three players — including starting safety Matt Harris and starting linebacker Wendel Davis — for violating team rules.
“Those guys have put a great commitment and effort in to being Razorbacks and just stepped out of their character a little bit. I know that they have given a lot to this football team,” Petrino said. “Any actions, there’s natural consequences.”
Petrino clearly wants to avoid a repeat of that 38-7 loss to Missouri in the ’08 Cotton Bowl, when defensive coordinator Reggie Herring coached Arkansas following Houston Nutt’s resignation and Petrino’s hiring.
“It wasn’t the coaches. It was the players that didn’t approach the game seriously,” offensive lineman Mitch Petrus said. “It’s totally different now.”
And the difference isn’t all about attitude. Quarterback Ryan Mallett, who transferred from Michigan after Petrino was hired, has thrown for a school-record 3,422 yards this season, giving the Razorbacks the dynamic passing game they’ve lacked in the past.
East Carolina (9-4) has the unenviable task of trying to stop Mallett, and the Arkansas suspensions might not make the Pirates’ job that much easier.
“I remember the last time Arkansas did that,” East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said. “I believe the final score finished 31-6.”
Holtz was referring to the 1978 Orange Bowl, when Arkansas was short-handed because of suspensions but still stunned Oklahoma 31-6. Holtz’s father Lou was the coach of the Razorbacks then.
This game will bring back plenty of memories for the younger Holtz, who went to high school in northwest Arkansas.
“I know what it sounds like when an entire stadium is calling the hogs and how loud it can be,” Holtz said.
He’ll probably experience something close to that Saturday, since the game is being played just across the Mississippi River from Arkansas.
East Carolina will be without a couple suspended backups, so both teams will be missing players. Pirates quarterback Patrick Pinkney, however, is ready to play. The sixth-year senior helped East Carolina edge Houston 38-32 in the Conference USA championship game. He’s joined on offense by 1,000-yard rusher Dominique Lindsay.
In last year’s Liberty Bowl, East Carolina was tied with Kentucky late when a fumble return gave the Wildcats the victory. The Pirates hope to erase that disappointing memory in their return visit.
Arkansas knows the feeling, of course. The Razorbacks haven’t won a bowl since December of 2003.
“Coaches have done a great job of making us understand why we’re here,” Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams said. “We know why we’re here, and that’s to win a bowl game.”
Noah Trister/The Associated Press