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Mallett, Petrino have Arkansas back on big stage


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Frank Broyles can't look. For 41 years he has averted his eyes, resisted any urge to watch what was arguably the biggest game in Arkansas history.

"No," said the 85-year-old patriarch of Hog football, "I don't intend to."

For years it hurt too much to watch a tape of Texas' epic 15-14 win in 1969 here that led to a Longhorns national championship and reminded Arkansas, once again, of its place in the college football pecking order. A one-time Southwest Conference power whose only "national championship" was awarded 46 years ago by the Football Writers Association of America. An SEC program that exists on the conference's western edge where it lost its recruiting identity once it left the SWC.

There are only handful of schools that are followed more rabidly or whose fans are louder. Like Nebraska, it is the state's only major college program. Unlike Nebraska, it hasn't won multiple national championships.

The latest shot at redemption comes Saturday when No. 1 Alabama comes to town. Broyles doesn't want to be disappointed again.

"This is what people have been waiting for," tight end D.J. Williams said. "This is a statement for our season."

There is a vibe here similar to '69. Anticipating the matchup, ABC moved that game to the last weekend of the season. No. 2 Arkansas and No. 1 Texas delivered by aligning in the polls. Richard Nixon flew in, dramatically, by helicopter that December day into this pleasant college town in northwest Arkansas.

Then, in a flash, "The Big Shootout" was over. For four decades, Broyles hasn't allowed himself to be tortured with the video evidence. That was Arkansas' chance and it blew it in any way you want to name. A 14-0 fourth-quarter lead is a good place to start.

"Arkansas is a state of only 2.9 million people, not much industry," Broyles said. "We were predicted to be 1 or 2 and we lived up to it. How many people get to play in a game people called the game of the century? I'm celebrating it instead of turning my back on it."

But he won't watch a replay of it. Fifty-two years at Arkansas as a coach, athletic director and AD emeritus have taught Broyles to hedge. Two top 10 teams haven't played here since 1979. No. 10 Arkansas hasn't beaten a No. 1 team here since 1981 (Texas). While it won at then-No. 1 LSU in triple overtime in 2007, Arkansas has been Arkansas since that day -- changing coaches and going 16-13.

Forget video evidence, the historic evidence is there: This is only the second game here between ranked teams since 1995.

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Fayettenam just needs an excuse to explode in what might be the biggest event here since Nolan Richardson wore bell bottoms. There was that 1994 Bil Clinton-era basketball national championship but, as always, football rules in the SEC. The Hogs are doing their part with their highest ranking since 2006, a brilliant offensive mind (Bobby Petrino) armed with a bunch of playmakers, including what might be the nation's best quarterback. That's what has Broyles fired up this week. Saturday's game could be worth taping.

"Ryan Mallett is one of the few college quarterbacks that I have seen in my time who would rather throw deep than short," Broyles said. "Most of the quarterbacks look for stats in the short game. Not Mallett, he looks deep. Petrino's passing game is as sophisticated as the wishbone triple option was in 1948."

Petrino proved that by making Louisville matter before an abrupt departure to the Atlanta Falcons after the 2006 season. That was followed by an even more abrupt departure for Arkansas with three games left in the Falcons' 2007 season. Now that Petrino has the Hogs in the top 10 again, 1969 and Atlanta are two subjects you won't find being discussed Saturday at tailgates. The coach, in his third season, has delivered success. Given history, both could be fleeting.

"That's one thing about Arkansas that will never change," Mallett said, "the fan support and the love for the Razorbacks. I don't know how dedicated they were before I got here, but if you didn't believe in the same thing we really didn't want you here. We want to win and we believe in coach and what coach is teaching us."

Mallett is not the outsider he seems. Growing up in Texarkana, Ark., one of his fondest memories is parking cars in exchange for free admission as a 10-year-old at Razorback Stadium. In 1998, he distinctly remembers the Hogs beating the Tide 42-6. He initially took his pro-style talents to Michigan. A year into his Ann Arbor stay Rich Rodriguez arrived. Mallett wisely figured that a 6-foot-6 drop-back quarterback wouldn't fit into Rich Rod's zone read spread option that relies on a lot of running by the quarterback.

"They've got to tell that guy to tie his shoes," Mallett said of Michigan's Denard Robinson. "I don't know how he keeps his shoes on. He's moving and shaking. That looks hard."

Both schools are happy. Both are undefeated. Robinson is the nation's leading rusher. Mallett is No. 1 in passing. That points up how important one player can be in the modern age of college football. Michigan has won despite being in the 100s in total defense. Arkansas is coming off what amounted to a walk-off win at Georgia that catapulted the Hogs into Alabama week.

They can pull off the upset Saturday if they are everything they weren't last season in Tuscaloosa. The Tide rolled 35-7.

"When we stepped on the field, we didn't truly believe we could beat them," Petrino said. "We learned from that."

That's about the time things started to turn around for Mallett. In less than 1½ seasons he has set or tied 19 Arkansas records. In eight of his 19 starts, Mallett has thrown for 300-plus yards. Of course, he hasn't had to go too far to set those records. Joe Ferguson (1970-72) had more interceptions than touchdowns. Ron Calcagni (1975-78) eventually played in Canada. Clint Stoerner (1996-99) is famous for fumbling against Tennessee in 1998. Matt Jones (2001-04) was drafted in the first round by Jacksonville -- as a receiver. Mitch Mustain was touted as possibly being the best of them all. He is still at Southern California and an Arkansas footnote. Remember Mustain being 8-0 as a freshman?

That seems like a couple of centuries ago. The Hogs are starting to ooze that swagger of Petrino's old Louisville teams. Two years ago Casey Dick threw the game-winning touchdown against LSU on fourth-and-1 from the Tigers' 24 in the final minute. "The Miracle on Markham II" had that Little Giants feel in that it was win-or-go-home.

Ryan Mallett scored his first road victory in the SEC last Saturday with the dramatic win at Georgia. (US Presswire)  
Ryan Mallett scored his first road victory in the SEC last Saturday with the dramatic win at Georgia. (US Presswire)  
There was no doubt that Petrino was going to go for it tied 24-24 with 47 seconds left Saturday at Georgia. Mallett led the team 72 yards in three plays. Greg Childs caught Saturday's 40-yard game-winning touchdown pass, then said, "I'm not sure what the safety was thinking. I just knew he was thinking the wrong thing."

Mallett is on such a roll that he rolled up to receiver Jarius Wright in the second half Saturday and asked, "Hey, have you gotten the rock yet?" Wright hadn't and didn't in a game where Mallett threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns.

"He didn't mind because the team is winning," the quarterback said. "I want to keep my guys happy. Just to hear that from a guy is special, that he's not going to be bitching and moaning after the game."

Mallett won his first SEC road game, setting up a calling of the Hogs that Arkansas has not made in a while. While the move to the SEC in 1992 was necessary (the SWC was imploding), it tore the school from its Texas recruiting roots. Broyles could always sell Texas prospects on playing in their home state in the SWC. Joe Kines, Danny Ford, Houston Nutt and Petrino have had to sell something else. Upgraded facilities have been a bigger part of it than sustained winning. Only 10 of 18 SEC seasons have ended above .500. While the Hogs have played in (and lost) three SEC championship games, recent history can be summed up this way: a couple of wins over LSU, Darren McFadden and the decline and fall of Nutt.

"The feelings are like this is a do-or-die situation," Williams said. "In a way people are saying we're playing for a national championship. The hype is definitely there. The excitement is at [an] all-time high."

Williams claims that someone tweeted, "Ryan Mallett is real." LeBron James, he said, responded by tweeting, "Indeed."

American Idol winner Kris Allen (from Conway, Ark.) hit up Williams, who couldn't come through with tickets.

Mallett was driven to and picked up from classes on Monday to avoid interaction with those rabid fans.

"I figured it might be a little crazy," he said.

The man who is responsible for creating a large part of that craziness will be proud no matter what. The old buzz is back. For at least one week, Arkansas is a national program again.

"The pressure was on us as the season went along," Broyles said. "We got better as the season went along."

The great coach was speaking again of 1969. In 2010, all Broyles needs is a DVR. Will he use it on Saturday?

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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