By Robbie Neiswanger
By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas hired Bobby Petrino in Dec. 2007, the new coach began to lay out his plan for leading the Razorbacks into the national spotlight.
There were early struggles, twists, turns and other of obstacles. But when linebacker Jerico Nelson stood in the interview room following Arkansas’ 44-17 win against Mississippi State and looked ahead to today’s game against LSU in Tiger Stadium, it was pretty clear Petrino’s mission for the Hogs has been accomplished.
“It’s a game for the SEC title and the national championship game,” Nelson said, previewing this season’s Battle for the Golden Boot. “The winner of this game has the chance to go to the next stage.”
Third-ranked Arkansas (10-1, 6-1 in Southeastern Conference), which has operated behind closed doors this week as it continues to cope with tight end Garrett Uekman’s death, will step back into the national spotlight at No. 1 LSU (11-0, 7-0) today.
The Razorbacks, with heavy hearts since Sunday’s shocking news, are aiming for their fourth win in the past five seasons against LSU. It’s no secret this year’s meeting carries much more significance.
Arkansas could wrap up at least a share of the SEC West title with an upset win today and, more important, potentially secure a spot in the national championship game. LSU, meanwhile, can wrap up the SEC West championship with a win against the Razorbacks, cap a perfect regular season, and, in all likelihood, ensure itself of a spot in the BCS title game no matter what happens in the SEC title game next week.
“This is why we’re here,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said about the regular-season finale. “This is what we want to do. This is what it’s all about, go play in huge games with a lot at stake.”
Arkansas, which has scratched and clawed to reach this moment, doesn’t want to settle for simply being part of it. The goal is to win and then, depending on the BCS standings, go play for a national title.
“Coach told us when we all signed and got up here that we were the class to get Arkansas to a national championship,” Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas said. “That’s been our goal since we’ve been here and that’s still our goal. … We can grasp that goal.”
Today’s game is Arkansas’ first in a matchup of teams ranked in the top three in the nation since the Big Shootout in Dec. 1969, when Texas rallied to beat the Razorbacks 15-14 in Fayetteville. It’s also the highest matchup between ranked teams in Tiger Stadium since 1959, when Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon’s Halloween run led LSU to a 7-3 win against Ole Miss.
LSU — which is looking for its first 12-0 regular season in school history — is the heavy favorite after passing every other test this season. The Tigers could add a third win against a top-10 team to their resume today, continuing their remarkable march.
“That’s what keeps us motivated, knowing we control our destiny,” LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. “It’s in our hands. We just have to keep it in our own hands.”
But if recent history is any indication, LSU won’t have any easy time against the Razorbacks.
The series has produced plenty of memorable moments in the past decade. For instance: Arkansas won last season’s showdown for the Sugar Bowl 31-23.
The past seven Arkansas-LSU games have been decided by 3.5 points, which includes a 31-30 win in Little Rock in 2008. That victory — which capped Arkansas’ 5-7 season under Petrino — served as a critical launching pad for the Razorbacks’ success.
“When we struggled early in the year and these 17 seniors kept practicing with a good attitude, kept getting better, that game on Friday that we won really helped us in recruiting,” Petrino said. “Every house we went into, every house we went into they said, ‘Oh yeah, we saw you play on the day after Thanksgiving.’
“The exposure is good for us.”
The past two games in Baton Rouge have been just as thrilling, needing overtime to decide the winner.
The 2007 Razorbacks, then under Houston Nutt, shocked the Tigers with a 50-48 win in a triple-overtime thriller. They’re the only team that has ever beaten LSU in Tiger Stadium when it was ranked No. 1.
“LSU is an unbelievable team, but I don’t think we look at them like some people look at them,” Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said. “We look at them as a rival, a team that we should play very competitive with every time we show up. It’s an emotional game for us. I don’t know if they’re as emotional about it as we are, but it seems like we’re always really jacked up. I can guarantee (today) will be no different.”
The Razorbacks will play this one with heavy hearts as well, determined to honor Uekman with their play.
The 19-year-old was found unconscious and unresponsive in his dorm room on Sunday morning. He was pronounced dead an hour later, passing away because of what was later determined was an undetected heart condition.
The emotional tug-of-war the Razorbacks have endured must be difficult, balancing the tragic loss of a teammate with the anticipation of the program’s biggest game in four decades. But Petrino, during an emotional speech at Uekman’s candlelight memorial service Monday night vowed the Razorbacks would be motivated to honor him on the field today.
“As his parents have shared with us, Garrett would’ve wanted us to play,” Petrino said Monday night. “He would’ve wanted us to compete. He would’ve wanted us to play passionately with everything that we had.
“With your support, we will do just that.”