LITTLE ROCK (AP) -Four kicks. Each of them could have sent Arkansas’ 2006 season in a completely different direction.
Each of them missed.
Long before the Razorbacks entered the top 10 and wrapped up the SEC West title last year, they won early nail-biters over Vanderbilt and Alabama – when Bryant Hahnfeldt and Leigh Tiffin missed late. With the rematch against Alabama coming up this weekend, No. 16 Arkansas realizes the importance of starting strong in conference play.
“When you win those games, whether you win them by one point or 10 points or whatever, a field goal – it sets the tone,” Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt said. “That’s where you want to be. You want to be 1-0, you want to be 1-0 in the conference.”
Arkansas opened the season two weekends ago with a 46-26 win over Troy, then had a weekend off before the start of the Southeastern Conference season. On Saturday night, the Razorbacks play at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide (2-0) will be eager to avenge last year’s double-overtime loss to Arkansas.
Arkansas won that game 24-23, and the Razorbacks were fortunate. Tiffin missed a 30-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter and a 37-yarder that would have won it in the first overtime. Then he missed an extra point after Alabama scored in the second extra session.
This was a week after Arkansas beat Vanderbilt 21-19 when Bryant Hahnfeldt’s 48-yard attempt late in the fourth quarter fell short.
“I feel like those jump-started our season – winning those close games,” star tailback Darren McFadden said.
They sure did. After beating Alabama, Arkansas won its next five SEC games and didn’t trail after the first quarter in any of them. The Razorbacks were ranked No. 5 in the country before a loss to LSU the day after Thanksgiving started a season-ending three-game losing streak.
“Winning breeds confidence, it breeds that attitude that helps you get back on that practice field,” Nutt said. “I think you just have a better chance of improving quicker when you win those close games.”
On the flip side, a tough loss early can be demoralizing. Arkansas knows all about that.
Two years ago, the Razorbacks opened their season with a 49-17 win over Missouri State. The following week, they hosted Vanderbilt and led 24-13 to start the fourth quarter.
Jay Cutler threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, the second to Marlon White with 26 seconds remaining to give Vandy a 28-24 victory.
“That was a heartbreaker,” linebacker Weston Dacus said. “We had a lot of confidence going into that game.”
The following week, the Razorbacks headed out west to face Southern California and lost 70-17. They didn’t win an SEC game that year until Nov. 12.
So, as this year’s conference opener draws near, there’s a sense of urgency around Arkansas. Expectations are high. McFadden is a Heisman Trophy contender. The Razorbacks want another trip to the SEC title game, where they lost to Florida last December.
When Arkansas returns from this week’s trip, it will play six of its next seven games at home. Its first game against a team currently ranked is Nov. 3 against No. 17 South Carolina.
In other words, the Razorbacks are poised for another run this season – if they can win at Alabama.
“I think this game is going to tell a lot about our team and expose our weaknesses,” Dacus said. “Hopefully, we don’t have too many, but I think this game is definitely going to be a tone-setter for the rest of the season and really show a lot about our team.”