The entire state of Arkansas is bursting at the seams in anticipation of Tuesday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Arkansas will play in its first-ever BCS bowl game, taking on perennial powerhouse Ohio State.
Bobby Petrino, in his third season as Arkansas’ coach, is confident that everything is in place at Arkansas for the Hogs to also be a perennial contender on the national scene. If not, he never would have signed his new contract that essentially locks him in at Arkansas for the foreseeable future.
He’ll earn an average of $3.56 million over the course of the new seven-year deal with an $18 million mutual buyout in 2011 and 2012. The buyout goes down some each year, but it’s still more than $10 million as far out as 2015.
The translation: Petrino may have been branded as a coaching nomad in the past, but he’s found a home.
“It’s a great feeling. I’m really happy that Dr. [David] Gearhart and [athletic director] Jeff Long have the confidence in me to make that commitment to me and my family,” Petrino said. “And, really, I wanted to make the commitment, not only to them, but to the state of Arkansas and make sure the people who support our program know exactly where I stand.
“I don’t want my name coming up every December and January when other jobs come up. I want them to know that I’m at the University of Arkansas and I’m a Razorback through and through, and that’s not going to change.”
With his biggest game yet looming and half the state of Arkansas partying it up on Bourbon Street, Petrino took some time this week to discuss where the program is right now and where it’s headed:
What’s it say about your team that you were able to get up off the deck after that bitter home loss to Alabama in September, then bounce back from the Auburn loss a month later and still get to this point?
Bobby Petrino: Our guys have developed a toughness about them and really went back to, ‘Hey, let’s not forget how hard we worked all winter long, all spring, all summer. There’s still a lot out there to play for,’ and they did a good job of pushing each other and making each other accountable. I was worried after that Alabama game. I thought we’d have a hard practice. But not at all. It was great, and the work ethic has been great all year.
Can you win a national championship at Arkansas and continue to compete at the highest level?
BP: We’re going to compete, we’re going to compete. I really believe we will. The thing that’s hard is how competitive it is in the SEC and how tough it is with Alabama, Auburn and LSU year in and year out. It’s going to be real competitive. You have to be able to have great chemistry within your team and do something special to win all those big games.
What’s it going to take to win a national title at Arkansas?
BP: To continue to play good defense. I really believe we’ll always be able to move the ball and always be competitive as far as scoring points, but we’ve got to continue to build the defensive personality on this team and get those players defensively that allow you to compete at the highest level. That’s really, to me, what separates this conference from everybody else, the defensive linemen, the linebackers and the secondary. They’re just so big and fast.
You improved dramatically this season on defense. Where do you think you are in terms of reaching a championship-caliber level defensively?
BP: I think we’re getting there. We’ll be better next year on defense. The one thing you look at is we have guys right now like Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson, Zach Stadther and Lavunce Askew who’ve been playing together for three years. They’re the same guys who got the heck beat out of them by Texas, Alabama and Florida that first year we were here. But they’ve all gotten bigger, faster and really know the scheme we’re running now. But we’ve certainly improved our recruiting as far as talent-wise on the front and in the secondary.
Is it a foregone conclusion that Ryan Mallett will turn pro after this season?
BP: I don’t know for sure. I think there are two factors: No. 1, is he going to go in the first round? And No. 2, are they going to play (due to the threat of a strike in the NFL)? I think the NFL should step in and give these juniors some direction. These guys are going to be making decisions on the assumption that they’re going to play. Well, if there’s a work stoppage, they’re all going to be working at A&W.
If Mallett does come out, how important was it that Tyler Wilson came in and played the way he did at Auburn?
BP: When Tyler came in at Auburn, that might have been the turning point in our season, because of the way our players rallied around him and the competitiveness of our team. The competitive spirit that our receivers, offensive line and running backs showed was unbelievable. The sideline was as good as I’ve ever been around as far as competing, saying we could still get this done, and then he went in and executed real well. The next week, he came in against Ole Miss when Ryan hurt his shoulder and made two huge throws that were the difference in the game.
How far has Wilson come as a quarterback since he got there?
BP: He was no-huddle, shotgun quarterback since the eighth grade. They were really good, won a couple of state championships, but he didn’t know how to step into a huddle and call a play and didn’t know how to take a snap from a center. He’s really improved. Just being able to be in it for three years and now having two to go will really help him.
You guys were playing so well when the regular season ended. How concerned are you about getting it back after more than a month layoff?
BP: It’s really concerning because we were on such a roll and really executing offensively, the balance between our run game and pass game. Third-down conversions had improved so much the latter part of the season. I guess we’ll wait and see. We’ve practiced well, and our players have been really focused. Before we left Arkansas, we went ones versus ones to get the hard, physical, fast looks, but we haven’t had those for a while. We have to make sure we get better throughout the game and play better during the second quarter than we did in the first quarter and so on.
Does Ohio State compare to any SEC team you faced this season?
BP: It’s so hard to compare because they’re so different. Their style is so different. They’re big and physical, and everyone in the SEC is based on speed and quickness.
A lot has been made about this being Ohio State’s sixth straight trip to a BCS bowl game and the first for Arkansas. But some of the stages you played on this season in the SEC has to help in a game of this magnitude, right?
BP: I don’t think there’s any question that it helps. The atmosphere for the Alabama game was something special. This same group went and played at LSU last year, at Auburn this year. The stages and hostile environments that you play in in the SEC are always going to prepare you for games like this.
How much have you felt the passion of the Arkansas fans this week?
BP: It’s been awesome, just awesome to see the whole state rally around you. There’s always been the pride and the passion there by the fans. So now they’re experiencing some success, which is great for the entire state. That’s something I tell our football players. We’ve done a great job all year long of playing well and finding ways to win. We’ll have the whole state come down here and support us in this bowl game. I expect our players to play with that same passion and do the same things they’ve done all year long.