Everybody in Arkansas was sick a year ago over the 24-20 loss to Alabama, but nobody took it harder than those who had anything to do with the Hogs’ running game.
The fact is that Arkansas didn’t have a running game, at least not at that point, which is a big reason the Hogs couldn’t hold onto a two-touchdown lead and finish the game.
When the Hogs needed to run the ball and protect their lead, they couldn’t. They managed just 13 rushing yards on seven attempts in the second half, leaving the door open for the Crimson Tide to come storming back.
“We still haven’t gotten over that, the way we had them and just couldn’t close the deal,” said Arkansas junior running back Ronnie Wingo. “We got the blame for that loss, the running backs, and maybe we should have. If you can’t run the ball, it’s going to be hard to beat those guys. I’m just glad we get another chance.”
Wingo and the Arkansas running game get that much anticipated shot on Saturday when the No. 14-ranked Hogs take on the No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
In Wingo’s defense, he didn’t factor into the Hogs’ running game last season against the Crimson Tide. He caught a 43-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the game, but didn’t have a single rushing attempt.
For that matter, Knile Davis only had six carries and had yet to become an integral part of the Arkansas offense.
Davis, of course, went on to become the SEC’s leading rusher among running backs and was one of the reasons the Hogs felt like they would have a better chance to soften up that Alabama defense this season with the running game.
That all changed when Davis fractured his ankle in the preseason, but what didn’t change was Arkansas’ commitment to at least being able to run the ball some against an Alabama defense that’s allowing just 2.52 yards per play this season.
“It’s been a priority for us, and that didn’t change when Knile got hurt,” Wingo said. “We have the best group of receivers in college football. But as we saw last year, when we’re also running the ball, it just makes everybody better.”
Wingo is coming off the best game of his career last week against Troy. He rushed for a career-high 109 yards and scored three touchdowns.
“That might be as well as Ronnie has run since he’s been here, probably with the exception of the A&M game his freshman year,” said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, who thinks the Hogs have steadily improved in the running game.
He said the offensive line has a better understanding and that all of the running backs are accelerating quicker through the hole. The Hogs also hope to have a healthier Dennis Johnson this week and would like to get him more touches, while junior fullback Kiero Small has been an excellent lead blocker.
But however the Hogs go about it, whether it’s running or passing, they’re going to have to have some success on first and second down.
“The key is to move forward, getting to second-and-medium and second-and-short and be patient enough and keep going forward,” Petrino said. “Alabama has always done a great job of creating negative plays and putting you behind the sticks, and then they’re going to tee off with their third-down package.”
Wingo said this is a different team than the one that bowed meekly two years ago in a 35-7 loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium or the one that simply didn’t finish the game last season in Fayetteville.
“We’ve learned a lot and have a lot of guys now who’ve been in these situations,” Wingo said. “All we’re thinking about is going out there and playing our best game, and that’s what we’re going to do on Saturday.”