FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson knows nothing is guaranteed.
The first half of the 2012 season was the harsh reality, after all. Arkansas began a season loaded with championship hopes by losing four of their first five games.
But Wilson has noticed more optimism from teammates since the frustrating skid finally ended with a 24-7 win at Auburn last Saturday. There’s a growing sentiment something really can be salvaged after the disastrous start. And he believes it will be evident when Arkansas plays Kentucky in Razorback Stadium at 6 p.m. tonight.
“Guys feel better about themselves,” Wilson said Monday. “Consequently, they practice harder. They have belief in what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish as a team. All that helps you. That is where I am excited moving forward is you kind of see that belief back in a few people’s eyes.”
Arkansas (2-4, 1-2 in SEC) still has a long way to go to make the 2012 season respectable, but can at least take the next step by putting together their first win streak by beating the Wildcats (1-5, 0-3 in SEC) tonight.
The Razorbacks are back home after playing two straight conference games on the road and hope struggling Kentucky will become their second straight SEC win.
“We finally got a win, but we’re not done,” tight end Austin Tate said. “We need to come home and close the deal out and finish the season the right way.”
Arkansas enters tonight’s game as an 18-point favorite, which is a hefty amount considering the Razorbacks’ struggles this season. The program’s history against the Wildcats since joining the SEC suggests nothing will come easy, either.
The Razorbacks are just 2-4 against the Wildcats and have never won by more than a touchdown in the series. Kentucky has won two straight, too, beating Arkansas in 2007 and 2008. A handful of Arkansas coaches and players were on the roster for the 2008 loss, when the Razorbacks squandered a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter by allowing two touchdowns in the final five minutes.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino remembered the frustrating day and said it’s something the Razorbacks don’t want to recreate against the Wildcats.
“We obviously gave the one away our first year here. We can’t do that again,” Petrino said. “We have to get ready to play … We played well last week. We won at Auburn and that’s a tough place to win. Now we’ve just got to build on that.”
Motivation to beat Kentucky won’t be hard to come by, even though it isn’t a marquee opponent. The intensity begins with several members of the Arkansas staff, who still consider Kentucky a rival after their years at Louisville.
It was evident last Saturday when, minutes after ending the losing streak, Smith’s eyes lit up during his postgame press conference.
“Kentucky is coming to town. You know that?” Smith said. “The guys in blue.”
Smith was head coach at Louisville from 1998-2002 and went 3-2 against the Wildcats. Bobby Petrino did even better, going 4-0 after replacing Smith.
Paul Petrino said Kentucky fans dominated the Louisville area when they first arrived, but the staff was able to “kind of change the city” because of its success.
Smith said nothing felt better than beating the in-state rival and he’s certain it will carry the same weight if Arkansas can win again tonight.
“That was our rival at the time,” Smith said. “The first year they beat us badly. They got after us really good. But then we turned that around and things changed.
“It's just one of those things that it's a rival game you have a lot of memories of old games that have been played and a lot of good memories of old games that have been played that you want to repeat. … You light up playing them.”
Arkansas center Travis Swanson said it has been obvious on the practice field.
While the coaching staff’s dislike for the Wildcats has been one motivating factor in preparation for tonight’s game, Swanson said Arkansas has had more pep in its step on its own after beating Auburn last Saturday. The early-season disappointment was difficult, but Arkansas felt like it finally lived up to expectations at Auburn.
“We always knew we were good,” Swanson said. “Our record never necessarily showed it. But getting the win was good for us. So being able to come back home for an SEC game and potentially get another win is exciting for us.”
Arkansas will need a repeat performance in many regards to extend its streak.
The Razorbacks must keep a team struggling at the quarterback position in check, limiting big plays by Kentucky running backs and receivers. The offense has to continue to develop a ground game to mix well with Arkansas’ passing attack.
Winning the turnover margin — something Arkansas did for the first time last Saturday — will be critical. Production from players counted on because of injuries - linebackers Terrell Williams and A.J. Turner – will be an important to success, too
Nothing is guaranteed tonight. But Arkansas, after a confidence-building win at Auburn last week, believes it can accomplish it all for a second straight week.
“One win, that is where you start,” Wilson said. “You can rattle a few wins together.
“We have an opportunity to do that against Kentucky. There was a streak there where we had four straight losses. You don’t want to dwell on that. You don’t want to think about it, but it’s there. And so we are going to put some wins together.”