In the Running
With an electrifying tailback and a former high school coach calling plays, one-loss Arkansas is making a late BCS push
DARREN MCFADDEN, Arkansas's versatile tailback, kick returner and every-now-and-then quarterback, is so fast that some of his teammates brag that he could give any player in the country a head start in a 40-yard dash and still catch him by the time they hit the tape. That may be overestimating McFadden's acceleration just a bit, but there's no question that as a team the Razorbacks have serious closing speed. After a face-plant coming out of the blocks in Week 1, Arkansas couldn't see the national title contenders with a telescope. But as owners of 10 straight victories and the SEC West championship, the Hogs have caught up.
Their latest triumph, a 28--14 win at Mississippi State last Saturday, clinched a spot in the conference championship game against SEC East champ Florida on Dec. 2 in Atlanta, an achievement that seemed pure fantasy two months ago when the Razorbacks suffered a 50--14 embarrassment at home against USC. But thanks to several bold moves by coach Houston Nutt and the development of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's highly creative attack, the Razorbacks have been unbeatable since then, thrusting themselves back into the hunt for the national title as one of the one-loss teams hoping that the BCS fates will smile on them.
Excluding the loss to the Trojans, Arkansas's performance this season compares favorably with that of any team other than No. 1 Ohio State, but even if the Hogs finish up with wins over LSU this Friday and Florida, they'll probably still need USC to lose—the 9--1 Trojans have Notre Dame and UCLA left on their schedule—to have any chance of reaching the BCS championship game. "I wish we could play that USC game again," says McFadden. "I know they beat us, but we're not the same team we were then."
No one would argue with that. If ever a case could be made for discounting an early loss, this would be it. McFadden, Arkansas's leading rusher, was limited by a dislocated left big toe against the Trojans; and the Razorbacks' quarterback against USC, junior Robert Johnson, hasn't taken a snap since. Nutt, coming off a 5--6 season in 2004 and a 4--7 record last year, made three risky moves that led to his team's post-USC transformation—decisions that, had any one of them not been successful, might have had him preparing to send out résumés by now. During the off-season he turned the offense over to Malzahn, a high school coach with no collegiate experience. Then, after the USC debacle, he switched Johnson to wide receiver and replaced him with the talented but raw freshman Mitch Mustain, who led Malzahn's Springdale High team to the Arkansas state 5A championship last season.
The Hogs won seven straight games with Mustain managing games reasonably well, but after he threw an interception on his first pass in his eighth start, against South Carolina on Nov. 4, Nutt yanked him in favor of sophomore Casey Dick, who has been the quarterback ever since. "It might seem strange to make a change when we'd been winning, but you have to do what's necessary in order to keep winning," Nutt says. "Mitch is going to be an outstanding quarterback, but I thought Casey's experience was something that we needed."
There's no questioning Nutt's high regard for Mustain. In fact, the hiring of Malzahn seemed to be a blatant recruiting ploy to ensure that the highly touted quarterback would come to Fayetteville. But Malzahn was a blue-chip prospect in his own right, having built a reputation as an offensive innovator, especially in the passing game. Nutt, who had always called the plays, turned those duties over to Malzahn. Although some observers question how much autonomy Malzahn really has, it does appear that Nutt has resisted the temptation to pull rank. "I think you have to get into a rhythm to call plays effectively," Nutt says. "It wouldn't be right for me or anyone else to disrupt Gus's rhythm. We all have input as a staff, but the final call is made by Gus."
There have also been rumors of tension on the coaching staff centered on the attention that Malzahn has received; even in the football-crazed South his hiring was unusually big news, with about 150 boosters and members of the athletic department staff and administration attending his introductory press conference. Malzahn later had to refute Internet gossip that he offered to resign over the alleged dissension even before the season began. "There was no truth to that," he says. "There are no negatives to working with this great staff."
Under Malzahn, Arkansas has developed one of the most entertaining offenses in the country, full of trick plays and deceptive formations, including lining McFadden up as a shotgun quarterback in what the Razorbacks call their Wildcat package. The set has befuddled defenses, with McFadden handing off, faking the handoff and running himself or even passing—he has thrown two touchdown passes out of the formation. The Hogs scored their final touchdown against Mississippi State when they ran a reverse from McFadden to running back Felix Jones, who flipped the ball back to Dick, who then hit wideout Marcus Monk with a 35-yard touchdown pass.
Though Malzahn has added tricks to Arkansas's repertoire, he hasn't turned the offense into the pass-happy attack some envisioned. "I'm smart enough to know that with the kind of running backs we have here, we need to put the ball in their hands," he says. "There's no doubt that this year the offense has to be built around our ground game." At the forefront of that rushing attack is McFadden, a 6'2", 213-pound sophomore who with his varied heroics has probably earned himself a trip to New York City as one of the Heisman Trophy finalists. In addition to running for 1,303 yards and 12 touchdowns, he helped the Hogs avoid an upset against surprisingly stubborn Mississippi State with a 92 yard kickoff return for a TD. "If there's a better running back in the country, I don't know who it is," says Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.
If there's a more worthy opponent for Ohio State in the national championship game, it's hard to imagine who it would be, provided, of course, the Razorbacks survive their next two challenging games. "It took time for people to take us seriously because of the way we started," says McFadden. "But take a good look at things right now. Who's playing better than us?"
Even with the new clock rules, which have reduced the number of plays, Arkansas has been more productive on offense through its first 11 games this year than it was while going 4--7 last season. Most impressive has been the Razorbacks' improvement in yards per rush and per passing attempt.