Even before the off date rolled around last Saturday, University of Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino had learned something very important about his football team.
In fact, he knew last Tuesday – the first practice after the heartbreaking 24-20 loss to No. 1 – that his team had its past in the rear view mirror.
"I was really concerned going into last Tuesday's practice," Petrino said. "But they came out with great energy and great focus and I thought, ‘Man, we've really grown up as a football team.' There is no question that we have good leadership within our team. Our guys believe in each other and we want to go out and prove that we are a good football team. It didn't take until last night, they showed it Tuesday. Obviously I think our assistant coaches did a good job in the meetings selling the fact that we have a lot of football ahead of us."
Petrino stressed that his team got its job done in the off week as it turned its attention toward Texas A&M.
"I was happy with our bye week," Petrino said. "I thought we did a nice job. The players continue to impress me and make it a lot of fun coaching this team because they work extremely hard and have good attitudes. I thought we got a lot accomplished last week. We went back and worked on techniques and fundamentals.
"I was very happy with the three practices we had," Petrino added. "We have them a couple of days off and came back last night and again, went back to work. We did a nice job, had a good enthusiasm, good focus so I feel good leading into our preparations for this game."
Arkansas (3-1) meets Texas A&M (3-1) Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the second annual Southwest Classic at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
It will do so as the No. 11 team in the country after jumping from No. 15 despite not playing.
The Razorbacks are the highest-rated one-loss team in the poll.
"It's nice and you feel good about it," Petrino said. "But we have got to go play each week and prove it. That is the biggest thing I think you have to do. When you watched Alabama and Florida play (a 31-6 Bama rout) last week, they are two very good football teams. I'm sure it was hard on all of our players because of the position we were in to win that game and we didn't get it done. I think that is where you get the respect factor is playing Alabama the way that we did.
"We also know that you have to go do it every week," Petrino added. "You have to earn your respect every week. All we can do is control how we play, how we perform and get the wins."
The game will be regionally televised by ABC from Jerry Jones' Palace and is a rematch of the Razorbacks' 47-19 rout of the Aggies last season.
"We're excited to go back to Dallas," Petrino said. "It was a lot of fun last year with a tremendous atmosphere and an unbelievable stadium to play in. I think we have twenty-six guys on our roster from the state of Texas so getting to go back there and playing is a great deal for us. We are certainly looking forward to it."
Petrino believes the Razorbacks playing in the Cowboys stadium is a huge boost for the program.
"I think we felt the benefits right from the announcement," Petrino said. "When young men understand that they get to go home and play, the excitement to play in Jerry Jones' stadium, it's fun for all of us. There is no question that we've already felt it's a good deal for our program."
You might find Petrino going out Friday during the walk through during a football version of a basketball scene in the movie Hoosiers.
"We may have to go out there and measure and show them the goal posts are the same height, the field is 100 yards long and all that," Petrino said.
It turns out that Petrino had actually done a little unintentional background work for Texas A&M's defense.
While on a recruiting trip with his son Bobby to Air Force, the UA head coach took notes on Falcons' defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who is now the DC for the Aggies.
DeRuyter was breaking down video and showing blitz packages with his 3-4 defense, the one currently being played by Texas A&M, and Petrino grabbed a few pieces of paper and a pen and jotted down some thoughts.
"I try to pick up anything I can," Petrino said. "My entire life – you know that show that is on TV – Hoarders? It's kind of how I am with football. I try to hoard anything I can."
Petrino was impressed with what he saw from DeRuyter.
"I was impressed with what I saw on video and how well they were," Petrino said. "We know (he is) a guy that really knows what he is doing defensively and we have to be on top of him offensively."
Texas A&M has one of the country's best defenders in linebacker Von Miller, who led the nation in sacks last season, but has not been as active yet this season.
"I think two things – he has been been banged up a little bit, he has an ankle sprain and hasn't been able to play in all the games," Petrino said. "He did play the majority of the game the other night against Oklahoma State. It also is a different package. Last year he was primarily a defensive end and now he's an outside linebacker and when they go to their nickel package, he plays the defensive end. So his opportunities aren't as many as a year ago."
That also goes for Arkansas' defense, who will try to pressure Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, the Big 12's Pre-season Offensive Player of the Season.
"We understand that Texas A&M is a very good team," Petrino said. "Their ability to throw the ball and run it and their quarterback being able to move around and make throws on the run and run with the ball gives you a lot of things you have to prepare for."
Johnson is a great athlete and capable of spectacular plays as evidenced by the fact that he threw for 409 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 38-35 loss at Oklahoma State last Thursday.
"He concerns you because of all the big plays he makes throwing the ball, moving outside of the pocket, keeping his vision down field and making plays. He got us on one last year where he just scrambled out and hit a guy open down field. He's very concerning."
But he has also coughed up 10 turnovers by himself in the Aggies' last two games by throwing 8 interceptions and having two lost fumbles.
Johnson had five turnovers in a come-from-behind win over Florida International and then five more in the loss to Oklahoma State, who trailed A&M 21-7 at halftime.
"He has turned the ball over, but I think what we need to do is have the pressure that we had from our front four last year," Petrino said. "When his timing is good and he can get back and set his feet his accuracy goes way up."
The Razorbacks did put a lot of pressure on Johnson last season with defensive end Tenarius Wright forcing Johnson into two fumbles, one that Jerry Franklin returned 86 yards for a touchdown.
I think Tank really came on during the Alabama game. He started to look like he did last year. He missed all of spring ball, and his back was bothering him at the start of fall. I think now he's back to 100%, and he looks quick again. He's doing a good job of rushing off the edge. (The Texas A&M game) was a breakout game for him a year ago, and I think he's ready to go. Hopefully he'll have a good game for us. We are lucky that we have three guys that can go in there and can all rush the passer."
While Jarius Wright had a breakout game (6 catches, 131 yards) against Alabama after just three catches in the first three games, his back-up Cobi Hamilton could be in line to step up next.
Hamilton has just 5 catches for 65 yards and did not have a reception in either the Georgia or Alabama games.
"(Cobi) is a big-play receiver for us," Petrino sasid. "He's always made big plays…With the rotation sometimes you don't get him the ball as much as you would like. He's a playmaker. He's extremely fast. He's got great hands. We need to get him more touches."
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