Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino can't put his finger exactly on why the Razorbacks' series with LSU has been so thrilling lately, but he has a few ideas.
The last three games have seen Arkansas sandwich a 50-48 triple overtime win at Baton Rouge and a 33-30 overtime loss there around a 31-30 victory in regulation in Little Rock.
Petrino has been the coach for the last two games in a series where the last trio of games has seen the two teams each score 111 points.
"I can just speak for the last two games that we have played," Petrino said on Wednesday's SEC Teleconference. "They have been very intense and very physical, back and forth and each team being able to respond when the other takes the lead. It has come down to just about the last play in both games.
"I am not sure why that is, but it is the last game, there is a lot at stake, guys are well-prepared and go out and play with great effort and make a lot of really good plays," Petrino added.
That's expected to be the case again Saturday when the No. 6 Tigers (10-1, 6-1) visits the No. 12 Razorbacks (9-2, 5-2) in a 2:30 p.m. nationally televised game from Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.
Arkansas had a closed practice on Wednesday and will share a meal together on Thursday before heading to Little Rock on Friday.
"We are coming off a very hard-fought, good victory (38-31 in overtime) versus Mississippi State," Petrino said. "Our players have had good focus and a lot of energy and excitement in practice.
"I think it is a tremendous opportunity to face a great football team like LSU," Petrino added. "It will be fun for us to go to Little Rock. We have 14 players from Little Rock and I can imagine the atmosphere that the fans will create will be outstanding."
The game will feature two juniors that are likely Top 10 draft choices in the 2011 NFL draft in Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett (6-6, 238) and LSU cornerback/kick returner Patrick Peterson (6-1, 222).
Mallett has passed for 3,272 yards and 27 touchdowns.
"I think he has had a very good year," Petrino said of Mallett. "He is an unbelievable leader for our football team. He does a lot of things out on the field that people don't even understand with the changing of his cadence and different things to give us an advantage on offense."
Petrino also credited Mallett with helping the run game improve and the emergence of sophomore tailback Knile Davis, who has 1,031 yards rushing.
"He has taken care of the football and really done a nice job in our running game, too, (by) helping our offensive line and Knile create yardage by not running plays into situations where we are outmanned," Petrino said. "I don't know if we can say enough about how well he has played. His demeanor and calmness has helped us in some of these really intense games."
Asked about Mallett being one of – if not the - best quarterbacks he had ever coached, Petrino continued to praise his signal caller.
"He ranks right up there," Petrino said. "They have all been different, but Ryan has done a really nice job this year with his fundamentals and technique and getting his feet where they belong. Any time he gets his feet where they belong, he is going to throw the ball as good as anybody."
Mallett was not one of the three Davey O'Brien finalists this week as the top college quarterback with Auburn's Cam Newton, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Boise State's Kellen Moore getting the nod.
"Ryan is as good to me as anybody in the country," Petrino said. "But the other guys are very good football players, too. I know I believe that Ryan should be in it and should be the guy, but that is just my opinion. He has had a great year for us and done so much for this football team and for this University. You really can't say enough good things about him."
Peterson has 33 tackles, fouf interceptions for 134 yards in return yardage, nine pass deflections, a quarterback hurry and has taken two punt returns to the house and is averaging 16.7 yards on his punt returns and 27.5 yards per kick return.
"He is just a very, very good football player," Petrino said. "He does a good job in everything they ask him to do. They lock him up in man coverage. Then when they play zone he does a good job in their zone. He is a dangerous player because he can really anticipate and take chances because he is so athletic. He worries you about being able to make plays where maybe you don't think he is going to be where he is at."
Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams (46, 561 yards this season) was named one of the Mackey award finalists and needs just 10 catches to become the school's all-time career leading receiver.
"He has got to get open, look the ball in his hands, maintain possession of it and hopefully he will get enough opportunities," Petrino said.
The game could come down to how well LSU's offense and Arkansas' defense play as both units are improved this season.
"I think definitely LSU's offense has gotten better and better as the year has gone on," Petrino said. "They are executing very well right now, playing with a lot of confidence. Their ability to run the ball and throw it and convert third downs has really improved as the year went on.
"I think defensively we have played well except for one game (a 65-43 loss at Auburn)," Petrino said. "We have been able to make plays when the game has been on the line. We have done a really nice job of getting off the field on third downs and we have played with a lot of effort and passion and been physical enough to cause turnovers."
The Arkansas-LSU game will happen a day after the Alabama-Auburn contest with both games having major implications for BCS bowl spots.
"They are two very, very good football teams, very well-coached with very good football players," Petrino said. "I would imagine it will be like most of the Iron Bowls – very, very intense, very physical and very competitive. They usually come down to the fourth quarter."
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