Home Away From Home

LITTLE ROCK -- One by one, players emerged from the Arkansas locker room with equipment bags draped over their shoulders Thursday afternoon.

One newcomer looked for help, asking aloud what items belonged in his red mesh travel bag. Sophomore receiver David Thompson shouted, "Pads, helmets, shoulder pads" as he walked by. Another freshman wondered where to take his bag. An upperclassmen pointed toward a trailer being loaded by equipment managers.

And then there were veterans like sophomore Keith Jackson, who tried to find a freshman to walk his luggage to the trailer. When nobody offered to pay his dues, the defensive tackle threw his bag over his shoulder and carried it himself.

Arkansas, with a roster loaded with freshmen and newcomers, will continue a season of new experiences tonight against Louisiana-Monroe in its first game away from Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Hogs are listed as the road team -- even though it is being played in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, their home away from home -- to help the Indians boost attendance figures and retain their Division I status.

But tailback DeCori Birmingham said there's no better time or place to help Arkansas' youngsters adapt to the road routine.

"It's a great atmosphere for those guys and just a road trip to get them away from Fayetteville," Birmingham said. "We'll just get a chance to get them on the road and see what it's like to stay in a new hotel so they can get kind of accustomed to it.

"Hopefully, we'll get these guys prepared and this will let them know what its like once we start going to Florida (on Oct. 2) and places like that."

Tonight's game will be Arkansas' third and final against a nonconference opponent and the only chance to travel before its first road game in Gainesville, Fla. The Hogs packed their belongings Thursday, departed Fayetteville on a charter bus Friday afternoon and stayed in a North Little Rock hotel overnight.

True freshman running back Peyton Hillis said it's a valuable experience because young players will see how to prepare in an unfamiliar environment.

"The reason I'm so excited is because it's one more stadium (to play in)," said Hillis, who has three touchdowns in two games. "I've never really rode a charter bus anywhere or went on an airplane anywhere. I'll get in the routine of what I have to do for road games: Wake up earlier, go to my classes, hurry up and get home, pack.

"I have to make sure I bring a toothbrush, drinks, everything else you need."

Hillis knows Louisiana-Monroe won't get a warm welcome even though it is listed as the home team. The Conway native has been to enough Little Rock games to understand the rowdy crowd is an uncomfortable place for visiting teams.

"I always stood at the very back because I didn't want to get hurt," Hillis said. "Everybody is going crazy. When other teams come in there, they start throwing oranges and stuff at the bus. It gets pretty intense."

But the Indians will wear the "home team" tag in the first of a unique five-game series.

Executive associate athletic director Bill Gray, who is in charge of UA's scheduling, said the series was presented to Arkansas by former Louisiana-Monroe Athletic Director Bruce Hanks. The Indians were concerned about new NCAA rules that require schools to average 15,000 in attendance for at least four home games against Division I opponents in 2004 and five home games in 2006.

But Hanks discovered the Indians could count games in War Memorial Stadium as home contests because NCAA guidelines specify it as a neutral site.

Gray said Louisiana-Monroe will get a $500,000 payout and can count attendance figures to meet Division I requirements. Meantime, Arkansas locks down five nonconference games over the next nine years for a reasonable price, while payouts increase each season and games grow more difficult to schedule.

The Razorbacks will play in front of the home crowd, use their regular locker room, stand on their normal sideline and wear their familiar red jerseys.

"I'm not that excited about it," said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt of Louisiana-Monroe's home status. "It's going to be a home game in my mind. I think it's ridiculous, but that's fine.

"But the real home game, it's the Arkansas Razorbacks' home game."

The seventh-year coach can become just the fifth in school history to win 50 career games with a victory, joining Frank Broyles (144), Lou Holtz (60), Fred Thomsen (56) and Ken Hatfield (55). Nutt, who is 16-0 in Little Rock, will be happy to step into that group, especially after Arkansas' heart-breaking 22-20 loss against then-No. 7 Texas last Saturday.

The Hogs will try to rebound, something they've struggled with since 1998.

Arkansas is 11-12 following a loss under Nutt. It has struggled even more after the first loss of the season, going 1-5.

But Birmingham said the Razorbacks - who outgained the Longhorns and fumbled away a strong go-ahead field-goal chance late in the game -walked away from the Texas loss confident they can compete with anyone. The senior told teammates to shake the heartache and remember the Hogs still have plenty to play for.

"You have to take something out of every game," Birmingham said. "If we lose, we have to be able to bounce back. A lot of guys grew up. It was a devastating loss, but everybody got out there and got better, corrected their mistakes and made promises that they wouldn't make the same mistakes again."

Receiver Carlos Ousley said the Hogs are determined to win again, starting with tonight's "road game."

"This will be a good experience," Ousley said. "The new guys can get the routine down and see what we have to go through, being our first time on the road. They'll know what to expect when we actually go to another opponent's stadium. We can also learn how to get over a loss like Texas.

"Texas will be long gone to everybody once we get this win this weekend."

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