‘Ultimate challenge' begins

Receiver Steven Harris has learned a lot about his teammates.

The Arkansas senior used words like dedication, confidence and determination to describe them a few minutes after the Hogs' 49-20 win against Louisiana-Monroe. Harris has been impressed by the play of Arkansas' offensive line and said he was optimistic about the secondary's second half turnaround against the Indians.

But Harris said he'll learn much more about the Razorbacks beginning this week.

"Now is the ultimate challenge," said Harris, who leads the Razorbacks in receiving with 10 catches for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns. "Not to say the first three weeks weren't, but SEC play, it's week in and week out and you've got to perform."

Arkansas (2-1) put to rest its final nonconference game of the season Saturday night against Louisiana-Monroe in War Memorial Stadium. The good news was a young team gained valuable experience in three trial runs and didn't have anything count against it in the Southeastern Conference standings.

Now, coach Houston Nutt said the Hogs can concentrate on playing its eight SEC games in 10 weeks.

"I'm excited about it," Nutt said. "I'm glad the three nonconference games are behind us now. You go into another level of football. And it's all SEC for the next eight times. There's still some things we have to get better. There's still some things we have to improve on and that's what we're going to do.

"Our guys are looking forward to it. I know they're excited and respect everybody we play every single Saturday."

In the past, Arkansas has played at least one SEC game in the first three weeks and taken breaks in October or November to play nonconference teams like New Mexico State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Middle Tennessee State, Memphis and Central Florida. But Nutt, who doesn't like to step out of conference once the Hogs begin SEC play, said he has lobbied for a change in Arkansas' scheduling.

"That's what makes it hard," Nutt said. "You play three nonconference games, go in the SEC and play New Mexico State your ninth game. That's really hard."

It took awhile because schedules are drawn up years in advance, but Nutt finally got his wish. Arkansas stacked its 2004 nonconference games at the start of the season, leaving it with three chances to work out kinks before the SEC slate begins.

Looking back, the Hogs had a few kinks, like the four turnovers that ended any chance of an enormous upset against then-No. 7 Texas. The defense made plenty of mistakes of its own, surrendering big yardage on the ground (259) against Texas and through the air (303) against Louisiana-Monroe.

But Arkansas has had plenty of electrifying moments in the first three weeks, like sophomore Chris Baker's 74-yard touchdown catch in the 63-13 season-opening route of New Mexico State. There also has been promising debuts like true freshmen Peyton Hillis and Marcus Monk, who have combined to score seven touchdowns in the first three weeks.

"As young as we are, we're going to make some mistakes and you just try to coach it as hard as you can," Nutt said. "There's just something about when the lights come on and people are Calling the Hogs, great atmosphere, you forget about some things. You go back to old mother nature habits.

"That's why football is repetition. You keep going over things and over things, over and over again until it's automatic pilot."

But Nutt has noticed plenty of positives to carry into SEC play:

• One of Arkansas' biggest questions marks -- the offensive line -- has put together solid performances during nonconference play.

The first-team group doesn't have an intimidating force like former Hog Shawn Andrews, but starters Tony Ugoh, Kyle Roper and Gene Perry have had success. The Hogs haven't surrendered a sack in three games and opened holes for the SEC's second-best ground game (228.3 yards).

• Quarterback Matt Jones continues to improve as a passer and has big-play receivers like Harris, Monk, Baker, Carlos Ousley and Cedric Washington at his disposal.

The senior has completed 62 percent of his passes for 716 yards with 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions after three games, helping Arkansas average a conference-best 44 points. The Hogs also lead the SEC in total offense (525.7), passing offense (297.3) and average 17.5 yards a completion.

• The defense has struggled at times, but continues to learn from mistakes.

Nutt said a perfect example came Saturday night, when the Indians scored 20 points on a plethora of big plays in the first half. The coaching staff rallied the Hogs at halftime, broke down the errors, made adjustments and the group responded by sticking to assignments and shutting out Louisiana-Monroe in the second half.

• Arkansas made plenty of youthful mistakes (careless penalties, missed assignments, costly turnovers), but has shown more resiliency than imagined.

Not many expected Texas to be in for a fight against a team with several players getting their first taste of big-time football. But the Hogs battled with the Longhorns, made several important plays and had chances to win the game.

They also rebounded from the disappointing loss with a win that tailback De'Arrius Howard said gave them renewed confidence and gain momentum. Howard said that'll serve the Hogs well this week, when they turn their attention to Alabama and the SEC.

"Every game counts now," Howard said. "I'm real excited because I want to go back to Atlanta (for the SEC Championship Game) and have a good showing. That's our main goal, to send these seniors out the right way and that's what we plan to do."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories