Arkansas vs. Missouri State

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has a laundry list of topics he intends to discuss with the Razorbacks before they step onto the field tonight.

At the top is the importance of winning the turnover margin. He'll also challenge the Hogs to avoid committing foolish penalties that typically kill drives. There are several other areas to emphasize, like controlling the line of scrimmage, refusing to allow anything cheap and playing the season opener with unbelievable intensity.

But Nutt said he's saving the most important point until the end of his message.

"Don't forget how long the off-season was," Nutt said earlier this week.

The Razorbacks will end the longest off-season in the coach's seven-year tenure when they kick off the 2005 season against Missouri State in Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium tonight at 6. Arkansas hasn't been on the field since walking off the War Memorial Stadium turf after a 43-14 loss to LSU last November. It dropped Arkansas to 5-6, wiped out postseason plans for the first time since 1997 and kicked off a long and grueling off-season a month earlier than usual.

To be exact, it has been 282 days since the season-ending loss.

But, to Arkansas players and coaches, it feels much longer than that.

"It has been forever," said junior Keith Jackson, who will start at defensive tackle tonight. "I mean, we've been working out since the LSU game. We didn't go to a bowl game. We were home for Christmas. Man, it has been hard.

"We've been so ready to get back on the field for so long."

Sophomore receiver Marcus Monk feels like he's been waiting an "eternity" for the opener. Senior tailback De'Arrius Howard didn't think Arkansas would ever get back on the field. Nutt said it felt like the LSU game was "ten light years" ago.

That's why he dredged up memories of the past few months, which included brutal 6 a.m. workouts, a physical spring with new defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, a long, hot summer and four weeks of preseason practices.

"My helmet is ready to hit somebody," said strong safety Vickiel Vaughn. "My pads are ready to hit somebody. I think I'm just ready to go out there and beat up on somebody other than my own teammates."

The lucky recipient is Missouri State. The Division I-AA team has a new name, a roster full of Division I transfers and former Hogs like tight end Payne Hall and offensive tackle Matt Gilbow. But the program hasn't put up much of a fight against the Razorbacks, losing all four meetings (1911, 1918, 1924, 2000)

In fact, Arkansas has outscored the Bears 197-6.

The series dates back to 1911, when the Razorbacks beat the team known as Fourth District (Mo.) Normal 100-0. It remains Arkansas' all-time, largest margin of victory. The Hogs have three shutouts in four meetings against the school and haven't surrendered points to Missouri State since their 12-6 win in 1918.

The most recent meeting was in 2000, when the Hogs kicked off the post-Clint Stoerner era with a 38-0 win against the school, then called Southwest Missouri State. Quarterback Robby Hampton turned in a strong performance in his first career start, completing 17 of 22 passes for 227 yards and 2 touchdowns.

But the Hogs don't care about the history. They're concerned about the future in an opening month with games against Vanderbilt, Southern Cal and Alabama.

"It's not going to be easy," Nutt said. "You wish you had three or four exhibition games in a year like this year. If you knew you wouldn't get anybody hurt you'd love to have three exhibition games. But you don't have that.

"You have to have the best camp possible, have you a couple scrimmages. I don't think we could've done it any better than we did it. Now, you have to perform."

Sophomore Robert Johnson will earn his first career start against Missouri State, taking the reins of an offense that was dominated by the electrifying, play-making ability of three-year starter Matt Jones. Johnson served as Jones' understudy last season, made six appearances and emerged this preseason from a three-way battle for the starting job in front of freshmen Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel.

He'll benefit from an experienced offensive line, a stable of capable running backs and returning receivers like Monk and junior Cedric Washington. But the Razorbacks said Johnson will be counted on to provide leadership and stability at the position.

"He's always anxious to get on the field and now he has his opportunity," Howard said. "He worked hard this off-season and is excited about his chance. He's a competitor and he's looking forward to the challenge.

"And I'm looking forward to seeing the young pup get out there and showcase his talents."

It also will be the debut of Herring's defense, which has been under construction since his arrival in December. The Hogs struggled last season under former defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, surrendering 24.5 points and 397.2 yards a game.

But Herring has implemented an aggressive, 4-3 scheme and built around returning players like Vaughn, linebackers Pierre Brown and Sam Olajubutu and cornerback Darius Vinnett. He moved several -- like defensive ends Anthony Brown and Desmond Sims -- to new positions and has demanded intensity and accountability.

"It has been a long, hard road," Herring said. "It has not been an easy transition to say the least. But, you know, hey, maybe that was for the best. It made us start from the ground and work our way up. We'll be more solid in the long run.

"I think the kids understand what's at stake. The bar has been set. Now, we've got to go earn it. We've got to go show it on game day."

That's exactly what the Razorbacks are planning to do during tonight's opener.

In fact, Jackson believes Arkansas has inherited a greater appreciation for game days because of the long layoff and seemingly endless practices.

So he said the Razorbacks should be providing plenty of entertainment for anyone in attendance.

"It's going to be lovely," Jackson said. "Everybody's ready to go. We've been doing a lot of practicing. Practice. Practice. Practice. Now it's finally here.

"We're ready to put on a show. Everybody needs to bring their popcorn."

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