Arkansas Embracing Rare Opportunity

LOS ANGELES -- Harold Horton won't forget the long walk down the rampway into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before the 1973 season opener.

The former Arkansas player (1960-61) and assistant coach (1968-80), who is now the vice president of the Razorback Foundation, said it felt like a long, silent mile. Players and coaches stared at the sea of cardinal and gold and the Trojan horse.

Horton said Arkansas was "scared" about the top-ranked Trojans' potential, but everyone involved looked forward to the chance to pull off an enormous upset.

"You look forward to playing a No. 1 team," Horton said. "And that's the way we should look at it (tonight). How many times does that opportunity come along?"

For Arkansas, the answer is 13. The 14th comes tonight when the Razorbacks return to Memorial Coliseum for the first time since the 17-0 loss in 1973, taking on two-time, defending national champion and top-ranked USC at 9:23

It's the second time coach Houston Nutt has led the Razorbacks into a game against a top-ranked opponent. The first was 1998 when Arkansas lost 28-24 at Tennessee. It's also the first chance for every Arkansas player on tonight's travel roster to square off against the top team in the country.

Tailback De'Arrius Howard, who rushed for a career high 139 yards in the 28-24 loss against Vanderbilt, said he couldn't ask for anything more. Defensive tackle Keith JacksonJr. called it the biggest opportunity the recent Razorbacks have ever had.

"If we go out there and knock this team off, it will change our whole season around after having a horrible loss to Vanderbilt (28-24)," Jackson said. "People will be like, 'Whoa. They lost to Vanderbilt last week. How did they pull this one off?'

"It will mean a lot. Even though we've still go to Alabama, Georgia, LSU. This one right here can change the whole program. It's against the No. 1 team."

Arkansas hasn't had much success in that regard, compiling a 3-10 record against top-ranked teams. The three wins came against Texas in 1964, 1965 and 1981.

The Hogs have had three chances to play top-ranked teams since joining the Southeastern Conference in 1992. They lost to Florida in 1996 (42-7), 1997 (56-7) and Tennessee in 1998.

Some games have been heartbreaking losses. Others were blowouts.

But former Hog Dennis Winston said there's always potential for a stunning win.

"I think the team now that's going to go out there, they've got to have that mindset that you've got to play football," said Winston, who was part of the Arkansas team that lost at No. 1 USC in 1973 but beat the Trojans the next season in Little Rock. "(The Trojans) put their pads on the same way you do. One leg at a time. If they do it any differently, then you've got to worry about them.

"But if they put theirs on the same way, you've got to hit them upside the head."

Quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke experienced the thrill of knocking out No. 1, albeit, on a smaller stage. He was offensive coordinator at Division I-AA Eastern Illinois when it beat the top-ranked team.

No matter the level, Wittke said beating No. 1 is an achievement.

"It brings instant recognition and respect to you, especially on a national basis because people see that," Wittke said. "Everybody sees that so and so got beat by so and so. It was a tremendous experience and the kids did a tremendous job that day and it required a tremendous effort by everybody and we got it done.

"There's no question we're going out there with the idea that, if we play our best football, we're capable of competing with anybody."

USC returns its primary offensive weapons in quarterback Matt Leinart, running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White, receivers Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett and tight end Dominique Byrd. The offensive line is one of the best in the nation. And USC's defense, which finished atop the nation in rushing last season, is loaded with talented players despite some significant losses from 2004.

The Trojans have won 23 consecutive games since an upset loss at California in 2003 and have been atop The Associated Press poll the past 21 times.

But coach Pete Carroll believes Arkansas is capable of beating them.

"This is huge for us," Carroll said. "It's our first chance to play in the Coliseum. It's our first chance to make your statement about how you're going to perform on your home field. We don't need any more than that. We know Arkansas is a very good football team. We know that they can knock us off, just like everybody can beat us.

"We ain't nothing special. We've got to go out and play our tails off every week."

Howard knows that's the only way the Razorbacks will be able to win tonight.

Arkansas' loss to the Commodores was frustrating. The trip to Los Angeles to take on the top team in the nation seems daunting. But the senior pulled younger players aside this week and reminded them that the Hogs aren't going on vacation.

"I'm going out there with a business suit and a hard hat on," Howard said. "That's it. And I'm planning to go to work."

Howard said he's not intimidated by the No. 1 Trojans because the Razorbacks step on the field against similar opponents in the Southeastern Conference. Arkansas is used to competing against big, strong and fast opponents in 90,000-seat stadiums.

The Hogs played at LSU in 2003 when the Tigers won a share of the national championship. Arkansas played at Auburn during the Tigers' 13-0 run last October.

Last Saturday's loss was disappointing, but defensive coordinator Reggie Herring believes the Razorbacks will rebound after getting "kicked in the teeth" during the fourth quarter. Few have given Arkansas any hope of beating USC, but Herring would be shocked if the Hogs had "their tails tucked between their legs" tonight.

"I don't think there's any doubt, playing the No. 1 team in the country, if you're any competitor at all, you've got to be excited," Herring said. "You've got to understand the opportunity that you have in front of you."

Winston felt the same way even though he never experienced the thrill of upsetting a top-ranked team. Neither did Horton, who was part of four teams (1961, 1969, 1970 and 1973) that played against No. 1. But both relished each opportunity.

Arkansas quarterback Robert Johnson plans to take advantage of his first chance to play in Memorial Coliseum today.

And he's hoping the Razorbacks will go back home with a big win against No. 1.

"It would mean a lot," Johnson said. "We go out there and we expect to win. We go out there and play hard and anything can happen.

"If we get the win, it would mean a lot for the program, for us. It will boost our confidence back up. We know we're a good team. It was a tough loss. But we feel like we can play with anybody in the nation and we've got to prove that (tonight)."

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