Playing For Pride

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas running back Darren McFadden can break the 1,000-yard rushing mark and win the Southeastern Conference rushing title.

True freshman quarterback Casey Dick can settle into the starting job after making his collegiate debut against South Carolina. Arkansas' defense can continue to improve under first-year coordinator Reggie Herring. And the Razorbacks can win their final three games against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU.

But for all intents and purposes, coach Houston Nutt already turned his calendar to 2006 after the Hogs' 14-10 home loss to South Carolina last Saturday.

"This is the first day of starting over, starting for next year," Nutt said Sunday. "Not that I'm throwing the seniors away, but I have nothing to give them after these three games. This is the first day of the new year and every single snap is so important. That's the way we got approach it (beginning Sunday)."

There's little else Arkansas (2-6, 0-5 in Southeastern Conference) can do after watching its bowl hopes evaporate against South Carolina. The Hogs remain winless in SEC play, have only beaten lower-tier Division I Lousiana-Monroe and Division I-AA Missouri State and won't play in a bowl game for the second straight season.

Arkansas hasn't officially been eliminated from bowl contention this early since 1992, when the Jack Crowe-led Hogs started 2-5-1 and finished 3-7-1. Last season, Arkansas didn't learn its fate until the 43-14 loss to LSU in the regular-season finale.

"I want the state of Arkansas to know, I know there are some unhappy fans and I tell you what, there's an unhappy coach, too," Nutt said Sunday. "I want our fans to know that. There's some coaches that are down and some players that are really down. We hate it. But we're going to get this thing turned and get it corrected."

Nutt received several e-mails from disappointed fans after the loss and said he "appreciated every one of them." He said the disappointment of missing postseason play has "been on my heart" and "no one is hurting more than I am." However, the reality is the Razorbacks must begin preparing for next season.

Arkansas won't bench valuable seniors like center Kyle Roper, fullback Brandon Kennedy, linebacker Pierre Brown and safety Vickiel Vaughn to do so. But Nutt said inexperienced players like defensive tackle Marcus Shavers and safety Elston Forte will likely get more playing time, joining freshmen like McFadden, Dick and Felix Jones.

Nutt said Arkansas will look at "all possibilities and every possible angle" to find ways to win its final three.

Sophomore right tackle Robert Felton said the Razorbacks simply must play for pride the next three weeks.

"We can't act like a whipped dog with our tail between our legs," Felton said. "We've still got three games. We still can go 5-6. We can still whip somebody else's tail and spoil someone else's season. So we've got to keep our heads up."

Arkansas hasn't experienced consecutive losing seasons since 1996 and 1997, which resulted in former coach Danny Ford's dismissal. But Herring believes Arkansas has proven resilient in other challenging situations this season and will finish strong.

"With the fact that we can't go to a bowl now, it's going to be a tremendous character challenge for this team," Herring said. "But we didn't lose them after Southern Cal. We didn't lose them after Alabama (a 24-13 loss) or Auburn (34-17).

"These kids have hung on and they've hung in there."

Arkansas will spend the next three weeks trying to improve an offense that piles up yards, but struggles to score because of missed assignments, penalties and short-yardage failures. The defense will continue searching for ways to grow, especially hoping to eliminate big plays that have proven costly the past few weeks.

And, most important, the Hogs intend to find ways to win close games.

"You can't let (the sixth loss) take your progress backwards," receiver Marcus Monk said. "We've got to keep progressing as a team, keep working hard. I mean, we don't want to go out and lose the rest. Our integrity is too strong for that."

Brown, one of 12 seniors, said the Hogs know the season can end two ways.

The Razorbacks can roll over with no bowl game, finish 2-9 and become the reason for the "decline of the program." Or they can find a way to finish strong, wrap up their second straight 5-6 season and continue laying a foundation for the future.

It's not what Arkansas envisioned when it kicked off the season in September, but Nutt hopes the Razorbacks will make the most of their disappointment.

"This is my first situation where things have just not gone right," Nutt said. "You keep hoping you're going to wake up, where this is a dream. But the bottom line, it's the way it is and these guys have always responded and always played hard.

"They want to win so bad. I tell you, we just have not gotten one little break, one bounce and we're hoping that this is going to be the weekend (at Ole Miss)."

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