Confidence Key in Season's First Half

FAYETTEVILLE — Bobby Petrino isn't interested in moral victories, but even Arkansas' coach couldn't ignore the silver lining this week.

His team had just suffered a frustrating 23-20 loss at top-ranked Florida. Missed opportunities and a handful of questionable calls doomed the Razorbacks in The Swamp. As tough as it was to swallow the defeat, Petrino said there was still plenty to gain.

"You can take and build confidence from it, understand that you're right there," Petrino said. "You're playing the No. 1 team in the country, and you're there and you had an opportunity to win the game and then watch and see how you played and how hard you competed and how well we executed the game plan."

Confidence has been the key word for Arkansas through an up-and-down first half of the 2009 season. The Razorbacks are 3-3 at the midway point once again, experiencing their share of thrills (Texas A&M and Auburn) and frustrations (Georgia and Alabama).

Despite the ups-and-downs, the most important thing the Razorbacks appear to have gained while traversing their rugged schedule has been an extra jolt of confidence under Petrino.

It was much needed after Arkansas' embarrassing 35-7 loss at Alabama on Sept. 26. Petrino said then it was clear his team didn't believe it could beat the Crimson Tide, blamed himself and the rest of his coaching staff, and said the problem would be corrected.

The results have been obvious. Arkansas has taken important steps in all three phases of the game. And the Hogs put a feel-good finish on the first half even though it came in a loss to the Gators.

"One of the upsides of playing the No. 1 team in the country, playing that close, is knowing we can stand toe-to-toe with anyone," Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams said. "It just let us know if we come out and practice every day as hard as we can, we can go out and play with anyone in the country."

How far can confidence carry the Hogs as they continue their push for bowl eligibility in the second half of the season? There's no telling, but it begins with an important game at Ole Miss on Saturday.

Until then, here is The Morning News' position-by-position look (with grades) at how Arkansas performed during the season's first half:

Quarterbacks — B+

Ryan Mallett has lived up to the hype, proving to be a significant upgrade from Arkansas' most recent quarterbacks. The sophomore is the SEC's leading passer with 1,646 yards and 14 touchdowns to only three interceptions. But he struggled with his accuracy in losses to Alabama and Florida.

Running Backs — B-

Michael Smith's production has slipped, but the Razorbacks are starting to produce after a slow start. Dennis Johnson and Broderick Green filled in well at Florida. Ronnie Wingo and Knile Davis have had moments, too. Arkansas is averaging 133.5 rushing yards a game.

Wide Receivers — A-

The group has been plagued by injuries and ailments (Joe Adams, London Crawford and Lucas Miller), but it hasn't slowed the attack. Sophomore Greg Childs has been the most impressive wideout. The Hogs have become one of the nation's deepest receiving corps.

Offensive Line — B-

Arkansas' front struggled early (and in particular at Alabama), but has shown steady progress of late. Larger holes are opening for backs and Mallett has gotten more time to throw in the pocket. The Hogs did concede four sacks last week, but are much improved.

Defensive Line — B

After recording only five sacks over the first three games, Arkansas' defensive line has picked up the pace and become a dominant force lately. That was evident with six sacks against the Gators. Jake Bequette has been active, DeQuinta Jones has emerged and Malcolm Sheppard is his usual hard-to-block self.

Linebackers — B

Wendel Davis has been stable in the middle, and Jerico Nelson has made an impression at the Jack linebacker spot. Jerry Franklin had a rough start to the season, but he partly made up for getting ejected in the Georgia loss by returning a fumble 85 yards for a touchdown against Texas A&M.

Secondary — C

Big plays have been big problems for the secondary this season. The Razorbacks have surrendered six touchdown passes of 44 yards or more. Arkansas has cut back on the errors of late, but Florida's 77-yard touchdown pass was proof that improvement is still needed.

Special Teams — B-

Things got off to a good start when Dennis Johnson returned the opening kickoff of the season 91 yards for a touchdown, and Alex Tejada made his first seven field-goal attempts. While Johnson has remained a threat, punter Dylan Breeding has been inconsistent at times and Tejada had two costly misses at Florida.

Coaching — B

Give Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino and his staff credit for rebuilding their team's confidence following a 1-2 start to the season. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson has gone from being criticized to praised for the way he has turned around the defense. And Petrino's staff has countered opponents lately with their good game plans.

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