Hogs Have Tunnel Vision

OXFORD, Miss. — The week began with Arkansas' players trying to get over a loss that, according to quarterback Ryan Mallett, would "stick with you for the rest of your life."

Then the real circus arrived.

Over the past few days, the Southeastern Conference has reprimanded Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino for publicly criticizing officials, apologized for a personal foul penalty on defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard and suspended the officiating crew that made several questionable calls at Florida a week ago.

The controversy created national headlines, became a hot topic of sports talk radio shows and got so big that it managed to overshadow the buildup to Nutt Bowl II.

But what would a crazy week be without Arkansas' players getting asked about what it'll be like to again face their former coach, Ole Miss' Houston Nutt?

"We don't have anything against him. He's a good coach; coach Petrino's a great coach," Arkansas offensive guard Mitch Petrus said. "You've got to understand, there's no extra emphasis on this game because it's coach Nutt. We put every amount of energy we can into every game we're playing."

Despite the distractions that had the potential to trip up the Razorbacks (3-3, 1-3 SEC), they appear focused and unusually confident heading into today's 11:21 a.m. game against Ole Miss (4-2, 1-2) in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Players insist the Nutt storyline is no longer relevant. They were told by Arkansas officials not to talk about the controversy surrounding the officiating in last week's 23-20 loss at second-ranked Florida.

And the close loss to the Gators has given the Hogs the confidence to believe that they can hang with any team in the country. Arkansas wide receiver Jarius Wright even said there's a sense amongst the team that they can win their remaining six games of the season and earn a trip to the Cotton Bowl.

"On paper, (the Florida loss) is definitely a heartbreak because at the end of the year that's what gets you one of the big games after Jan. 1. But as a confidence standpoint, this team right now knows that we just went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the country," Arkansas safety Matt Harris said. "And our hearts feel like we played it and put it all out there.

"We're moving forward to Ole Miss right now, but we're definitely coming off that last week with a lot of steam."

Petrino said he has liked the way his players have responded after the Florida loss, not letting the distractions of the past few days get to them. They've gone from being down on Monday to motivated by Thursday.

"One thing we've really tried to do this year is make the issue us, make it about how we handle our own business, how we approach the meetings, how we approach practice, how we help the other guy next to us in the meetings or at practice," Petrino said.

"... I think that our leadership from within the team has really helped us and really grown up."

The Razorbacks must continue to have tunnel vision if they hope to earn their first SEC road win of the season against a Rebels team that was ranked fourth nationally in late September. Ole Miss has since fallen out of the Associated Press' top 25 poll following losses to South Carolina and Alabama in two of their last three games.

Nutt's new team showed with last week's 48-13 win over UAB that it shouldn't be overlooked. Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead has the potential to turn today's game into a shootout between him and Mallett, two of the SEC's top passers.

And Nutt has avoided getting caught up in the talk about again facing his old team and many of his old players. He won last year's meeting 23-21 in his first trip back to Reynolds Razorback Stadium since leaving Arkansas in November of 2007 to accept the Ole Miss job.

"Last year was much more difficult than I thought and anticipated. I think players felt the same way," Nutt said. "... But that's diminished. It's over. It's more about the players and that's the way it should be."

By now, Arkansas' players should know all about ignoring distractions. Of course, the last few days have helped.

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