COLUMBIA — All seemed to be going well with Arkansas’ football program at the end of last season. The Razorbacks had just gone 11-2 and 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference — their second straight season with at least 10 wins and their second straight with a 6-2 league record.
They had finished ranked fifth in the country, after finishing No. 12 in 2011. Since joining the SEC in 1992, along with USC, they had finished ranked just three times before 2011 — No. 16 in 1998, No. 17 in 1999 and No. 15 in 2006.
Throw in Arkansas’ 8-5 season in 2009, its second under coach Bobby Petrino, and the Razorbacks hadn’t had a run like this since 1984-89, when they went 55-17-1 under Ken Hatfield.
Then Petrino decided to go for a Sunday motorcycle ride on April 1 with his mistress, Jessica Dorrell, who happened to be an employee of his team’s support staff. Nine days later, after publicly confessing the affair, Petrino was fired.
Saturday’s Arkansas at USC game will mark the seven-month anniversary of Petrino’s dismissal. Little has gone right for the Razorbacks since then.
Athletic director Jeff Long hired John L. Smith as the interim coach. Smith’s tenure has proven to be a disaster on and off the field. The Razorbacks have been especially bad on defense, the facet of the game in which the 63-year-old Smith cut his teeth. Arkansas ranks No. 74 nationally in total defense, No. 78 in scoring defense, No. 24 in rushing defense and No. 116 in passing defense.
Arkansas is 4-5 (2-3 SEC) and needs to finish 2-1 against No. 12 USC, No. 22 Mississippi State and No. 9 LSU — with the first two on the road — to avoid missing a bowl game for just the fourth time since Houston Nutt arrived in 1998. Last week, the Razorbacks edged Tulsa, 19-15.
But the fact that Arkansas performs relatively well against the run will be a challenge for the Gamecocks, who are turning to tailback Kenny Miles to replace Marcus Lattimore, out for the rest of the season, and perhaps until 2014, with a serious right knee injury.
Moreover, the Razorbacks have a talented quarterback in Tyler Wilson, and they have protected him well this season, allowing just 12 sacks in nine games. Tulsa managed just one sack against Arkansas, and the Golden Hurricane ranks No. 4 nationally with 34. USC is No. 7, with 30.
Wilson, a senior, is rated the No. 24 overall prospect and No. 3 quarterback for next year’s NFL draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com. He is a prototypical NFL quarterback — 6-3 and 220 pounds. Wilson makes Arkansas’ offense go, and the Razorbacks rank No. 46 nationally with 429 yards per game, compared to No. 29 last year (438.1).
This season Wilson is completing 60.6 percent of his passes for 315.8 yards per game, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Last season, he finished at 63.2 percent for 279.8 yards per game, 24 TDs and six interceptions.
But the Tulsa game underscored Arkansas’ scoring issues. The Razorbacks are No. 78 nationally with 26.1 points per game, compared to No. 15 last season (36.8). They have won three straight games over USC (33-16, 41-20 and 44-28) and gained 405, 443 and 435 yards in those games.
Wilson’s biggest weapon is senior receiver Cobi Hamilton, who ranks No. 4 nationally with 119.7 yards per game. His 7.7 catches per game rank No. 7.
Against Tulsa, Hamilton had 11 catches for 177 yards (after 12 for 146 the previous week in a loss to Mississippi). Earlier this season in a loss to Rutgers, Hamilton caught 10 passes for 303 yards, breaking the SEC single-game record of 293 yards.
“Any quarterback has one really good receiver that they feel very comfortable with,” Wilson told reporters Saturday. “All the greats: Montana-Rice, Brady-Welker, a number of different relationships there, and for me this year. You’ve got to have a guy you go to when it’s crunch time, and he’s done an incredible job. I think he’s one of the best receivers in the country.”
Spurrier nears mark
USC can’t win the SEC’s Eastern Division. Florida’s win on Saturday over Missouri assured that. But if the Gamecocks beat Arkansas, then Wofford at home next week, they will travel to Clemson for the regular season finale with history on the line for coach Steve Spurrier, who will coach his 100th game at USC on Saturday.
Spurrier, who arrived at USC in 2005, is 62-37 with the Gamecocks. The school record for career coaching victories is held by Rex Enright, who went 64-69-7 from 1938-42 and 1946-55. Spurrier already has the best career winning percentage (.626) of any USC coach who spent more than two seasons in Columbia. Second on that list is Billy Laval (.592 from 1928-34). Since then, only Joe Morrison (.580 from 1983-88) won at a rate close to Spurrier’s.