By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Bobby Petrino said it was one of the hardest things he has done as a coach.
At the same time, it also was one of the easiest decisions he will ever make.
Arkansas starting safety Matt Harris and linebacker Wendel Davis were among three players who snuck out after bed check shortly before last January’s Liberty Bowl. They were caught violating the team’s curfew. So Petrino said he had no choice but to suspend them for the game, which also ended the seniors’ careers.
It also caught his team’s attention.
"It definitely shows us that he’s not playing," Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright said. "He felt bad about doing it. Just seeing his face, having to tell the team that he had to let the players go. The team understood why and he had to do what he had to do."
A year later, the suspensions serve as an important reminder as Arkansas (10-2) arrived in New Orleans on Tuesday to continue preparing for Ohio State (11-1) in the Sugar Bowl. The Razorbacks are in a city known for its fun on Bourbon Street, but Arkansas insists it will be on its best behavior after last season’s experience.
The reason: They found out firsthand what will happen if they’re not. Petrino’s decision to suspend the two players was a swift blow, but one the Razorbacks said they’ve taken to heart.
"The day that happened, it put things in perspective," Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams said. "I think the reaction from those players still linger with us. They weren’t necessarily upset of the decision made, but of the decision they made because they can never have that game back. Those guys were seniors. They couldn’t play their last game. So it’s something they have to live with the rest of their life."
Not only did the suspensions end their careers, it altered Arkansas’ defensive plans.
Safety Tramain Thomas stepped into the starting role at safety, while Bret Harris became a first-time starter at linebacker.
In the end, the suspensions didn’t cost Arkansas against East Carolina. The Razorbacks responded with one of their best defensive performances of the season and Thomas was named the game’s most valuable defensive player after his interception return for a touchdown.
But the Hogs don’t want to tempt fate again.
"I think it was a lesson learned to a lot of people," Petrino said. "It was a hard thing to do. Certainly something I had no choice but to do. We’ve already talked about it as a team. We all understand we’re going down there on a business trip. This is an important game for us as a football program and for our university."
Said Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee: "I don’t think anybody questions if he’s playing around or not. If you screw up, you’re not going to be out there."
No one can guarantee Arkansas will enjoy a problem-free trip to New Orleans. But it’s safe to say everyone on the roster is aware of Petrino’s response if they make a bad choice.
In fact, Wright pinned last season’s suspensions on the players. The junior was frank, too, saying it was a just penalty.
"The players got what they deserved," Wright said. "They disobeyed curfew and the way they did it was horrible. They come in for a curfew, get the check and then leave after the check.
"You know, if you’re going to get in trouble for it, just stay out. Don’t even come back."
Arkansas will lean on its veterans to help ensure everyone safely toes the line. It’s the approach the Razorbacks have followed all season, believing their mature team understands what it can and can’t do in New Orleans.
By the same token, Petrino has told his team repeatedly to watch out for each other.
It’s nothing new. In fact, Petrino huddles his team after practice before any break and tells them: "Take care of yourself." In unison, the team responds: "And take care of each other."
"We all know this is a lot bigger stake than the Liberty Bowl," Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton said. "This is one of the biggest bowls in the country. We all know what’s on the plate and that we have to do the right things at all times and be ready to play."
Wright believes the Razorbacks will follow through, refusing to allow a repeat of last season’s bowl suspensions take place this week.
"I don’t think they really thought about the situation — two starters — it really could’ve hurt the team," Wright said. "I think we’re responsible enough this year. No one is going to get in trouble for anything like that and we’re just going to take care of business."