FAYETTEVILLE (AP) — Arkansas running back Ronnie Wingo didn’t have a carry last season in a 24-20 loss to Alabama. The load will be much, much heavier in the rematch this weekend.
The No. 14 Razorbacks (3-0) travel to Tuscaloosa to face the No. 3 Crimson Tide (3-0) on Saturday, a game Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas said the team has thought about for a year.
In that game, the Razorbacks took a 20-7 third-quarter lead before Alabama’s running game took control and led the way to the comeback win. Just as much of a reason, however, was Arkansas’ inability to close out the game by running the ball — finishing with only 64 yards on the ground, and just 20 in the second half.
The Razorbacks morphed into one of the top running teams in the Southeastern Conference following the loss, winning six straight to close out the regular season and reaching the Sugar Bowl. They did so behind running back Knile Davis, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury before this season even started.
Without Davis, and senior fullback Broderick Green out for the season after suffering a knee injury during the spring, Arkansas has counted on Wingo to provide enough of a running game to support its prolific passing attack. The junior was average through two games before breaking out for a career-high 109 yards and three touchdowns last week in a win over Troy.
He knows more of the same is expected this week against an Alabama defense that leads the SEC in total defense, allowing just 170 yards per game. Especially if the Razorbacks want to atone for what they feel is a victory that slipped away last season.
"The main thing we’ve got to do is finish," Wingo said. "Last year in the fourth quarter, we just didn’t finish the game out. I feel like we learned from that, and we’re just going to have to finish this game this time around."
Wingo’s breakout game last week couldn’t have come at a better time for Arkansas. He entered the week leading Razorbacks’ running backs with an average of 58 yards per game, hardly filling the void of the 147 yards per game Davis averaged in last season’s final seven games.
That changed against Troy after Wingo scored on touchdown runs of 22 and 21 yards in the first half, also catching a 6-yard touchdown pass in the second half. He now has 225 yards rushing on 43 carries (a 5.2 average) for the season.
"I thought he had a good game," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "He hit the holes harder, he broke tackles, he did a good job in open space. I was happy with the way he played. He had three touchdowns, that says enough."
The Razorbacks lead the SEC in total offense at 517.3 yards per game, but those numbers are likely inflated after three games to open the season against Missouri State, New Mexico and the Trojans.
That said, they are averaging 47 points per game and junior quarterback Tyler Wilson has thrown for an average of 274 yards per game — despite splitting time with sophomore Brandon Mitchell in the opener and missing the second half of the second game with concussion-like symptoms.
The threat of that air attack has Alabama safety Mark Barron ready for anything on Saturday.
"There’s so many different things they can do," Barron said. "They’re a physical team. They can run and at the same time they can pass. When you’ve got a team that can do both and that’s balanced like they are, it’s not easy to contain a team like that."
Petrino said Arkansas’ offensive line improved dramatically run blocking against Troy. Freshman tackle Mitch Smothers cleared the way downfield for one of Wingo’s touchdown runs, providing a boost to a unit that has replaced three starters from last season.
Also, junior fullback Kiero Small delivered several punishing blocks ahead of Wingo and while pass blocking for Wilson. Both will be counted on against the Crimson Tide.
"They’re starting to get better and better each week, too, so that’s a plus for us," Wingo said. "Kiero, he’s just a mean guy, just like a bowling ball, and looks to hit anything he sees."