By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Whenever Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino spoke about goals for his 2010 team in the offseason, one of the first items mentioned was toughness.
The Razorbacks needed to be more physical to compete for a Southeastern Conference championship. Winning games with an offense that couldn’t open holes for running backs or protect quarterback Ryan Mallett would be difficult. So, too, was relying on a defense that couldn’t stop an opponent from handing the ball off and driving forward for first downs.
It was a lesson Arkansas learned the hard way in losses to Alabama and Auburn. Both games ended its hopes of winning the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship.
"If we would have been more physical earlier in the year, we might be sitting at a different record right now," Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams admitted Tuesday.
There’s good news for Arkansas, though. The Razorbacks have ramped up their physical play — especially on offense — and it has carried them to four straight wins. Arkansas is winning behind its play in the trenches, leaning on the lines to run the ball, stop the run and push around opponents the past month.
The success will be important once again tonight, when the 13th-ranked Razorbacks (8-2, 4-2 in SEC) play at No. 22 Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3) in a pivotal game. Both teams are jockeying for position in the SEC’s bowl pecking order. Both believe controlling the line of scrimmage will be critical in getting a leg up on the other at Scott Field.
"It took us a little while," Petrino said. "It didn’t happen right away like I expected it to do. But I do feel good about it, our ability to control the line of scrimmage."
Arkansas tackle Ray Dominguez said one of the turning points for the offense came after the Alabama loss.
Arkansas’ offensive front struggled in the next game, a 24-17 win against Texas A&M in Dallas. The Razorbacks couldn’t run the ball with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, so offensive line coach Chris Klenakis challenged his group for its lack of intensity and toughness after the win.
Arkansas struggled again at Auburn the next week, but has been impressive in the trenches ever since.
"It really hit us the Texas A&M game," Dominguez said. "We won the game, but as far as an offense it was just a terrible game from front to back. Ever since that game, he told us flat out he’s not going to put up with it anymore. We need to step up."
The run game has improved dramatically thanks to the offensive line and running back Knile Davis. The passing attack has been even more effective because of it. Arkansas is averaging 46.5 points and 509.8 yards during its four-game win streak.
But offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said the success hasn’t come because the Razorbacks are "pounding their chests."
"There are some people that think that’s what brings physical play," McGee said. "But I think our team, our offense, has kind of calmed down. We have more core toughness and belief in ourselves. And it’s not this where you stand out and wave your arms and all of that crap. We don’t need that. ... What you are seeing is we have confidence and are playing better."
Dominguez knows it will be vital against MSU, which he has always regarded as a physical group. The Bulldogs have bullied opponents with a defense allowing 121.2 rushing yards a game and are 16th in the nation in scoring defense (18.3 points).
On the flip side, Mississippi State’s offensive success is predicated on its ground game. An effective run game has led to seven wins. Struggles have contributed to three losses.
MSU is disappointed with its last result, which was a 30-10 loss at Alabama. Center J.C. Brignone said it was a frustrating performance, one the Bulldogs are looking to rectify.
"It wouldn’t make me mad if (MSU) coach (Dan) Mullen said, ‘Hey, we’re going to run the ball the whole game,’" Brignone said. "Let’s just get our physical name back and just come out and play smashmouth football. That’s what we do."
Arkansas struggled to stop MSU’s run game in last season’s 42-21 victory, surrendering 327 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
But Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said the Razorbacks are better prepared this season. It starts with the performance in the front seven, which has been much better in 2010.
"They’re a team that wants to knock you off the football," Bequette said. "They’re a power-running team. They don’t try to hide that. That’s their identity. We have to match that.
"We’ve got to be very physical up front and stop the run, put them in third and long situations and go tee off."
Arkansas is holding onto hopes of landing an at-large spot in a Bowl Championship Series game, but must beat the Bulldogs on the road to stay in the hunt. The Razorbacks would improve to 3-1 in road games after going 1-8 in 2008 and 2009 with a victory.
Williams said Arkansas is confident it can reach the nine-win mark today. But it will take another physical performance.
"This team wants to win," Williams said. "It’s something we need to do to win a football game. We need to understand that.
"We need to go out and play physical football."