By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said his team didn’t truly believe it could beat Alabama two years ago, a point proven in the Razorbacks’ 35-7 loss.
Belief wasn’t a problem last September. Execution — especially in the fourth quarter — was the issue, leaving Arkansas to deal with a disappointing 24-20 defeat.
So when the 14th-ranked Razorbacks boarded the team plane Friday and headed to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for this afternoon’s showdown against No. 3 Alabama, no one was questioning Arkansas’ confidence. It’s this: Do the Hogs have what it takes to finish the job this time?
"That’s what we’ve been working on all summer," Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton said. "Every fourth quarter that’s what we want to do is finish. ... We need it to happen."
Arkansas (3-0) once again takes aim at Alabama (3-0), which has established itself as an early-season title contender, in Bryant-Denny Stadium today at 2:30.
Revenge is obviously on Arkansas’ mind. The Razorbacks, after two blowout losses in 2008 and 2009, showed plenty of confidence in building a 20-7 lead in last year’s meeting. But it only carried them so far as Alabama settled in, took control and won 24-20.
"We had the lead last year in the fourth quarter, we just didn’t finish the game out," Arkansas running back Ronnie Wingo said. "I feel like we learned from that."
Arkansas will get the opportunity to make amends in a game expected to shape the SEC West championship race.
The Razorbacks walk into today’s meeting as a double-digit underdog after struggling to a 38-28 win against Troy last Saturday. And it’s much harder this season to find national pundits confident the Razorbacks will knock off an Alabama team 22-1 at home since 2008.
But Petrino said the Razorbacks return to Tuscaloosa after the 2009 disaster a much different program. He sees confidence in his group as Arkansas searches for its first win in Bryant-Denny Stadium since 2003.
"I thought there was a lot of things that affected us in 2009," Petrino said. "When you don’t have confidence that’s what happens. That’s way behind us.
"This is a new year and a new football team, a new identity. We just need to go down there and focus and concentrate and keep our poise for four quarters."
It’s no secret what a win would mean for a program hoping to take a step toward the SEC championship after finishing 10-3 last season. Alabama was projected as the preseason favorite to win the conference title and has lived up to the billing in its first three games.
So Arkansas spent an entire week in the preseason preparing for the rematch, something it does with one early-season foe. Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower said it’s a sign the Razorbacks, who he called a "challenging" opponent, are serious about making a big statement with a road win against the Crimson Tide.
But Hightower said Alabama is serious about its SEC opener as well after going 5-3 in league play in 2010.
"It means a whole lot to them," Hightower said. "You better believe we’re coming in with the same expectations that they are. It’s going to be a real good game."
Arkansas’ past three experiences against the Tide is proof everything must be earned. Alabama’s defense has consistently been one of the best in the nation under coach Nick Saban, refusing to allow anything easy. It’s offense always challenges with a powerful run game, which wears away at opponents to set up play-action passes.
So Arkansas must play error-free offensively, getting production from a ground game missing last September and protection from an offensive line facing its first big test. The defense also has to eliminate the rash of big plays that have impacted the series. Arkansas has given up six touchdowns of 50 yards the past three meetings.
Petrino said both teams will make plays. He said the key is making sure Arkansas responds, something it couldn’t handle in the fourth quarter of last season’s loss.
"We know there will be momentum swings," Petrino said. "There will be times we get the momentum. Times they get the momentum. We have to keep our composure and keep our focus and understand to get to the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game and find a way to win it."
Arkansas proved it was talented enough to go toe-to-toe with Alabama, coming close to an upset win last season.
But can the Hogs finish the job this time in a hostile environment? Arkansas is confident it will have a resounding response on national television today.
"Pretty much since last year’s game we have been wanting to get back at these guys," Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas said earlier this week. "We have the opportunity and now we have to seize the opportunity."