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Early struggles show scrutiny Arkansas will face

Associated Press Modified: September 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm •  Published: September 3, 2012

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas had a clear picture in mind about how its season would start against Jacksonville State, and trailing 14-7 early in the second quarter definitely was not it.

Despite the early deficit, caused by a pair of fumbles and a shaky secondary, Razorbacks coach John L. Smith kept his composure on the sidelines. He didn't feel a sense of panic from the players in his first game as a head coach since 2006, nor did he have any doubt Arkansas would come back to win, handily so.

"Well, truly I was kind of calm, to be honest with you," Smith said. "I was not that upset because we're better than that. 'Hey, OK, we'll get our feet on the ground and we'll start to play the way that we can play.'

"... I wasn't looking for the sky to fall, by any means."

The No. 10 Razorbacks (1-0) avoided peril in the end, gaining 564 yards of total offense in a 49-24 win over the Gamecocks (0-1). The game included a school record from senior quarterback Tyler Wilson, with 367 yards passing and three touchdowns.

The positives, however, were easy to lose track of for fans as they watched Arkansas struggle at times with an FCS opponent — particularly when Southeastern Conference foe Alabama appeared in midseason form in a convincing win over Michigan on Saturday night.

The Razorbacks still have time to prepare for the No. 2 Crimson Tide's visit to Fayetteville in two weeks. They host Louisiana-Monroe this week in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, but the opener illustrated just how scrutinized Arkansas will be this season in the post-Bobby Petrino era.

Petrino was fired in April after the revelation that he hired his mistress to a position in the athletic department, and that he initially tried to cover up her presence during an April 1 motorcycle accident.

For all of his many personal failings, Petrino's coaching signature is still squarely on the Razorbacks this season. His staff was left intact after his firing, and that includes Smith — the former Michigan State and Louisville coach who was an assistant the last three seasons at Arkansas under Petrino.

Smith said the scrutiny the Razorbacks will face this season from game to game is no different compared to any other year.

Arkansas middle linebacker Tenarius Wright agreed, saying one of the few changes in the opener compared to the past was Smith's enthusiastic attitude.

"We're just in the spotlight overall because of the conference and because of the SEC and who we are," Wright said. "We are the Razorbacks. The spotlight isn't anything we're shying away from. We love that spotlight; we love to embrace it and take advantage of it."

Smith, who was hired to a 10-month contract, and his staff are likely to face consistent overanalyzing throughout the season because of the unique position they were put in by Petrino's firing during spring practice. Everything from the first-game fumbles to a pass defense that surrendered 163 yards in the first half to Jacksonville State will likely lead back to the same question from fans.

What would Petrino have done?

Arkansas running back Knile Davis, though, wants no part of the continued discussion about last spring or his former head coach.

"That's totally behind us," Davis said. "We're just moving forward; totally behind us."

Davis' return was another of the positives from the opening win. The junior, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury, rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown in the first half against the Gamecocks before settling for an 18-carry, 70-yard performance in his return.

Like Wilson and the rest of his teammates, Davis has embraced the championship expectations the Razorbacks brought into this season. That hasn't changed in the least after the opening game.

"We're a good football team; we know what we're doing," Davis said. "We have some things to improve on, of course, but we are going to attack those issues and have a better game this weekend so we can go into 'Bama confident in ourselves, which we are.

"They've got to line up just line up just like we do, so it will be a good game."


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