College football: Long climb then hard fall for Arkansas

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The rise of Arkansas as arguably a top-10 program and a credible SEC West foil to Alabama and Louisiana State took about four years.

The Razorbacks took a noticeable step backward even quicker.

There were enough intriguing results during the second weekend of the season, but Arkansas’ 34-31 overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe was the most curious.

The Razorbacks built a 28-7 lead, mostly with well-regarded quarterback Tyler Wilson running the offense. But Wilson left with a head injury for the second straight game, and the Warhawks scored three touchdowns to force overtime. Once there, quarterback Kolton Browning turned a fourth-down scramble into a 16-yard game-clinching touchdown.

This was not what Arkansas planned on, not with Wilson and tailback Knile Davis providing plenty of offensive wattage. Yet with Alabama arriving in town next week, the optimism of a special season could be gone well before September concludes.

It has not been a good six months for the Razorbacks, starting with former coach Bobby Petrino’s dismissal for lying about a motorcycle accident and his decision to give his mistress a position on his staff. While Arkansas found an experienced successor (John L. Smith), it didn’t necessarily find a program architect or a long-term replacement.

This is not a rehabilitation of Petrino. He is afflicted with perpetual wanderlust (never has he spent more than four years in the same job) and slunk out of Atlanta less than a year into an aborted tenure as an NFL coach. Petrino’s inability to tell the truth about an ill-fated motorcycle ride was not needed to perceive him as an unsympathetic character.

But he nearly always won when he was supposed to win. The Razorbacks were 28-2 under Petrino when oddsmakers installed them as a favorite. Both setbacks came when Arkansas was favored by less than a field goal.

Meanwhile, Smith’s Razorbacks lost Saturday as a favorite of more than four touchdowns. It’s fallen apart quickly at Arkansas, and there are myriad ways a season concludes with a likely lame-duck coach and a star quarterback with head injury issues. One thing is certain: No one in Fayetteville saw this coming six months ago.

Weekend risers

Oregon State. The typically slow-starting Beavers opened the season with a 10-7 defeat of then-No. 13 Wisconsin, a promising start for a team coming off an ugly 3-9 mark. A crucial piece of coach Mike Riley’s winning formula in Corvallis is stopping the run, and it was back after a two-year hiatus. The vaunted Badgers managed just 35 yards on 23 rushing attempts.

First-year Pac-12 coaches. Oregon State wasn’t the only Pac-12 team to thrive. Newcomers Todd Graham (Arizona State over Illinois), Jim Mora (UCLA over Nebraska) and Rich Rodriguez (Arizona over Oklahoma State) collected solid victories, while Mike Leach secured his first triumph at Washington State with a defeat of Eastern Washington.

Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons issued their annual reminder any attempt to decipher who is the king of Carolina must include them. Wake Forest rallied past North Carolina 28-27 to improve to 27-8 against major-college in-state opponents under coach Jim Grobe.

Weekend decliners

The Big Ten. It was a rough weekend for Legends and Leaders alike. Nebraska stumbled on the road at UCLA. Penn State’s kicking woes were revealed in a 17-16 loss at Virginia. Illinois was routed at Arizona State. Iowa fell to Iowa State, and Wisconsin’s offense could barely function at Oregon State.

Colorado. If there was any doubt the Buffaloes were headed toward their seventh straight losing season, Saturday’s 30-28 loss to Sacramento State eliminated it. Colorado is 0-2, plays four of its next six on the road and will be fortunate to avoid back-to-back 10-loss seasons to open coach Jon Embree’s tenure.

Troy Calhoun. The Air Force coach declined to speak to reporters after the Falcons’ 31-25 loss at Michigan, nor did he allow any of his players to be interviewed. Put mildly, that’s a curious brand of accountability and responsibility for a leader of future military officers at one of the country’s service academies to demonstrate after a difficult setback.

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