The Askew Slant

Wade Askew

By Wade AskewThe Daily Northwestern

Cinderella’s slippers are looking for a good college football team, just in time for the Prince’s bowl games.

Lost amongst the national slurping ofCinderella Rutgers in the past couple weeks has been the remarkable turnaround of Huston Nutt’s Arkansas Razorbacks. In fact, Arkansas may even be the truer Cinderella story: they stumbled to a 4-7 record a year ago, including a humiliating 70-17 loss to USC, while Rutgers showed signs of life with a 7-5 record and a bowl appearance.

Sure, Rutgers is coming off its biggest win in over a century (literally), but the fact that Arkansas is now in the thick of the national title race is nothing short of miraculous. Not long ago it seemed that Arkansas boosters were calling for Nutt’s head; now he is second only to Rutgers’ Greg Schiano as leading candidate for coach of the year honors.

Even the first game of this 2006 season provided little hope for the Razorbacks, with USC pounding Arkansas 50-14. But nine wins later, Arkansas is fifth in the AP poll and its running back, Darren McFadden, is in the running for the Heisman Trophy.

As if that isn’t enough, the resurgence falls under the watch of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who was the head coach at local Springdale High at this time last year. Also, factor in a pair of underclassmen quarterbacks. Mitch Mustain, rated by many as the nation’s top quarterback prospect coming out of Springdale a year ago, took over the starting job after junior Robert Johnson floundered in the team’s opening loss to USC.

After compiling a 7-0 record, including a 27-10 win over then-No. 2 Auburn, Mustain was replaced by sophomore Casey Dick after the first series of Arkansas’ win over South Carolina. In a controversial move, Mustain was pulled after throwing an interception on his first attempt of the game despite his perfect record; Nutt believed Dick, fully recovered from a preseason back injury, would be better equipped to play the fast defenses of the SEC.

Dick responded by throwing for 228 yards and a touchdown in that game, enough to keep the starting job against Tennessee a week ago. Against the Vols, Dick played with efficiency, completing 10 of 15 passes for 154 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in the Hogs’ dominating 31-14 win. Of those yards, 137 went to overlooked wideout Marcus Monk, who was on the receiving end of Dick’s lone touchdown as well as a touchdown pass from McFadden. The 6-foot-6 Monk has been nothing short of spectacular in the past three games, catching 21 passes for 380 yards and five touchdowns.

But it is the running game that has propelled Arkansas to a 9-1 record and put the Razorbacks in position to win the SEC West with a win over Mississippi State on Saturday. Arkansas leads the SEC in rushing by over 70 yards per game with a 240.9-yard average. The rushing attack is fueled by two of the SEC’s three leading rushers, McFadden, who has run for 1,219 yards on the year, and Felix Jones, who has averaged a staggering 7.8 yards per carry on his way to 786 total yards. And the Razorbacks have done this against SEC defenses such as Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee, all teams known for their ability to stop the run.

McFadden is a bona fide Heisman candidate, one who is inexplicably overshadowed by the likes of big-name players like Troy Smith and Brady Quinn. Smith is the current leader because he is the starting quarterback on the nation’s top-ranked team and has played relatively mistake-free, not because he has made jaw-dropping plays or proven himself as the best player in America.

Quinn is in the running because he plays for Notre Dame, inherently overrated as the media’s darling team. Quinn’s numbers have also been inflated because of games against such paper-thin secondaries as Air Force, UNC, Navy, UCLA, Stanford, Purdue and Michigan State.

Meanwhile, McFadden is by far the man most responsible for Arkansas staring the SEC and BCS championships in the face. In addition to his 1,219 yards on the year, McFadden has run for 12 touchdowns, caught another, and has even thrown for two touchdowns. In Arkansas’ past four games, McFadden carried the ball 90 times for 594 yards and four touchdowns and caught four passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, plus another two touchdown passes.

All of this comes from a sophomore who was limited during the USC opener, thanks to a dislocated toe injured during an altercation outside a night club in July. Many point to the USC loss as justification for Arkansas’ outsider status in the current BCS standings, the same that rank the Razorbacks seventh. However, if the Trojans were to travel back to Fayetteville tomorrow, the result would not be the same.

The team that trampled highly-ranked SEC powers Auburn and Tennessee is not the same team that gave up 50 points to the Trojans over two months ago. That team was searching for a quarterback and an identity; while this version runs all over people with McFadden and Jones, plus the occasional over-the-top play to Monk. While Arkansas has improved all year, USC has struggled against weaker opponents such as 6-5 Washington State, 4-7 Washington, and lost to 6-4 Oregon State in the Trojans’ lone defeat on the year.

True, Arkansas barely scraped by mediocre Alabama and Vanderbilt, but those games were within the first four weeks of the season. After the team’s victory over Auburn, McFadden and the Hogs have never looked back.

And if the team continues its undefeated streak with wins over No. 9 LSU and No. 3 Florida in the SEC Championship game, Arkansas will have at least one vote to play in the BCS title game.

Sorry Rutgers, but the slipper fits just fine on a Hog.

Reach Wade Askew at [email protected]