No. 5 Arkansas aims to clinch SEC Western division

Friday, November 17th 2006, 6:23 am
By: News On 6

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ Motivation has been easy to come by this week for both coaches as No. 5 Arkansas has prepared to travel Saturday to Starkville for a pivotal game with Mississippi State.

For Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt, the motivation is obvious. With a win over the once lifeless Bulldogs, Arkansas is in the Southeastern Conference championship game, not to mention the national title conversation.

``This is it. This is championship week,'' Nutt said. ``This is where you take it. You are the sole owner of the Western Division championship. That's what these seniors deserve. All emphasis will be put on this (game). This is Super Bowl week. It's this week and it's in Starkville.''

The Razorbacks (9-1, 6-0 SEC) have won nine straight, feature the nation's hottest player, tailback Darren McFadden, and vaulted six spots in the latest Top 25 poll.

They are the 'it' team of the moment with all the incentive imaginable. But no one's really considered what kind of motivation Mississippi State (3-7, 1-5) has coming into the game.

Coach Sylvester Croom vows to have his team ready for the implausible this weekend after suffering a 44-10 loss to the Razorbacks last year that remains the low mark of his three-year career in Starkville.

``I'm going to be stressing it right up until kickoff,'' Croom said. ``We got embarrassed. I don't like getting embarrassed.''

It's easy to dismiss the words of Croom. After all, the Bulldogs have struggled all season, showing glimpses of promise for a quarter or a half, but never really getting up on plane.

There are no gaudy statistics and only a mild _ though heartening _ upset of Alabama two weeks ago to catch the eye.

In fact, questions about Mississippi State's prospects this weekend might lead to a lukewarm response, like this one from Razorbacks defensive end Jamaal Anderson.

``There's always a chance of an upset,'' Anderson said.

There's reason for confidence against Croom's crew, no doubt.

McFadden alone has rushed for more yards (1,208) than the Bulldogs have as a team (1,149). Their 6-0 run in the SEC is their best start since joining the league in 1992.

And McFadden is being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy contender and dozens of reporters are writing glowing stories about the sophomore and his team.

But sometimes emotion means more than streaks and statistics. With an extra week to prepare for Arkansas, Croom has been focused on motivation.

``We know we haven't been a great football team,'' Croom said. ``But the one thing we do that we take a great deal of pride in is we fight and compete.''

To pull off the upset and regain a large measure of pride, the Bulldogs will have to stop McFadden first _ whether he's lined up at running back or quarterback.

The sophomore is averaging 121.9 yards and eight points a game, both tops in the SEC. And he's led the team to its highest ranking since 1985.

``He is clearly the most dominant presence offensively in this conference without question,'' Croom said.

But the Bulldogs counter with a defense stocked with players who will be playing on Sundays with McFadden soon, including the SEC's No. 2 tackler, linebacker Quinton Culberson. And the group has seen its share of size and speed sprinting out of the backfield after games against Auburn's Kenny Irons, West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Alabama's Kenneth Darby.

Despite that conga line of top backs, the Bulldogs are giving up 119.9 yards rushing per game _ half what Arkansas averages.

And the Mississippi State offense seems to be coming around as well. After missing six weeks with a broken collarbone, quarterback Michael Henig has averaged 236 yards passing per game and thrown five touchdown passes in his last two games.

True freshman Anthony Dixon picked up his first 100-yard rushing game against the Crimson Tide. And both lines dominated Alabama as the Bulldogs jumped out to a quick start, then suffocated their opponent in the second half.

Add up all that and Nutt can see why the ``rejuvenated'' Bulldogs might offer more resistance than the Razorbacks hope. A loss in Starkville would set up a showdown with at No. 9 Louisiana State next week for the division title, something no one in Fayetteville wants.

``To go to Alabama and win and then have a week off, we have our work cut out for us. There is no question about it,'' Nutt said. ``I can't think of a time when we have been playing here or in Starkville when it hasn't been close. It's always been overtime or neck and neck. Expect for last year in Little Rock and (Croom) is going to remind them about that. You know they are going to be gunned and ready to finish out strong.''