FAYETTEVILLE, Ark – Bill Blankenship remembers Tulsa’s last win over Arkansas very well.
The Golden Hurricane coach was in Razorback Stadium on Sept. 25, 1976, having traveled to Fayetteville with friends. Blankenship, then a redshirt sophomore for the team he now coaches, watched from the stands as Tulsa defeated the No. 12 Razorbacks 9-3.
“I was up in the stands saying, ‘Move the chains. First down!’” Blankenship said. “I remember celebrating wildly, probably more so than if I was down on the sideline. (I) probably acted pretty ignorant.”
Blankenship has a chance to be on hand for another Tulsa win over its neighbor today when the surging Golden Hurricane (7-1, 5-0 Conference USA) visits an Arkansas team struggling through a season in limbo. The Razorbacks have won 17 straight games over Tulsa, but this year’s version has proven that no win is a certainty.
After last week’s loss to Mississippi, Arkansas (3-5, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) has already matched its loss total from the previous two seasons combined. The losses have included heartbreakers such as last week, stunners like an overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe and drubbings against both Alabama and Texas A&M.
For all of the preseason talk about how the Razorbacks were prepared for life after former coach Bobby Petrino, who was fired in April, they have looked anything but under interim coach John L. Smith. After beginning the season as a top 10 team, they are now left with the daunting prospect of winning three of their last four games – against teams that are a combined 28-5 – to simply become bowl eligible.
“Our guys are not going to go to the field and overlook anybody,” Smith said.
Arkansas has suffered through an injury-riddled campaign under Smith, losing three starters for the season with injuries. It’s also played without several other key contributors, including quarterback Tyler Wilson, for extended periods this season.
The injury theme will continue today when tight end Chris Gragg (leg), running back Knile Davis (hamstring) and wide receiver Brandon Mitchell (violation of team rules) each miss the game against a Golden Hurricane that’s won seven straight since a season-opening loss at Iowa State.
Tulsa is undefeated in Conference USA, but Blankenship said he’s well aware of what a win over an SEC team – especially one that was 21-5 the last two seasons – would mean.
It would be huge,” Blankenship said. “There’s no doubt. Our program, to get to the level we’re talking about trying to achieve, has to win these kinds of games.”
Golden Hurricane quarterback Cody Green, a Nebraska transfer, missed Tulsa’s win over Rice on Oct. 20 with a shoulder injury. However, the junior had plenty of time to rest up during last week’s bye and is expected to play on Saturday.
Positive news from the injury front is something Arkansas has experienced little of this season, with linebackers Alonzo Highsmith, Tenarius Wright and fullback Kiero Small out for the season. One of the few constants for the Razorbacks has been the play of Wilson, who leads the SEC with an average of 322 yards passing per game.
Wilson briefly committed to play for Tulsa while in high school at Greenwood, Ark., though he quickly changed to Arkansas once Petrino offered him a scholarship shortly after being hired.
The senior, who bypassed the NFL draft after last season with hopes of competing for an SEC championship, has done his best to remain positive through the Razorbacks’ difficult season. He’d love nothing more than to close out his career with a small dose of positive —in the form of a bowl game of any kind – though he knows the Golden Hurricane present a very real challenge.
“They’re going to be ready to play,” Wilson said. “They’ve got a good football program, and they’re going to want to come over here and get a win as much as we do. I look forward to it.”
Arkansas narrowly defeated Tulsa the last time the two played in 2008, with the Razorbacks – who went 5-7 that year in Petrino’s first season – needing a late goal-line stand to hold on for a 30-23 win.
Blankenship hopes to turn the tables on the Razorbacks today, and he expects the Golden Hurricane to bring plenty of motivation with during the short drive to northwest Arkansas.
“There are a lot of true-blue Tulsa fans that it would mean a lot to,” Blankenship said. “I think for the bulk of the program and the players on our team, it would be a significant win over a significant program and that probably means more to them than Arkansas.”
Tulsa at Arkansas
When: 11 a.m. today
TV: KGEB, KSBI