By DANNY P. SMITH
The Arkansas Razorbacks suffered a huge blow offensively in the preseason when running back Knile Davis, an All-Southeastern Conference performer last season, went down with a knee injury.
Even though Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said Davis has been running around practice the last three weeks, the Razorbacks don't anticipate having his services before the end of the season.
That's somewhat good news for the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who saw Davis rip through their defense last year for 187 yards on 30 carries and two touchdowns. He also caught the winning 7-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Mallett in overtime as Arkansas won a 38-31 decision in overtime.
One would think an offense would have a difficult time recovering from a loss of a back like Davis, but the Hogs have not missed a beat.
The Razorbacks have the SEC's third-ranked unit in total offense with 404 yards per game. Most of those yards come from an league-leading passing offense of 311.3 yards per outing, but the running game has contributed 143.5 yards per contest.
"That's what we strive for is to be balanced, especially on first and 10," Petrino said.
Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo have taken up the slack in the backfield with the absence of Davis.
Johnson leads Arkansas in rushing with 580 yards on 77 carries, while Wingo adds 380 yards on 81 attempts. Each have scored three touchdowns.
"You hate to see them lose a running back (in Davis), but with (Johnson) and (Wingo) they really haven't dropped off very much," MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said.
Johnson ranks second in the SEC and 18th in the nation with his average of 149.1 all-purpose yards per game. He has a career-high 160 yards on the ground against Ole Miss.
"Certainly, Dennis has done a good job for us in providing big plays," Petrino said. "He's really hitting his speed, seeing things and is in a good groove right now.
"I think Ronnie Wingo is running the ball real well and it's great to have Broderick (Green) back with his power and his ability to break tackles. The offensive line has really come around and improved. (Quarterback) Tyler (Wilson) is doing a better job of making sure we're not running plays we can't block and the receivers are blocking downfield. It's just all 11 guys working hard at it."
With the ability to run the football effectively from time to time, the Bulldogs are not fooled into thinking the Razorbacks are going to line up and pound the ball at them when the two teams match up Saturday in Little Rock. The kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. on CBS.
"They are a throw-first team," MSU head coach Dan Mullen said.
Arkansas' Wilson has completed 211-of-342 pass attempts for 2,850 yards and 18 touchdowns.
"Obviously, Wilson is a really good quarterback," MSU's Wilson said. "He is a traditional dropback passer.
"They've got a great system and they combine that with great skill, I really think they have elite skill on the perimeter and at quarterback. It makes you cover the whole field, then you mix that up with the big backs they have and the way they can create gap problems for you."