Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson looks for a target against Missouri State during the first quarter at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Sept. 3. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER
Alabama defensive backs Robert Lester and Dre Kirkpatrick were forced to grow up quickly during last year's game at Arkansas.
This time around, it's Razorbacks quarterback Tyler Wilson who could use the rapid maturation.
Wilson will make his first career road start this week before more than 101,000 onlookers at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The redshirt junior didn't have much difficulty in dispatching Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy the past three weeks, but the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder now faces a Crimson Tide defense that is allowing 2.5 yards per play and 2.9 yards per pass.
No team nationally is stingier.
"I think Tyler is ready," Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino said. "When you look at his first three games, he came out and executed well, with the exception of parts of the second half the other night. I've been impressed with his stats and percentage of completions, his ways of throwing the ball and taking care of it, and the yards he is producing.
"The one thing we understand around here is that our standards and expectations are very high. We expect to go score every time we get the ball."
In year one of the post-Ryan Mallett era, Arkansas still has the nation's No. 8 passing attack with 346.7 yards per game. Wilson has completed 59 of 86 attempts (68.6 percent) for 822 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
The hiccup Petrino referenced occurred when the Razorbacks went three-and-out four times and Wilson had an interception returned for a touchdown during the second half of the 38-28 win over Troy. Arkansas did not have senior receivers Jarius Wright (strained knee) and Greg Childs (grandmother's funeral) but will this week.
"With our offensive personnel, I think we can match up with them and that it will be a good game," Wilson said Tuesday night. "But they're going to be good. They're always good."
Wilson will be competing in a hostile environment for the first time since last year's 65-43 shootout loss at Auburn, when he came in for an injured Mallett and went 25-of-34 for 332 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. He believes that experience will help, but he isn't dwelling on it.
"We play in an atmosphere like that pretty much every week when you play in the SEC," Wilson said, "so you can't get caught up in, 'Oh my gosh, there's going to be this atmosphere or that atmosphere.' You just go and execute and do the stuff you do every day. I think we're going to be fine."
Wilson's performance against Auburn was dizzying, just like the one Mallett was producing early in last season's game against the Crimson Tide. On the first two plays from scrimmage, Mallett passed to Wright for 31 yards and then connected with tailback Ronnie Wingo for a 43-yard touchdown.
"We knew that they could make plays," Lester said. "Then they went and showed us that they could."
In the fourth quarter, however, Alabama intercepted Mallett twice and outscored the Razorbacks 10-0 to rally for a 24-20 triumph. Lester got his second interception of the game with 4:40 remaining and raced 33 yards to the Arkansas 12, which set up Mark Ingram's go-ahead score.
Kirkpatrick intercepted Mallett with 1:48 left to seal the game.
"We're a lot more comfortable this year and a lot more confident," Lester said. "That's the big thing about playing against great receivers like the ones they have. They're going to make plays, and we just have to put that behind us, have short-term memories and go out and make plays, too."
Tide coach Nick Saban is perfect the past four seasons against Arkansas, winning two close ones and two routs. He believes this year's Razorbacks are the best he's faced, considering their talented wideouts, the play of Wilson and Wingo, who rushed for 109 yards against Troy, and a continually improving defense.
Petrino isn't about to sell the Tide short either, admitting that his team used a week of the preseason to prepare for this game.
"A year ago, it was Georgia," Petrino said, referring to a 31-24 win over the Bulldogs in Athens. "You always have that week when you're back in school and you don't have a game. Generally, we'll take that week and teach our players to go through game preparation. This year, we chose to do it for the Alabama game."
Said Wilson: "I'm glad we've got the coaches and players we've got, and I think we've got a good game plan headed forward. I expect it to be fun."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...