FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Tyler Wilson doesn’t have Ryan Mallett’s thunderous right arm, but he does have a better winning percentage than the man he replaced as the quarterback at Arkansas.
Wilson will lead the No. 3 Razorbacks (10-1) into Tiger Stadium on Friday, hoping to guide an upset of No. 1 LSU that will steer Arkansas clearly into the BCS National Championship picture.
“Next week’s a big week,” Wilson said after Arkansas’ 44-17 win over Mississippi State on Saturday, the last day Razorbacks players were available for media interviews. “It’s really what you draw up as far as spotlight-wise.
“We’re going to be in the middle of it, all the BCS talk and whatever else will come with it.”
In his first season as the starter, Wilson has guided the dangerous Bobby Petrino offense with aplomb. The junior is more methodical than his hyper predecessor. Who could forget Mallett’s high-intensity yet ultimately premature celebration late in regulation at Tiger Stadium in 2009? But he’s been nearly as productive statistically and more adept at building his bottom line total: wins.
Wilson took the reins as a starter, and, despite losing key talent like Mackey Award-winning tight end D.J. Williams, both starting tackles in the offseason and 1,300-yard tailback Knile Davis to injury during fall camp, has pushed the Razorbacks to the kind of season-finale showdown the Hogs haven’t seen since the Big Shootout with No. 1 Texas in 1969.
Wilson will enter the final week of the regular season with 3,215 passing yards, the third-best season in school history behind Mallett’s campaigns in 2010 (3,869) and 2009 (3,624). He also has a 21-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, along with a 148.66 efficiency rating, and his 29 pass completions of 25 yards or more ranks eighth in the country.
While Wilson has been prone to make mistakes — like his over-the-shoulder gift-wrapped interception for a 48-yard touchdown to South Carolina’s Devin Taylor a few weeks ago — he has also had sublime performances.
After the Razorbacks fell quickly behind a Texas A&M team crushed by LSU in last season’s Cotton Bowl, Wilson unloaded a school-record 510-yard passing performance on the Aggies to trigger a 42-38 Arkansas victory.
In a 38-14 home win against Auburn, Wilson completed 18 consecutive passes, snapping his personal best of 14 in a row set against Auburn in 2010.
The 6-3, 220-pounder also had a streak of 184 consecutive passes without an interception that stretched between an interception return for a touchdown by Alabama’s DeQuan Menzie in the fourth game to Taylor’s touchdown return in Game 9.
Wilson and the Arkansas offense, buoyed by a running game that has been gathering steam behind junior tailback Dennis Johnson — who had 127 yards against LSU in 2008 for his first career 100-yard game — are feeling confident after averaging 45.6 points per game during a three-game home stand.
“Obviously, the last three games, the point margin shows our potential, and that we’re really clicking and coming together as a team,” Wilson said. “This is coming at the right time.”
Mallett’s rifle delivery paid dividends on an early 80-yard touchdown strike to Cobi Hamilton in last year’s 31-23 Arkansas victory over the Tigers in Little Rock, Ark. While Wilson doesn’t have the velocity Mallett showed on that pass, he can be deadly if given strong protection.
“He gets it out of his hand very quickly, makes real quality decisions and has all the abilities,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “He makes all the throws.”
What the Tigers aim to do, however, is cover the potent Arkansas receivers like Jarius Wright (an SEC-best 1,002 receiving yards, 10 TDs), Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton long enough to harrass Wilson.
“You want to cover and make sure those receivers are covered,” Miles said. “Then you like to get in his backfield as often as you can.
“The good thing is that we think we have guys that can do that. Certainly, that will be a challenge.”