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Hogs surprise by being themselves 

Our football coach doesn't play favorites, and he's really careful about it. This stubbornness sometimes works against him, as when he resists leaning too predictably on an individual Razorback over more than one game, but it pays off when his team performs the way it did last Saturday night. Leaders emerge over the season, but new stars are born every week.

Obviously this isn't just a democratic ideal. Petrino likes to have more options because more options spell more unpredictable decisions. When he talks about feeding the playmaker, he does so with the understanding that the hat changes hands moment to moment and on the field. He's talking about recognizing the guy with an extra step on any given Saturday and putting him in a position to turn heads. That means every player every week has an incentive and an opportunity to do something special. They all grabbed hold of that moment last week, and the result was the finest team performance of Bobby Petrino's tenure.

I have to say I never saw it coming. I've always liked the character of the team, the way it seems stacked with playmakers but free of prima donnas. Guys who would be stars anywhere else seem to accept their roles happily, sure enough that their number will be called at some point or other in Petrino's system.

But for some reason or another, the team has been distracted a lot of this season, plagued by penalties, disappearing in the second half, turning in uneven play on special teams, banging their heads against a wall on both sides of the line of scrimmage. I have no doubt that there's more than one back capable of Knile Davis' recent production, but it's frustrating that it took half of the season to get any semblance of a running game going.

Because of all this, the Hogs' throttling of a better-than-average South Carolina, one still in the running for the Eastern Division title, snuck up on everyone. I'd wager that the players themselves were surprised. Even Petrino, who has as much stubborn faith in his team's capabilities as anybody, must have been startled by the sudden, unequivocal validation.

The two losses behind them have to sting after that kind of win. They'll be kicking themselves for giving away that win to Bama for years, and we can only hope people remember the details of the Auburn loss. The Hogs are in a position to make a push for the Sugar Bowl. All it takes is winning out in the toughest division in the country. Convincing victories in all remaining games would be strong medicine for the missteps earlier in the season. Neither Mississippi State nor LSU will be won in a cakewalk, but both can be beaten by the team that took the field last weekend.

That team dominated time of possession, converting third down eight of 13 times, and running the ball with impunity. That team went right back to work after the half, grinding the life out of the opposition on the ground and scoring 17 backbreaking second-half points for the third time in the last three games. That team didn't let bogus flags and missed calls get into their heads. That team is in control of its own destiny. But that team has to keep showing up.

A visit from UTEP — one on the schedule since before Petrino arrived; the kind of game engineered to cook the books on a so-so season — will lull even the most focused squad to sleep. The Miners eked out a huge win over SMU last weekend, and they're bowl eligible for the first time in five years, but they need another W to be a sure thing as six only gets you a slip of paper in the postseason hat in Conference USA. Tulsa's probably their best shot left on the schedule, but this weekend they try their luck in Fayetteville.

The Miners are a middling C-USA team by the strictest definitions on offense, equally unimpressive running and passing the ball but fairly balanced. At least the exercise will give DT Byran Jones a chance to ease back into the water and Greg Gatson to get more settled in to Ramon Broadway's shoes. The Miners pass defense is fast enough to give Mallett work to do — everyone in their coverage has snatched one out of the air at some point this season — but Knile Davis will probably romp.

A cupcake this late in the day is bad for your health, so the Razorbacks have to focus on staying healthy and sharp. Just because they happened on a clearing doesn't mean they're out of the woods just yet.

Follow Derek Jenkins throughout the week and during games on Twitter @aboynamedsooie.

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