(Eds: Stands as 1st Ld-Writethru on state line to update with quotes, detail. With AP Photos.) By KURT VOIGT AP Sports Writer Knile Davis carried Arkansas to its first BCS bowl game last season.
The running back's breakout performance in the second half of the season directly coincided with a six-game winning streak that propelled the Razorbacks into the Sugar Bowl.
No. 8 Arkansas (6-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) has struggled with the running game this season following Davis' season-ending ankle injury in the preseason. However, the Razorbacks are hopeful junior Dennis Johnson's career-best 160 yards rushing in a win over Mississippi last week might provide the springboard for a Davis-like finish to the season.
And in turn help book a return BCS trip.
Arkansas, which visits Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3) on Saturday, leads the SEC in total offense with 462.1 yards per game. Only 140.3 yards of that comes on the ground, though. That's 10th in the league, and the Razorbacks are still stinging from a 19-carry, 17-yard rushing performance as a team in a loss to No. 2 Alabama on Sept. 24.
Against Ole Miss, Arkansas fell behind 17-0 early and its passing game struggled to find a rhythm while the Rebels dominated time of possession in the first half.
Enter Johnson - whose 52-yard touchdown run late in the first half trimmed the Ole Miss lead to 17-7 and gave the Razorbacks the momentum they needed entering halftime. It also provided a signature moment for Johnson's career day, which came on just 15 carries, and Arkansas ran for a SEC-high 206 yards in the 29-24 win.
''He got hot out there,'' Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. ''He was feeling good. He had a good look in his eye in pregame. I kind of anticipated him having a good game. I could tell on the travel down there, I could see it in his eyes.''
Johnson's play-making abilities have always been known by Arkansas, but until this season he was mostly known as a special-teams threat. He entered the season as the SEC's active leader for career kickoff return yards and total return yards with 2,014 but was often lost in the running-back-by-committee approach preferred by coach Bobby Petrino.
Johnson averaged 5.1 yards per carry as a freshman and 6.5 as a sophomore in limited carries. He appeared poised to have a breakout season last year, averaging 9.2 yards on his first nine carries.
However, a season-ending bowel injury in the season's second game against Louisiana-Monroe ended any chance of that - and it was instead Davis who went on to have the breakout season, rushing for 1,322 yards.
Johnson rehabbed throughout the offseason and performed well during the preseason, but a hamstring injury kept him out of the first two games this year. The back-to-back injuries led to concerns about how the 5-foot-9, 213-pounder could hold up to the duties of an every-down running back.
He answered those questions against Ole Miss, but Petrino won't commit quite yet to Johnson as the primary back.
''That's hard to say right now,'' Petrino said. ''But he certainly was the hot hand the other day and we fed him as much as we could. He did a great job.''
Johnson wasn't made available by Arkansas when requested by the Associated Press this week, but after the Ole Miss win he said he was ''ready to get a few more carries. A lot more carries, I hope.'' He added that he understood the committee system at running back, but he believes he ''can be the hot hand.''
Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright said Johnson's teammates are believers, as well, especially after watching the work Johnson put in just to get back on the field.
''Dennis Johnson can definitely be an every-down back,'' Wright said. ''I have full faith in Dennis Johnson being an every-down back. I know I'm going to block out wide for Dennis Johnson on every play.''
If Johnson is able to emerge out of a crowded backfield that includes Ronnie Wingo and Broderick Green, he could provide the SEC's top passing attack some balance during the second half of the season.
His performance against the Rebels has already given Vanderbilt more to think about this week.
''Of course they have skill and talent at the receiver position, at the running back position, at the tight end position and the quarterback position, and also the offensive line is pretty good as well,'' Commodores linebacker Chris Marve said. ''It presents a huge challenge for us defensively, but I think we're going to put together a great game plan for them. We just have to go out as a defense and execute to our full potential.''
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.