Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights Complete Game Preview
By Week 3 of 2012, the Razorbacks were already hitting the reset button, starting 1-2 after entering the season ranked in the top 10. Arkansas continued their downward ascension in Week 4 with a 35-26 loss at home against Rutgers.
It's a little different scenario this time around.
The Hogs sport a 3-0 record heading into their first road game at Rutgers and revenge is on their minds. Head coach Bret Bielema has brought a new sense of toughness and physicality that the program lacked in its disastrous 2012 campaign.
The two teams won their games last weekend, as Arkansas beat Southern Miss, 24-3, while the Scarlet Knights handled Eastern Michigan, 28-10. Both teams need a win to give them momentum with the start of their conference schedules next week.
The stakes are high and a win this week for the Razorbacks would do wonders for the team's confidence before it begins murderer's row on Sept. 28.
Time: 2:30 p.m. CT
Place: High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, New Jersey
Radio: Arkansas Razorbacks Radio network and WRSU Rutgers Radio
Spread: Rutgers by 2.5 according to 5Dimes.eu
Arkansas Keys to Victory
Get to Gary Nova
As reported by The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, Rutgers' starting quarterback Gary Nova is listed as probable for Saturday's game after sustaining a concussion last week. The Arkansas front seven needs to make Nova as uncomfortable as possible.
If they allow him to get in a rhythm, it could make for a long day. Opposing defenses have locked in on the Rutgers passing game with good results. Nova is averaging just 180.7 passing yards per game, down 27 yards from 2012. Getting to Nova not only takes away the passing game, but also their best offensive weapon in receiver Brandon Coleman.
Get used to seeing this, because it will be a key for the Hogs all season. Arkansas got a major resurgence on the ground with Bielema and the duo of freshman Alex Collins and sophomore Jonathan Willams has been the best in the country.
The two have combined for 811 yards and five touchdowns through three games. No one expected Arkansas to put up the rushing numbers it has, but it's no fluke. Collins and Williams are that good, and lead an Arkansas rushing attack that ranks 11th in the country at 294.3 YPG.
As long as Collins and Williams keep running the way they have been, the Razorbacks need to continue to feed them.
Brandon Allen's status for Saturday is doubtful, meaning backup A.J. Derby will more than likely make the start. Bielema said they would unleash him, but now isn't the time to call 20-30 pass plays for Derby. The last thing you want is for Arkansas to blow the game because they put too much on his shoulders.
The Razorbacks don't need him to be a superhero or throw for over 200 yards. They just need him to be efficient and manage the game. The rushing attack is good enough that, if he can make the passes when he needs to and avoid mistakes, the Hogs can walk away unbeaten.
Rutgers Keys to Victory
Protect Gary Nova
While the Razorbacks will be doing anything they can to disrupt Nova and the passing game, Rutgers will do their best to keep that from happening. Protecting the signal-caller is already important, but when he's coming off a head injury, it is vital.
The Scarlet Knights need to get the passing attack going. That starts up front with the offensive line. Nova is in a fragile state coming off a concussion and one good hit could take him out of the game.
Get Brandon Coleman More Involved
To this point, the best player on Rutgers' offense has been quiet. Coleman, a preseason All-AAC pick and a highly regarded NFL prospect, has just 12 catches for 139 yards (46.3 YPG). Defenses are making it a point to throw a blanket over him and force Nova to find other options.
If the Scarlet Knights want to turn things around on the offensive side of the ball, they must find ways to get Coleman the ball.
Swiss cheese anybody? Surely Arkansas is up for some against a Rutgers' secondary that has holes all through it. The Scarlet Knights give up 288.3 YPG (107th NCAA). In its game one loss to Fresno State, they allowed 456 yards and five touchdowns to Derek Carr.
The good news is that Arkansas starter Allen likely won't play. With the Hogs' prolific rushing attack, Rutgers won't have a chance if it gives up numbers even remotely close to what it has surrendered through three games.
Arkansas Players to Watch
As stated, Derby, barring a surprise, will make the start at Rutgers. He is inexperienced and faces a hostile environment on the road. Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney need to keep it simple for him. Give him check-downs and short pass plays to get his confidence going.
Let Collins and Williams do the rest.
Smith has been part of a very impressive defensive line for the Razorbacks. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks (4.0 solo), which ties him for third in the country. At 6'3", 251 pounds, Smith uses his combination of finesse and physicality to get past offensive linemen.
He, along with Trey Flowers, will give Rutgers' O-line everything it can handle. Smith could cause a lot of problems for Nova in his return.
Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams
The duo was on the players to watch last week and here they are again. What Collins and Williams have done through three games is nothing short of spectacular. Defenses haven't had an answer for either running back, as they've racked up 811 yards on the ground.
Even more impressive, Collins and Williams have ran for over 100 yards a piece in each game thus far. Collins became the first back in SEC history to begin his career with three-straight 100-yard games. It makes it awfully tough to slow down the Razorbacks' running game when they have two guys who can take it the distance every time they touch the ball.
They have a stiff test against a talented Rutgers defensive line allowing just 59.3 YPG (fifth NCAA), led by All-America candidate Jamil Merrell.
Rutgers Players to Watch
His stats don't show it, but Merrell has been a dominant force on the Rutgers D-line. The preseason first team All-AAC selection clogs up lanes for opposing running backs. He is a key part to a stout rush defense and demands double teams regularly.
His presence has allowed other players to have one-on-one opportunities and get pressure on the quarterback. Arkansas' O-line is still a work in progress and Merrell could take advantage by using his brute strength to bull-rush Derby.
As mentioned, Coleman has had a frustrating start to the 2013 season. Defensive backs are draping all over him to keep Nova from getting him the ball. But, don't expect his struggles to continue much longer. He is a physically gifted receiver who routinely makes jaw-dropping catches.
Coleman is Nova's top target and makes big plays. He averaged 16.7 yards per catch in 2012 with a team-high 10 touchdowns. The Hogs' secondary must keep tabs on him. If they can shut him down, it takes away a ton of fire power for the Scarlet Knights' offense.
James has perhaps been the biggest surprise for Rutgers. Coming into the season, Savon Huggins was thought to be their best option carrying the ball, but James has stolen the show. He has been equally as impressive as Arkansas' Collins and Williams.
At times, it appears he has butter all over his body. Defenders can't seem to tackle him on first contact. James leads the team, and it's not even close, with 493 yards (No. 1 NCAA) on 61 carries (8.1 YPC) and six trips to the end zone. He will be the best back Arkansas' front seven has seen so far and possibly all season.
What They Are Saying
Bielema, according to the Boston Herald, said the only way Allen would play is if doctors told him there's no risk in him taking the field.
"Unless the doctors can guarantee me 100 percent that there's no risk whatsoever, and (Allen) could look me in the eye and tell me, 'I can guarantee you I can go, coach,' and doesn't blink, that's the only way we'd let him go," Bielema said.
Teammates Williams and receiver Javontee Herndon gave Derby their vote of confidence, via the Boston Herald:
"He's a naturally calm guy," Williams said. "He walked in there, he was pretty calm, but you could see as the game went on and throughout the game, he got even more calm and more comfortable out there on the football field."
"I think we're very confident in him," Herndon said. "He can throw the football. He has control of the offense, and if we need him to be the guy, I think he'll do a great job for us."
Danny West of HawgSports.com said that, despite Allen probably being out, Arkansas has the overall advantage on the road:
Even without its starting quarterback, Arkansas should be the more talented team in most areas, including both lines. The Razorbacks get several former starters and key contributors back this weekend. The Hogs need to establish the run game and get their QB some confidence early in this must-win game.
Bielema also told HawgSports that the team is getting healthy:
Other than the QB position, we're healthier than we've ever been all year. Keon Hatcher is back with us 100 percent and will be heavily involved in our game plan and special teams. Austin Tate, same thing, Austin will be in all kinds of personnel groups, which really helps us. We've probably been tapping into Mitchell Loewen and Hunter Henry too much. I think that really improves our tight end position, especially in a four-quarter game. So, I'm excited for (Tate) to get back in there...And then on defense, Otha Peters is back at 100 percent, as well as Trey Flowers. He (Flowers) got limited reps last week but obviously played very well in the game. Rohan Gaines is back, as well, so a lot of our defensive personnel is intact. Jared Collins practiced a little bit yesterday and practiced all of today, so it was good to see him back out there yesterday after his injury last Saturday.
Arkansas 24, Rutgers 20
As West stated, though Allen is out, Arkansas has the more talented team from top to bottom. Collins and Williams probably won't put up the numbers they have in the first three games, but they will be the difference in the game.
Because of their success on the ground, the pressure on Derby will be alleviated significantly. As he gets more comfortable and in the flow of the game, Chaney will begin to let him take shots down the field once Collins and Williams open up the passing attack early on.
Arkansas' D-line, led by Smith and Flowers, will take advantage of a Rutgers' O-line that has dealt with injuries. Though Nova will inevitably make some plays, the pressure on him will extend the Scarlet Knights' struggles through the air. It will, in turn, have an adverse effect on James running the ball.
Though the game will be tightly contested, the legs of Collins and Williams allows the Hogs to win the time-of-possession battle and keep the Rutgers' offense off the field as Arkansas revenges last season's loss to Rutgers at home.
A win catapults the team's confidence level heading into next week's showdown against Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel.