FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said there was plenty of pain in the Razorbacks’ locker room Saturday night. The long flight home from Piscataway, N.J., wasn’t easy, either, after Arkansas blew a 17-point lead in a 28-24 loss.
But Bielema didn’t want his team dwelling on the collapse for too long. So after a light practice aimed at fixing the mistakes that proved costly in the disappointing trip, he had the Razorbacks jump into game film of their next opponent Sunday.
"We went in and watched two games – basically three quarters – of two different games of A&M before we let them go into dinner to let them know, ‘Hey, this is what’s on the horizon. This is where we’re going next,’" Bielema said.
Moving on from last week’s frustrations shouldn’t be difficult for Arkansas because of the challenge it is preparing for this week.
The Razorbacks (3-1) have said so long to their nonconference slate, embarking on their eight-game Southeastern Conference schedule the rest of the way. It begins with a four-game stretch of games against teams who are currently ranked in the top 25 polls. Even more, six of Arkansas’ remaining eight opponents are all ranked.
But Bielema doesn’t want his team to be consumed by the big picture because the first opponent is difficult enough. Arkansas welcomes 10th-ranked Texas A&M (3-1) and its headline-grabbing quarterback — 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel — to what will be a sold out Razorback Stadium on Saturday night.
So Bielema said Arkansas must learn to live with the problems that plagued it during the Rutgers loss. More important, they’ve got to grow from them quickly.
"I think sometimes in my head coaching career some of the biggest, disappointing losses, heart aches, propel you to something better in the future," Bielema said. "That’s hopefully what we’re going to be able to build upon."
Arkansas’ promising performance on the road hit a snag over the final 18 minutes, when Rutgers used big plays to erase a 24-7 deficit. The Razorbacks struggled in all phases down the stretch, failing to make plays that could’ve preserved a big win.
"Rutgers is a good football team, but we kind of gave the game away," Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams said Saturday night. "But we’re going to learn from it and take it into the next game and the rest of the season."
Bielema agreed Monday. He wasn’t too discouraged by the shortcomings.
Instead, he viewed them as valuable teaching moments for his new team.
"The great thing about Saturday’s loss is there’s things that can be easily corrected," Bielema said. "There wasn’t anything out there that is a daunting task that can’t be overcome. On the flip side of it, we still lost the game and they need to learn from that. They needed to feel the pain. It was a very quiet ride home Saturday night. It was a very somber meeting and locker room on Sunday afternoon."
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash said that was a promising sign.
"The good thing is the guys are disappointed because you’ve invested a lot," Ash aid. "When you lose, it’s hard. If the guys came over (Sunday) and they didn’t really care and were happy and in a good mood, we’d have a real problem. But they’re not. They’re upset, they’re disappointed and they’re hungry to get back on the field."
Of course, there’s potential for more frustration against Texas A&M, which brings the SEC’s top offense to Fayetteville. The Aggies put up 42 points in a loss to top-ranked Alabama and lead the SEC in scoring (50.2 points a game) and yards (602.2).
Texas A&M has struggled defensively, resting last in the conference in scoring (30.2 points) and total defense (475.2 yards). But Arkansas will have to prove it is up to the test offensively after finishing with just 283 yards (101 rushing) at Rutgers.
"When I’ve got 11 guys out there, I want 11 guys playing hard," Bielema said when asked about Arkansas’ ground game issues against the Scarlet Knights. "I want 11 guys that don’t accept defeat. I want 11 guys believing what we’re saying to them, as far as how we want things to be executed and the way they need to be executed for four quarters. People aren’t just going to give you a game. You’ve got to earn every ounce of it. And that part, we needed to get clarified."
But Bielema is confident it will as his team moves into its toughest test to date.
Arkansas stumbled down the stretch in its final nonconference game, but there’s no time to dwell on it. SEC play begins Saturday night.
"We’ve got an opportunity. A great challenge in front of us," receivers coach Michael Smith said. "It’s an opportunity for our kids to go out and show them they’ve matured and they know how to handle a loss and just go out and work to get better."