FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema took a scouting trip to Rutgers with his support staff over the summer, ironing out some of the logistics in preparation for his first road game with the Razorbacks.
Now Bielema wants to make sure his team is equally prepared this week.
The Razorbacks have enjoyed the comforts of their two homes — Fayetteville and Little Rock — in opening the season with wins against Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Miss. The nonconference games tested the new-look Razorbacks (3-0) in a number of ways, but likely pale in comparison to their first road game of the season when they play the Scarlet Knights (2-1) in Piscataway, N.J.
Rutgers (2-1) is hosting a Southeastern Conference team for the first time in school history and the program appears prepared for the occasion. The Scarlet Knights will wear black uniforms and have called for a "black out," encouraging fans to wear the same color as they try to beat Arkansas for the second straight season.
So its no secret the Razorbacks are facing their biggest challenge to date. But Bielema is encouraged with the way Arkansas has handled every test so far.
"I do constantly talk about, just the way our schedule laid out, I thought our competition got better each week," Bielema said Monday. "There’s no doubt I think Southern Miss, especially defensively, was the best defensive team we’ve faced to this point. It was nice to see us be able to have some success."
The Razorbacks are hoping another successful week will secure a 4-0 record in nonconference play before the four-game stretch against ranked Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama begins. A win against the Scarlet Knights could go a long way for Arkansas’ bowl hopes, too, after missing the postseason in 2012. A loss could make it more challenging with the meat of the schedule arriving.
But defensive end Chris Smith and the Razorbacks won’t be concerned about the big picture this week. They’ll have enough to handle against Rutgers, which played a role in Arkansas’ 2012 frustrations with a 35-26 win in Fayetteville.
"Rutgers is a good football team," Smith said after Saturday’s win. "They like to run the ball, kind of like our offense. We’ve just got to stay consistent and carry over."
Arkansas will travel to play in the Northeast for the first time since a 27-7 loss at Fordham in 1940. While Rutgers’ High Point Solutions Stadium isn’t regarded as an intimidating place for visitors like Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium or LSU’s Tiger Stadium, Bielema said there are concerns about the first road game.
Especially if Arkansas plays without starting quarterback Brandon Allen, who is nursing a shoulder injury he suffered against Southern Miss. Rutgers could be without its starter, Gary Nova, as well after he suffered a concussion last week.
"It’s just a matter of being on the road in a hostile environment," Bielema said about the key for his team. "Communication. We’ll have crowd noise going all week. We’ll have everything we can to emulate the game-day environment the best we can. We’ll probably go inside Wednesday so it will be even louder. Then, obviously, the big thing is just the guys, if they’re going to have to step in. If (quarterback) AJ (Derby) is the starter, how do those guys prepare themselves for their first start?"
Bielema believes Arkansas can handle the adversity after watching them work through plenty the past three weeks.
The Razorbacks trailed Samford in the second half two weeks ago, but settled in to grind their way to a win by controlling the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter. Allen left the USM game in the first quarter, but Arkansas didn’t collapse without him. Instead, it leaned on the run game and defense to beat the Golden Eagles.
"The first three games taught us a lot and showed our maturity," said Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams, who has 393 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Bielema said the "process of winning is very, very difficult," but the Razorbacks have taken the right steps their first three games. So he’s eager to see how much more growth they’ll show as they play their first road game at Rutgers.
"We’re going up there with the idea that we get exposure on the East Coast and obviously have a chance to make a statement," Bielema said.