FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas fullback Kiero Small will never forget where he was when the Razorbacks made their first trip to Little Rock last season.
The senior was in a hospital bed, watching Arkansas and Louisiana-Monroe on his computer while recovering from foot surgery. Nodding in and out of consciousness because of his pain medication, Small didn’t get to watch the entire game. But when he woke up, Small couldn’t believe the end result.
"I didn’t know what it was," Small said after learning about Arkansas 34-31 overtime loss. "But it wasn’t a dream, and it wasn’t the drugs."
Small and the Razorbacks (1-0) are expecting much more success tonight, when they return to Little Rock to play Samford (1-0) in War Memorial Stadium.
The ULM loss snapped Arkansas’ 10-game win streak in Little Rock and triggered what proved to be one of the most disappointing seasons in school history. A 30-27 loss to Ole Miss two months later became the program’s first two-game losing streak in War Memorial Stadium since 1997 and capped the program’s first winless season in Central Arkansas since 1993, when Danny Ford’s Hogs went 0-2-1.
So it’s no surprise moving past those frustrations and reclaiming the Rock has been a theme for Arkansas’ veterans as they prepared for their first trip this season.
"We’re definitely looking to go prove ourselves, especially in Little Rock," Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said. "And we’re all pumped for it. We’re all ready for it. We’re taking this week to be as prepared as possible so we can go win."
Arkansas looks poised do so after enjoying a big opening week against Louisiana-Lafayette. The Razorbacks bullied an opponent many predicted would give them fits, piling up 522 total yards and limiting the Ragin’ Cajuns to 274.
It was a sigh of relief for Arkansas’ coaches, who weren’t sure what they were going to get with a team going through a transition. Now, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wants to make sure his team can handle the success as the Razorbacks prepare for a Football Championship Subdivision program they’re expected to beat soundly.
"I don’t care if it’s Samford coming in or if it’s Auburn coming in," Bielema said. "Or later down the road, Texas A&M. Whatever it is, we prepare the exact same.
"If you try to emphasize one (game) more than the other or try to act like it’s not as much importance, that’s how you get surprised. That’s how you get stung when you don’t expect it. And I don’t think this group will allow that to happen."
It helps that Arkansas has so many examples to point to in the span of a week.
Eight FCS teams beat Football Bowl Subdivision counterparts in the opening week of the season. The Razorbacks watched and heard about BCS conference teams like Oregon State, Kansas State and Iowa State falling to lower-level programs.
Samford even enjoyed success against a FBS team, beating Georgia State 31-21 last Saturday. So it’s no surprise the Bulldogs come to Little Rock this weekend with confidence even though the Razorbacks present an enormous challenge.
"This is a game of winning and getting it done and after a victory that certainly builds confidence in your FB team and that’s what it’s all about," said Samford defensive coordinator Bill D’Ottavio, who will serve as acting head coach with Pat Sullivan still recovering from back surgery. "We’re confident in our abilities and how we can play the game. But we understand the great challenge we have of gong on the road, playing an SEC opponent and stepping up to this level to play."
Samford is 2-73-3 against teams currently in the SEC. Its last win against an SEC opponent came in 1934, when the Bulldogs beat Ole Miss 7-6.
Despite last season’s struggles, Arkansas is 30-4 in Little Rock since former coach Houston Nutt’s arrival in 1998. Nutt went 22-2 in his tenure, while Petrino was 8-0 in four seasons. Arkansas’ only losses before last season’s frustrations came to LSU.
Bielema made headlines this week by calling his first trip to War Memorial Stadium a "road game" because of the length of travel. But he knows Arkansas’ history of success in Central Arkansas and knows there will be plenty of support tonight even though it appears the game will fall short of a sellout.
"I think our kids are excited," Bielema said. "Going back to Saturday, I heard a couple of kids reference, ‘Going to the Rock. Going to the Rock.’ Obviously they have been there in the past. We haven’t, myself and my staff. We’re very excited to do that."
More important, Arkansas wants to make sure success in War Memorial Stadium returns after last season’s unexpected and unexplained frustrations.
Small and the Razorbacks are determined to get back on track in Little Rock.
"We all said we were going to wipe the slate clean (from 2012), but everybody knows what happened the last time we were in Little Rock," Small said.
"I’m just ready to get down there. I think the fans are going to have that place rocking, and we just want to go out there and put on a show for them."