FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas and Rutgers lit up the scoreboard in Razorback Stadium last season, combining for 816 passing yards and eight touchdowns – all through the air — in the Scarlet Knight’s 35-26 win.
But plenty has changed in both programs since that late September shootout.
Arkansas (3-0) and Rutgers (2-1) are bracing for what is expected to be a rough, rugged and run-oriented rematch in Piscataway, N.J., today at 2:30 p.m. Both teams bring physical offenses built around a power ground game and will highlight three of the nation’s top seven rushers. Both defenses have had success against the run as well, with Rutgers entering the game ranked fifth in the nation in run defense and (59.3 yards a game) and Arkansas not too far behind at 20th (105.3 yards a game).
So it’s hard to find anyone predicting similar fireworks through the air today.
“They play hard and we play hard,” Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams said. “We’re a run-dominated team. We play physical. We play somewhat of the same type of football. So we’re going to see who comes out victorious.”
The other important element to consider: Both teams bring quarterback questions into the game because of injuries to their starters last week.
Arkansas’ Brandon Allen is doubtful after suffering a shoulder injury in the first quarter of the Southern Miss win, although coach Bret Bielema said the sophomore remains a “game-time decision.” Rutgers’ Gary Nova was limited earlier in the week after suffering a concussion, but coach Kyle Flood said he was “very optimistic” Nova would be back under center against Arkansas after improving late in the week.
The uncertainty likely makes the ground games and defenses even more critical.
“I do think that a lot of it is going to come down to who can stop the run,” Bielema said Thursday. “I know they threw for all kinds of yards last year. It was a different defense. And it’s definitely a different offensive scheme on their part.”
Running back Paul James, a former walk-on, has been key to Rutgers’ success with and without Nova on the field this season. He has rushed for an NCAA-high 493 yards with six touchdowns in three games, helping an offense ranked 40th in the nation in rushing yards (217.7 yards a game).
Williams and Alex Collins have been the SEC’s most productive backs, meanwhile, forming a one-two punch that has produced multiple 100-yard rushers in three straight weeks for the first time in school history. Collins (418 yards) ranks fourth in the NCAA in rushing yards, while Williams is seventh (393).
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said they’re clearly the key to Arkansas’ offensive plans.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that Coach Bielema philosophically believes in the same things we believe in here,” Flood said. “He wants to run the football and he wants to stop the run and they have done a very good job of it so far, and that’s exactly what we want to do. So it is going to be a very physical football game on Saturday with two teams that are going to give it their best attempt at running the football.”
Arkansas is traveling to the northeast for a game for the first time since the 1940, when the Razorbacks lost at Fordham. It’s also the first time an SEC school will play on Rutgers’ campus at High Point Solutions Stadium. And the first time since 2010 the Scarlet Knights have played a home game televised by ESPN.
Fittingly, it also has been dubbed as Rutgers’ “blackout” game this season. The team will don black uniforms, while fans will be encouraged to wear the color as well.
So Arkansas expects an energetic atmosphere and did their best to prepare, practicing indoors Tuesday with crowd noise blaring. But the Razorbacks said they’re eager for the trip, traveling to an area of the country many haven’t played.
“It’s going to be great, because a lot of our players have never really gone up north like that,” Arkansas safety Eric Bennett said. “This is the farthest north I ever went up and played. It’s going to be a new environment, a new experience for us.”
The Razorbacks want to make sure the experience is better than last year’s game.
Arkansas’ defense rarely put a finger on Nova as he carved up the secondary, throwing for 397 yards and 5 touchdowns. On the other side, Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson completed 10 of his passes to receiver Cobi Hamilton, who set the SEC’s single-game receiving record with 303 yards and three touchdowns.
It wasn’t enough for the Razorbacks to win, watching Rutgers improve to 4-0. This time, Arkansas is the one trying to go 4-0 before moving into SEC play with a four-game stretch against ranked teams (Texas A&M, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina).
“I want to get them back for last year still, but I’m not looking at it as a revenge game,” Arkansas receiver Julian Horton. “I still want to win just as bad as any other game. … We want to win very bad and we want to keep taking steps forward each and every day and go undefeated until Texas A&M.”
Arkansas will have to prove its ground game, run defense and physical approach is up to the Rutgers test to accomplish it in a game expected to take on a much different identity than last season’s pass-happy shootout between the teams.
“I like this type of game,” Arkansas linebacker Otha Peters said. “Just a physical game. … We’re going to see who’s stronger up front — us or them.”