FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is dealing with plenty of problems this week, struggling to find solutions after suffering through two straight embarrassing losses.
The tailspin has knocked the Razorbacks from their top 10 preseason ranking and wiped away their lofty goal of competing for a national title.
But Rutgers doesn’t exactly care about Arkansas’ turmoil.
Its goal is to improve to 4-0 for just the third time since 1980.
“It’s what we prepared for all offseason,” cornerback Logan Ryan said in an interview on the school’s website. “Those hot summer days and all those workouts and everything we do, to play big-time football down there.”
The Scarlet Knights will get that opportunity Saturday, traveling to Fayetteville for the first meeting between the schools. Rutgers is 5-11-1 all-time against SEC teams, but hasn’t played anyone from the conference since beating Vanderbilt 37-34 in 2004. The win came before the SEC began its string of national championships.
Arkansas hasn’t proven to be one of those title-worthy teams because of its slide, but Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said it won’t change his team’s motivation this week as it tries to build on last Thursday’s 23-13 win at South Florida in a Big East game.
“I think they are just a dangerous team in general regardless of what their record is,” Flood said. “They are as physically talented a group as any group we’ll play all year.”
The game is the first of a home-and-home series between the schools.
Neither team is ranked, which is hard to imagine after the Razorbacks opened the year No. 8. Rutgers is creeping into the conversation after three straight wins, though, receiving votes in last week’s Associated Press poll.
Quarterback Gary Nova said a win against Arkansas would help the Scarlet Knights even if Arkansas’ struggles continue this season.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Nova said. “This is the reason why you play Division I football, for games like this on the national level. It’s a great opportunity for this program to obviously take the next step and be recognized on the national level.”
Rutgers is accomplishing it so far in its first season under Flood, who moved into the position after Greg Schiano left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason.
Flood was an assistant on Schiano’s staff for the previous seven seasons, playing a role in Rutgers’ recent rise. The Scarlet Knights were a combined 27-86 during a 10-year period from 1995-2004, struggling to gain ground in the Big East.
But Rutgers registered its first winning record in 10 seasons in 2005 and hasn’t looked back. Schiano’s teams were a combined 56-33 the past seven seasons, which included bowl games in six of those years.
“I remember Rutgers as being just horrible years ago,” said Arkansas coach John L. Smith, who coached against Rutgers while at Louisville and Michigan State. “They’ve built a major, major program. They’re formidable. … They can beat anybody.”
Rutgers did beat South Florida on the road in its Big East opener last Thursday, surviving a penalty-plagued performance to grab its third win.
Running back Jawan Jamison led the way on offense, logging 41 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown in the win. He ranks seventh in the nation in rushing yards (393) and has topped the 100-yard mark in four straight games dating back to 2011.
Rutgers has been strong defensively, too, with linebacker Khaseem Greene, who was named the Big East’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. The Scarlet Knights are ranked fifth in the nation in scoring defense (8.3 points a game) and 12th in total defense (249.3 yards a game).
“When I watch them on film, they remind me a lot of what we saw from Texas A&M last year,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “They rely on their scheme a lot to move around with different blitzes, different looks. It’s a challenge.”
Flood was asked about the chaos that seems to be surrounding the Razorbacks this week and said “the mood in their locker room” isn’t his concern. His only goal is to make sure Rutgers takes advantage of its opportunity and enjoys a successful trip.
“This game is important because it’s the only game we get to play this week,” Flood said. “It’s not important because the team we are playing is from any particular conference around the country. … So regardless of who our opponent, our goal this week is to be 1‑0. It has nothing to do with the conference they play in.”