Razorbacks need Rutgers victory with SEC play looming

It would be going too far to say the Arkansas Razorbacks must win Saturday when they visit Piscataway, N.J. to face Rutgers if the Hogs are to go bowling this season.

Two-thirds of Arkansas’ schedule will still await them when the Razorbacks return from their northeastern sojourn to the cradle of college football. The Hogs will still have eight opportunities to win three ballgames to reach the magic number of six victories, even if they fall to the Scarlet Knights.

Arkansas (3-0) vs. Rutgers (2-1)

Date: Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013
Location: High Point Solution Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

But, it is the Hogs’ Southeastern Conference schedule that is so problematic. Six of Arkansas’ eight upcoming league opponents are ranked in the current AP Top 25 — No. 1 Alabama, No. 6 LSU, No. 10 Texas A&M, No. 12 South Carolina, No. 19 Florida and No. 21 Ole Miss. Should Auburn somehow upsets LSU on Saturday, that number would no doubt move to seven out of eight opponents being ranked.

Again, it’s not inconceivable that Hogs (3-0) could defeat three or more of those eight opponents, but defeating the Scarlet Knights would not only help the numbers game but it would no doubt bolster the Razorbacks’ confidence going into one of the toughest stretches of games any team will face this season.

After three games, it’s difficult to truly gauge where the Razorbacks stand. No doubt, the Hogs are a better team than last year’s squad, which lost 35-26 to the Scarlet Knights at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The 2012 squad was more experienced and arguably more talented, but it was utterly rudderless with a lame-duck coaching staff.

The leadership of first-year head coach Bret Bielema has restored direction, focus and identity to the Razorback program in less than a year on the job, but the Hogs’ pillow-soft early opposition leaves more questions unanswered than answered about the Razorbacks.

Statistically, the Razorbacks (3-0) lead the SEC in rushing and have the league’s top two rushers in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Arkansas is leading the conference in scoring defense and passing defense and is ranked second in overall defense to Florida and second against the pass. But considering whom the Hogs have played up to this point, those numbers mean little to nothing.

Making the situation even cloudier is the throwing shoulder injury to sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen. Officially, Allen’s status is said to be a game-time decision, but it would be shocking if he plays against Rutgers.

In all likelihood, A.J. Derby will get the start. He’s taken second-team reps since August and was on campus for spring drills after transferring from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, where he passed for 1,926 yards, 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions on 149 of 321 passes. Fayetteville High product Austin Allen, Brandon’s brother, will be his backup. Bielema said he would not hesitate to play the strong-armed true freshman if he can help the Hogs win.

Derby struggled when he stepped in for Brandon Allen in the first quarter of Arkansas’ 24-3 defeat of Southern Miss, but he was considerably more comfortable in the second half.

Honestly, there is no way of knowing how well Derby will play against Rutgers. The same can be said for Austin Allen, if he should be called upon. We just don’t know.

It will be interesting to see how long of a leash Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney extends to Derby, and just what the circumstances would have to be for Austin Allen to be put in the game.

Rutgers (2-1) is ranked fifth in the nation at stopping the run, allowing just 59.3 yards per game, but the Scarlet Knights have given up so many yards through the air (288.3 ypg.), it’s hard to know how truthful those numbers are. Did opponents abandon the run because it was so easy to pass?

Rutgers lost an overtime shootout, 52-51, to Fresno State before routing Norfolk State, 38-0, and defeating Eastern Michigan, 28-10. To me, the Scarlet Knight’s stats are as suspect as Arkansas’.

Averaging 317 pounds per man, Arkansas’ offensive line is much bigger than the Scarlet Knights’ defensive front, which weighs in at 265 per man but is extremely quick.

Bielema has hinted at opening up the offense, and that may very well happen, but expect the Hogs to try and mash Rutgers between the tackles and shorten the game as long as the Scarlet Knights don’t pull away from the Hogs. Arkansas’ running game has strengthened in the second half as it has worn its opponents down. Bielema is fond of saying most teams don’t enjoy playing four quarters of football the way his Hogs play.

It will be interesting to see how many passes UA play-caller Chaney will dial up on the Scarlet Knights. If the Hogs can get by with their ground game, it may not be many, but expect Arkansas to establish the threat early to keep Rutgers on their toes.

Here is where Arkansas’ receivers and tight ends must step up. They will likely see man coverage. They have to get open and catch anything near them, or the day could be a long one for the Hogs.

Rutgers starting quarterback Gary Nova has been dealing with concussion-like symptoms this week, but is listed as the probable starter. He torched the Razorbacks last season with five touchdown passes and 397 yards passing. Even if he is on the shelf, backup Chas Dodd, a senior, is more than capable, having passed for 3,000 yards in his career before being overtaken for the starting role by Nova last year.

While Hog fans are wary after the passing onslaught Nova unleashed at Fayetteville a year ago, the Scarlet Knights also boast the nation’s leading rusher in Paul James. If he is able to punish the Hogs for anywhere near his 164 ypg. average, the trip may be an unhappy one for the Razorbacks.

I’m not a gambler — I’ve seen too many weird things happen to risk money on 18- to 23 year olds — but it’s interesting to note that the Hogs opened the week as a 6-point favorite but fell back to a 1.5-point underdog by Thursday, likely because of the uncertainty at quarterback.

Basically, the odds makers are saying the game is too close to call, and based on facts, I’d have to agree.

However, I “think” the Razorbacks are the more talented team across both fronts, and that they will dominant the clock and eventually win by 10 or more.

I expect the Razorbacks’ game plan to be conservative to protect the quarterback if the defense plays well enough to allow it to be, but if the game turns into a shootout, the Hogs have to pull out all the stops. The opportunity for a victory is too important to let it go by the wayside.