I don't see Rutgers as stepping out of its league this week. Yes, the Knights are in the Big East. But they seem built to fight toe-to-toe with an SEC team, especially one that's got so many question marks right now like Arkansas.
I have the image of Rutgers running back Jawan Jamison powering for 41 carries against South Florida. There's also that 61-yard touchdown run where he ran through tackles. I haven't seen any Jamison-like runs from Arkansas this year.
There is potential for that at Arkansas. There is talent, but you have to do it on the field. As one of the coaches said this week in the Arkansas interview room. Time for talk is over.
And I also have the image of former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano making the chopping motion with his two arms as his team was grinding through tough games over the past several years. Schiano is gone, and Kyle Flood is the first-year Rutgers coach. But it appears the Knights are still playing in that same workman-like mode.
Schiano is now an NFL coach, at Tampa Bay. He found himself in the center of a storm Sunday when he asked his players to smash the victory formation to go after New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in the final seconds of a loss. Some NFL people gored Schiano. But I tend to think it just points to what Schiano asks from his players, go until the end.
That's pertinent this week as the Knights come to the Ozarks. It should be a reminder of the way Schiano coached them the last six seasons as they went to bowl games. Tough, hard-nosed and fight to the finish would be a good summary of the Rutgers mindset. And a reminder of what Tyler Wilson suggested after the Alabama loss. Don't give up. Don't ever stop playing. We'll see who has that attitude Saturday night, Arkansas or Rutgers?
So the number one key for the Razorbacks this week is to match that mindset. The Hogs must step up their fight, their grit and determination. John L. Smith wore a T-shirt that said "grind" all through preseason. Can the Hogs do that? Are they going to grind against the Scarlet Knights?
Here's the top 10 list with that last thought first:
Do the Hogs have anything in the tank this week? So much of the summer and preseason was spent with Alabama on the mind. But the emotion tank seemed to empty once quarterback Tyler Wilson left with a concussion against Louisiana-Monroe. Do the Hogs have that grit, a will to grind and just the emotion to match the physical aspect of what Rutgers brings each week? Do they play with heart and determination?
There's been plenty of adversity over the last few weeks. Do the Hogs have enough grit to fight through it? What is the true leadership, from the top to the bottom? Do the Hogs find that grit this week after going from No. 10 in preseason to the subject of national talk shows for falling into "a mess." That's the title for the show ESPN's Outside the Lines did on the Arkansas situation this week. How do the Hogs respond to all of that?
2. Tyler Wilson
I could have put him first and that isn't to say that anyone who does is wrong. He's so important to that first area and the reason I put grit first. He might be the grit for this team. The Hogs have moved the ball with Wilson on the field and not when he's been on the sideline. He's cleared to play. No one has even asked if that means he'll start. Obviously, he will, if he's cleared and walking.
Wilson is the best player on the team. He helps it with confidence as much as good play. He's probably as important to this team as any other player in America is to his team. It may not even be close. Arkansas asks so much from the quarterback in this offense. And every player on the team knows it.
I didn't give Arkansas much of a chance this week without Wilson. But I think the Hogs win with him back in the saddle.
If Tyler Wilson is that important, protecting him is right under him on this list. Perhaps it should replace grit at the top of the list. For sure, it's as big a key as their is in this game.
Wilson took four vicious hits in the ULM first half. Any one of them could have produced a concussion. Perhaps they all added up for one massive concussion. Makes sense to me, but I'm no doctor.
Some of the protection is on Wilson. He has to recognize where Rutgers is sending the blitzes from and attack there and do it quickly. It isn't just about getting the protections right. It's about getting the ball out of his hand fast and to the right spot even if that means tossing it to the stands.
4. Run Game
This can help protection more than anyone knows. There can be checks to take advantage of a blitz. And a long run by Knile Davis or Dennis Johnson can make the Knights get out of some of their pressures.
The Hogs need the run game to help the defense, too. Ball control -- along with -- points could do a world of good Saturday night.
Davis has yet to have a breakout game this season after coming back from an injury that cost him the 2011 year. He could provide some confidence to the team -- and perhaps the playcaller -- with some long runs.
Arkansas hasn't put much pressure on the opposing quarterback. The defensive ends have to step up this week. Rutgers isn't among the best at protection and quarterback Gary Nova is still feeling his way along. The Hogs need to get after Nova to make things easier for an inexperienced secondary.
Perhaps some of that pressure comes from Tenarius "Tank" Wright. The big senior might be moving back to defensive end after three games at middle linebacker in the fall's big experiment. Wright is a proven defensive end. He can provide something that Trey Flowers and Chris Smith have not come up with so far this year, consistent pressure on the quarterback.
6. Middle Linebacker
If not Tank Wright here, then who? It likely is going to be Alonzo Highsmith. That's the position he was going to play before he tore a pectoral tendon before spring drills and had to have surgery. That's the reason Wright made the move to mike linebacker.
Highsmith has started the last 16 games at will linebacker, but defensive coordinator Paul Haynes insists that the two inside linebacker posts in this alignment are pretty much interchangeable. We'll see.
That means Terrell Williams, Otha Peters and A. J. Turner are all in the mix to add some playing time at linebacker. Williams is the most experienced. Peters and Turner have gotten more snaps in practice this week. Haynes wouldn't commit to playing the two true freshmen, but said if the game allows it they might get into action.
7. Line Play
Anytime you play out of conference there are questions about matchups. What is the relative strength of the two programs. And strength can mean absolute strength. In this case, that's exactly what I'm talking about.
Which team can control the trenches? Which team has more strength? The Rutgers defense isn't massive. Light and strong might be a good description. And tough. But how strong are they? Does Arkansas have any kind of advantage here? I'm not saying it does, but that's one of the things I'll be watching for early.
Certainly, Rutgers isn't Alabama. That was a mismatch last week in the strength category. I'm going to guess it's more of an even matchup and that means Arkansas could flex its muscles up front in some situations.
Defensively, can the Hogs win some mtachups up front? Can Byran Jones, Dede Jones, Alfred Davis and Robert Thomas control the interior gaps? Jamison isn't a massive back. He's only 200, but he can break tackles. Can the Hogs reduce his effectiveness and make Nova through into coverage?
8. Safety Play
This is a big key for Arkansas. Eric Bennett and Ross Rasner are likely going to get to play in base coverage a lot because Rutgers does like two-back sets. Can they play error free?
That's one of the questions Paul Haynes asked this week? He said the board in the Arkansas defensive room says zero errors. That's not out of reach, he said. He wants a reliance on keys and no assignment errors.
This is an area that will be highly important because Rutgers depends on its play-action game. The big plays in the passing game depend on safeties biting on run fakes and turning loose those big-tall receivers in the seams with smaller cornerbacks trailing.
Haynes didn't downplay the importance this aspect will have this week. It's really no different than what Alabama did to the Hogs. They ran it in the first half, then cut the Hogs open with big gashes with run fakes and play-action passes.
Rutgers will try to do the same. The only question will be whether or not the Hogs can do a better job without safety play and the play fakes won't cause such problems. It will come down to how the Hogs play their keys at safety.
This is primarily a look on the Arkansas side. Rutgers has playmakers, too. But I'm focusing on what Cobi Hamilton, Chris Gragg, Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Brandon Mitchell can do. They are the playmakers for this Arkansas team.
Paul Petrino, offensive coordinator, said on Tuesday that the great players have to play great. Do the Hogs get something great from these players? How does Tyler Wilson use them? And, how does Petrino spread the ball around? Is their balance between run and pass to take advantage of all of the playmakers.
The best play last week was when Mitchell blew up two Alabama defenders -- and I'm not sure I've ever seen that happen on one play -- to power his way to a first down on a third-and-5 play. The Hogs need more of that this week from all of those playmakers.
And they need to do it without putting the ball on the ground. The turnovers have to be reduced.
Arkansas is still reeling from the loss of Tevin Mitchel, the best cover man on the Arkansas defense. And, the Hogs have yet to get the solid play that was counted on from Darius Winston on the boundary side. Winston had a good camp, but coaches have been reluctant to play him much since he was beaten by Jacksonville State.
Kaelon Kelleybrew took Winston's spot. Now it appears that true freshman Will Hines has moved ahead of Winston on the other side.
Mitchel might be out a few more weeks. He sustained a concussion against ULM. He had gall bladder surgery, too.
Nate Holmes has moved over from running back to add some depth at corner, but it would seem doubtful that he would be far enough along in one week to provide adequate help. Holmes will continue to handle punt return duties.