When he first looked at Arkansas' 2013 schedule, Razorback head coach Bret Bielema liked what he saw with each game offering what he thought was a step up in competition.
That early non-conference schedule will crest and finish with the first road game of the 2013 slate on Saturday when the Razorbacks (3-0) visit Rutgers (2-1) in a 2:30 p.m. CST game in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Arkansas is the first SEC team to ever play in Piscataway.
"I do constantly talk about, just the way our schedule laid out, I thought our competition got better each week," Bielema said at his Monday press conference. "There's no doubt I think Southern Miss, especially defensively, was the best defensive team we've faced to this point. It was nice to see us be able to have some success."
Bielema knows that some Arkansas fans are upset that his Razorbacks haven't blown out their opponents and won pretty enough – even coming off an ugly 4-8 season of a year ago.
"You know, the process of winning is very, very difficult, but our guys are accepting every day and I'm excited to work with this group," Bielema said. "They're a lot of fun. I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying it as a head coach to be around the kids. The energy and the excitement, the personalities. It's really been a fun, fun first three weeks, and hopefully it's getting better by the day."
He knows that his team will not see the same friendly confines it has in Fayetteville and Little Rock the first three weeks.
"It's just a matter of being on the road in a hostile environment," Bielema said. " Communication. We'll have crowd noise going all week. We'll have everything we can to emulate the game-day environment the best we can. We'll probably go inside all day Wednesday so it will be even louder. Then obviously the big thing is just the guys, if they're going to have to step in. If AJ (Derby) is the starter (for injured quarterback Brandon Allen), how do those guys prepare themselves for their first start."
He says that while there were some minor adjustments to the Sunday schedule, this week Will Pretty much be the same preparation as the first three weeks.
"Same thing we've been doing the other three weeks," Bielema said. "We take it one day at a time. Sunday we had a big, big learning day. We didn't take them back out on the field yesterday because obviously we were a little banged up with our one and two-deep, but some of our scout team, just felt like for us to have the best Tuesday (practice). Today is a big day of overtime. They get to come in and try to watch some film on their own. We can't have any contact with them.
"Tuesday, I think because of going into week four we have to look at what we're doing timeframe-wise, keeping them on the field and all that jazz, with a road trip, three-hour plane ride, all those things have to factor into it," Bielema said. "Just to have them lock into the process and enjoy every moment of it."
Both Arkansas and Rutgers had their starting quarterbacks knocked out in the first quarter of wins last Saturday and leaned heavily on the running game – with the two teams having three of the top six rushers in the country right now.
If Scartet Knights starter Gary Nova (concussion) can't go, then back-up Chas Dodd - who had 15 starts in 2010 and 2011 before Nova beat him out – will get the nod.
"The things that he does well in my opinion is short to intermediate passing game," Bielema said. "They've got the nation's leading rusher. I mean, they go play-action off him. They go with a little bit of a tempo. Which I think is a change, which changes every quarterback, because he's making a lot of communication at the line of scrimmage and doing things off what the defense gives you... It's a different package I think for him, but one that they feel strong about."
Bielema says he knows a lot about Rutgers from being friends with former Scarlet Knights and current Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schaino, who was replaced by Kyle Flood when he left for the NFL.
"After Saturday, we'll be a third of the way through our guaranteed schedule before we hop into it," Bielema said. "Rutgers is a 2-1 football team. They've got great energy, play very hard. I was very close with Greg Schiano... I've been aware of what they've been doing at Rutgers for a long time. Coach Flood is an exceptional coach, a guy that I've really enjoyed getting to know. For us, internally, it's a chance to go on the road in a hostile environment to see how our guys can play that card."
Bielema doesn't think last season's Rutgers win at Arkansas (35-26) will have much bearing on the 2013 game.
Former Razorback Tyler Wilson had 419 yards passing in that game and Cobi Hamilton had a school and SEC-record 303 yards receiving on 10 catches that game game.
Nova was 25-of-35 for 397 yards and a career-best five touchdowns in the win over the Razorbacks.
"Well, I think two things: two different teams," Bielema said. "There's a lot of the guys making plays offensively (for Arkansas) that aren't here. On the flip side of it, their defensive coordinator from a year ago is now gone as well as some of their defensive players. They've got inexperience in the secondary. So it's going to be a game where obviously we have to do what we can do. But you would expect we'd be able to throw the football a little bit more than we have in the first three games and get that involved.
" Especially with the way (senior wideouts Javontee) Herndon and (Juilan) Horton and (redshirt freshman Eric) Hawkins and some of those guys are really starting to come along," Bielema said. "(Freshman tight end) Hunter Henry and the tight end grouping with Mitchell (Loewen) and now this week we get (injured senior) Austin Tate back as well...(Sophomore wide receiver) Keon Hatcher will be back this week. So there's some added weapons to the passing game that we haven't had."
Rutgers walk on tailback Paul James rushed for 192 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 28-10 win over Eastern Michigan and leads the nation in rushing with 493 yards.
Arkansas has two of the top six with freshman Alex Collins leading the SEC and fourth nationally with 418 yards and sophomore Jonathan Williams sixth nationally with 393 yards rushing.
Razorback defensive end Chris Smith had three sacks against Southern Mississppi and leads the nation with 1.5 per game for a defense that did not allow a touchdown for the first time in 26 games last week.
"I think there are four statistical categories that really determine how good a defense you are —turnovers, red zone defense, first down efficiency and then obviously anything to do with any kind of critical down situations, whether it's third down, third and goal, any critical downs," Smith said. " If you're good in those four areas, you've got a great chance to have a good defense no matter who you're playing against.
"I do think numbers get skewed quite a bit," Bielema said. " As long as I've been it, in those first four games, you can have some complete mismatches where … and then the average thing all comes into play. But I thought it was important for us defensively to work through some kinks. Communication on the sidelines, communication between the coaches, communication on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday's practices to get worked out. So I'm very pleased with the way some of that stuff's gone."
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Smith was named the SEC Defensive lineman of the Week on Monday and Collins was tabbed the league's Freshman of the Week for the second straight time.
Also it was announced that Arkansas' home game with Texas A&M oN Sept. 28 will be played at 6 p.m and be televised by either ESPN2 or ESPNU.
"I knew today it just got announced today the A&M game went to 6 o'clock," Bielema said. "One of the things we talked about was to make that game a big game, we've got to make it that way. I think they've locked themselves in to that approach."
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Bielema has never coached a game at Rutgers' High Points Solutions Stadium (52,454), which would be the 14th largest playing venue out of 15 in the SEC with Arkansas playing at two different sites.
He got a chance to scout the stadium out this summer while also checking out Florida's stadium, which he had never been to before.
"One of our donors gave us a plane for a day in a half and we flew to Florida," Bielema said. " Really just to land, check out the hotel. I'd never been to that hotel, and (took) my operations staff. I took with me my support staff, my operations people because I wanted them to hear from me how I want things done at the hotel and in the locker rooms and the set up at the stadiums.
"We flew from there to Rutgers and did the exact same thing," Bielema added. "We went to the hotel. Spent the night in the hotel actually, that we're going to be at. It's very close to the stadium. I had not been to Rutgers' stadium but I wanted to see it because I know it's a little bit unique. It's kind of out there in its own little area. The locker room set up is a little -- we made a dramatic change in what we had visualized before we went there to what we're going to do as far as locker rooms."
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