Arkansas Narrows Focus To One Thing: Rutgers


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith had an idea when he noticed the 2012 schedule in the weight room earlier this week.

The Razorbacks were wounded. They had just suffered through their second straight embarrassing loss in the 52-0 blowout to Alabama. And a season that began with so much promise had been reduced to rubble in just three weeks.

So Highsmith decided the magnetic game-by-game schedule had to be torn down.

“I just walked in there and I was just like, ‘Man, nothing else matters except for this week,’” Highsmith said. “We’re not looking forward, we’re not looking back. …

“It was in the middle of a workout. Everybody saw me do it.”

The “one-game-at-a-time” cliché has become a frustrating staple in the sports vernacular, but Highsmith and the Hogs took it a step further as they prepared for tonight’s game against Rutgers in Razorback Stadium.

He and strength and conditioning coach Jason Veltkamp collaborated to rip down the schedule. Past opponents Jacksonville State, Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama were gone. So, too, were upcoming opponents like Texas A&M, Auburn and LSU.

The only thing they left was Rutgers, symbolizing the redefined goals Arkansas has set for itself after quickly falling short of its preseason national title aspirations.

Arkansas (1-2) insists it can still make something out of the season. But the Razorbacks also realize it has to begin by snapping their slide against Rutgers (3-0).

“Obviously the last two games were not something that you want to have happen,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “But the most important thing right now is that I think you win this week, give it everything you’ve got, throw everything into it. … We’ve got to go win this week.”

Arkansas received a reason for hope Thursday night, when quarterback Tyler Wilson was cleared after missing the Alabama game with a concussion. The senior has been key to holding the Razorbacks together since Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle wreck and eventual firing in April, but couldn’t help on the field in the loss.

The senior will be back under center to face a Rutgers defense that has been preparing for him all week. It doesn’t change the challenge for Arkansas, which was outscored 79-10 in six quarters without Wilson. But it does add more confidence.

“We really need a win,” Arkansas safety Ross Rasner said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a must win game for us, but with Tyler coming back I think we have a great chance to win.

“I think the team morale is good. We’re putting everything that happened behind us and we have a big home game against Rutgers and we’re just excited to get out there and compete our butts off.”

If Arkansas needs a blueprint for surviving early-season implosion all it has to do is look at Georgia last season. The Bulldogs opened the year with consecutive losses to Boise State and South Carolina, but regrouped and recovered to win 10 straight.

Arkansas coach John L. Smith said earlier this week he’s confident the Hogs can do the same despite the bad start and the negativity that has followed the sharp tumble out of the Associated Press top 25 poll. Smith thought Highsmith’s symbolic gesture with the schedule in the weight room shows Arkansas hasn’t lost its composure.

“The kids are saying that we don’t want to look at anything other than the Rutgers game,” Smith said. “Which is a great statement for him to make and kind of the mindset of our football team. We don’t want to look at anything other than them.”

Said defensive coordinator Paul Haynes: “We’ve licked our wounds and it’s time to move forward.”

Rutgers enters Saturday’s game with a chance to improve to 4-0 under first-year coach Kyle Flood. It’s the program’s first trip to Arkansas and also is the first time the Razorbacks have hosted a Big East team in Fayetteville.

It’s also the end of a season-opening homestand for the Razorbacks, who will play two straight on the road at Texas A&M and Auburn. But none of the Razorbacks cared to look that far down the road when speaking to the media this week.

They can’t in the weight room any more.

The schedule is gone and only Rutgers remains.

Arkansas center Travis Swanson said that’s the way it should be as Arkansas tries to salvage its season beginning with tonight’s game against the Scarlet Knights.

“We need to win,” Swanson said. “This week is imperative. We have to win.”