After getting over the initial surprise of the announcement of Bret Bielema as Arkansas’ next head football coach last December, some fans began to have flashbacks to the Ken Hatfield and Houston Nutt eras of Razorbacks football. Both ex-coaches, while successful, left something to be desired to more than a few members of Arkansas’ fan base, namely a pleasing passing game.
Bielema’s reputation at Wisconsin was as a ground-and-pound coach who eschews the up-tempo spread offenses that are all the rage both on the high school and college landscapes.
Upon the introduction of Bielema to the state, the new head Hog and Arkansas’ publicity mill emphasized the term offensive balance to offset some of the worries of fans who had grown to adore Bobby Petrino’s air attack. A check of Bielema’s seven-year record at Wisconsin supported the talk. Overall, Bielema’s offenses were balanced in terms of yardage gained, and his results were unquestionable with seven winning seasons an three Rose Bowl appearances.
Arkansas (2-0) vs. Southern Miss (0-2)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 14
Time: 11:21 a.m.
Location: Reynolds Razorback Stadium
TV: SEC TV
Such talk allayed Hog fans’ fears or at least pushed them to the backburner during the spring and summer. Everyone wants to get on board the new head coach’s train. Bielema’s record speaks for itself. He’s a gregarious people person who’s not afraid to stand his ground. The players love him, but he also demands accountability and is meticulously detail oriented.
Bielema truly seems to possess the best qualities of Arkansas’ last two coaches, wrapped in one package with their prime deficiencies left out. His football philosophy is sound. He’s fruit from the Hayden Fry coaching tree, whose roots extend from the fertile soil of Arkansas legend Frank Broyles’ fantastic coaching staves of the 1960s and ’70s.
However, when Arkansas’ offense sputtered in the second and third quarters of the Razorbacks’ 31-21 victory over Samford last week in Little Rock, the anxiety began to rise among some Hog fans. The passing game failed on a couple of first downs during this period, leaving Arkansas behind on the chains.
When Samford punched in a Razorback turnover for a 21-17 third-quarter lead, Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney cut their losses and leaned on the Bulldogs with their rushing attack to salt the game away in the fourth quarter with 163 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The Hogs could have tacked on another meaningless score, but Bielema opted for the classy route and ran out the clock without throwing a pass in the final frame.
A year ago, Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino stubbornly pressed the issue by passing the Razorbacks into oblivion with starting quarterback Tyler Wilson out of the game with a concussion. The miscalculation led to an overtime loss that destroyed the morale of the team. Thankfully, Bielema and Chaney avoided such a Waterloo.
But worried fans have asked where is the balance this week? Fair question.
Here’s a stab at the answer. The type of balance Bielema and most coaches espouse isn’t simply passing as much as a team runs, but rather the ability to do either effectively when necessary. To achieve that in Bielema’s system, the Razorbacks must first establish the run, and that’s just what the Hogs were doing last week in the third and fourth quarters. The better the Razorbacks run the football, the more effective their play-action passing will be. To run effectively, the Hogs must have confidence in their ability to do so.
In Arkansas’ preconference games, Bielema and Chaney are establishing an offensive identity for the Hogs, which they hope to build upon throughout the season and in the future. What needs to be understood, it’s not a one-season project, and there will be growing pains like the ones suffered last week against Samford.
The victory wasn’t the gaudy one fans expected, but it did give this burgeoning Razorback team the opportunity to overcome a challenge, which should pay dividends in the future.
Certainly, grinding Samford into the ground isn’t the same as rushing the ball down a Southeastern Conference opponent’s throat, but it was good practice, and that’s just what this inexperienced Hogs team needed.
Until Bielema and his staff bring more talent into the program, don’t expect the Hogs to post a lot of blowouts. In Bielema’s system, big scoring efforts will be determined as much by the defense as the offense. That might sound counterintuitive at first blush, but it’s not.
While extremely explosive teams like Oregon or Texas A&M can overwhelm some opponents with shear offensive firepower, the key to most blowouts is forcing turnovers. Turnovers give the offense extra opportunities to score and often times a short field, while at the same time, deny the opposing offense an opportunity. The best defenses make it easy on their offenses to gain points.
Currently the Razorbacks aren’t talented or experienced enough at linebacker and in the secondary to truly create they type of chaos necessary to force a ton of turnovers in SEC play. They can and likely will improve as the year moves along, but the level of competition is about to skyrocket, and in many cases the Razorbacks will do well to hold their own.
Likewise, the Razorbacks’ receiving corps and return men are unproven and likely short on talent, which negates some quick-strike opportunities.
Expect close games throughout this season, unless the Razorbacks continue to turn the ball over themselves like they did twice against Samford. If that happens, there likely will be some blowouts of the unpleasant variety.
What to Watch
Short of a meltdown, the Razorbacks should administer Southern Miss (0-2) its 15th consecutive loss on Saturday, extending the nation’s longest FBS losing streak. In looking at the Golden Eagles results and stats this season, it’s hard to say much about their team other than they throw the ball a lot.
No doubt, Arkansas’ linebackers and secondary will be tested by the Golden Eagles, and if Southern Miss cleans up their turnover situation, the Hogs could be in for a long day.
Notice if the return of starting outside linebacker Jarrett Lake, who missed the Samford game because of an undisclosed disciplinary action, shores ups some of the coverage issues that were apparent last week.
Ultimately, Arkansas’ defensive line, bolstered by the return of starting end Trey Flowers, should be too much for the Eagles to handle.
Offensively, watch the Razorbacks’ receiving corps. Senior receiver Javontee Herndon and freshman tight end Hunter Henry have been sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen’s go-to guys. Can Allen work other receivers more into the mix? More production is needed from senior receiver Julian Horton, although Allen did miss him last week for an almost certain touchdown pass on a flea flicker when he threw to a covered Herndon.
It will also be interesting to see if the Hogs tailbacks Jonathon Williams and Alex Collins can each rush for more than 100 yards for the third game in a row.