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Tortoise and the Hogs: Bret Bielema’s B1G Blueprint Takes Hold at Arkansas

After floundering in 2013, Bret Bielema and Arkansas are starting to find their run-first footing in an increasingly spread-happy world. The Razorbacks may not be ready to challenge Texas A&M this weekend or the five ranked opponents that follow, but the Hogs are finally forging an identity.

One of the effects of the ongoing offensive revolution at all levels of football is that the target for what qualifies as “conservative” or “old school” or “physical” keeps shifting, and often hinges more on reputation and rhetoric than on any discernible on-field reality. What does it mean to be “old school” in 2014, when even the stodgiest coaches have made at least some token concession to the inevitability of the spread?

Even in the ostensibly rugged, rough-and-tumble SEC, where one may still encounter the notion of a “gimmick offense” without a hint of irony, most attacks have made their peace with the future. While 13 out of 14 SEC teams (all but Texas A&M) still ran more often than they passed in 2013, the gap was much narrower than it was just a few years ago, when the rest of the country quaked in awe of Ess-Eee-See defenses, and it was bridged by the vast array of once exotic spread concepts that have infiltrated every playbook.

In conference games, 13 of 14 teams (all but Auburn) also attempted at least 25 passes per game. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, the architect of the most run-oriented attack in the league, is as far as he can be from a hard-core, cloud-of-dust grinder: He literally wrote the book on the hurry-up/no-huddle philosophy that carried the Tigers to last year’s BCS championship game.1 Meanwhile, Alabama, the league’s standard-bearer for conservative, between-the-tackles muscle, is putting the ball in the air more frequently and more effectively than ever. If the old maxim that teams are defined by their coaches’ personalities is true, then those personalities are clustering increasingly toward the middle of the spectrum, distinguished less by their hybrid playbooks than by their execution, and also by how often the coaches evoke words like tough, physical, and grit.


1.

Malzahn’s evangelism for up-tempo offense has a distinctly proprietary bent, including the creation of a company, HUNH LLC, which has applied for a trademark on the term “Hurry Up No Huddle.”

Someday, I suspect, Arkansas’s Bret Bielema hopes to have at least two of those words engraved on his tombstone, just below the Bob Marley lyrics. In the meantime, the self-proclaimed Head Hog remains the poster bro for the old-school mentality, the one SEC coach for whom the gap between old and new looms as real and wide as ever, impervious to any rhetoric to the contrary. Where has “balance” ever gotten him, anyway? At his last job, it was a synonym for failure: In seven seasons as Wisconsin’s head coach, from 2006 to 2012, Bielema was 56-12 when his offense logged at least 40 carries in a game and 11-13 when it didn’t. (In those 67 wins, the Badgers passed more often than they ran just once, in a 17-14 victory over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl following the 2006 season.) By contrast, in Bielema’s first season in Fayetteville, the 2013 Razorbacks averaged fewer carries in conference games than any other SEC offense except Texas A&M and Ole Miss, and lost all of those contests.

The move to the middle was a matter of circumstance, however, not design: Philosophically, Bielema hasn’t budged. Before his last game at Wisconsin, the 2012 Big Ten championship game, he reportedly clashed with offensive coordinator Matt Canada over some of the outside-the-box wrinkles Canada insisted on deploying in a 70-31 splattering of Nebraska. Immediately following his last-place debut at Arkansas, Bielema led the offseason charge to implement a widely reviled proposed rule that would have banned offenses from snapping the ball before 10 seconds had elapsed from the play clock; despite Bielema’s insistence that his only concern was for “player safety,” the effort was a transparent attempt to handcuff hurry-up offenses and ensure that defenses would have time to substitute between plays. When it comes to adapting to 21st-century innovation, Bielema is the gridiron equivalent of a record company executive who wants to send everyone who illegally downloads music to jail.

At a moment when the vast majority of college offenses aspire to be “multiple,” a catchall tag that can signify anything or nothing, Bielema is a man with a very specific vision for his new team — namely, remaking it in the image of his old one. And while that vision seems to belong to a different era, more reminiscent of Vince Lombardi than of the Air Raid, it has the potential when it works to be as compelling as any high-flying, up-tempo attack by virtue of its sheer, brute strength. At Wisconsin, the power approach worked, netting three Big Ten titles in Bielema’s last three years, with teams that averaged 38.3 points and 436 yards per game across those seasons. After a year in new-coach purgatory,2 Arkansas fans are getting their first glimpse at the template for duplicating the Badgers’ smashmouth MO.


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Two years, really, including the Razorbacks’ collapse under interim coach John L. Smith in 2012 following Bobby Petrino’s untimely dismissal.

Through four games, Arkansas ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense, tied for fourth in yards per carry and second in rushing touchdowns. In their Week 1 loss at Auburn, the Razorbacks averaged a solid 5.3 yards per carry and mounted three extended touchdown drives in the first half, only to abandon the run in the second half after Auburn broke the game open on a pick-six that extended its lead to 14 points in the third quarter. (The Tigers went on to win easily, 45-21.) Everything clicked two weeks later in a 49-28 romp at Texas Tech, where Arkansas pounded out 438 yards rushing in vintage, road-grading fashion, and continued clicking in last week’s 52-14 win over perennial MAC overlord Northern Illinois.

This weekend’s visit from no. 6 Texas A&M will be a similarly mismatched test against a high-metabolism attack, albeit one that more closely resembles a pass-happy spread than the option-heavy look favored by Auburn. The Aggies are also the first of six ranked opponents on deck in the next seven contests before a meeting with the recently de-ranked Missouri Tigers in the regular-season finale. For a team that spent the last two seasons languishing at or near the bottom of the SEC West, this is a chance not only to move up the conference ranks, but to finally forge some semblance of an identity, in direct accordance with its head coach’s blueprints.

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Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Those blueprints were forged deep in Big Ten country. Based on most prevailing assumptions about what motivates a coach to move from one job to another job, his jump to Arkansas in December 2012 made no sense. If we could convert those assumptions into some kind of equation, his departure at the time might have equaled less than zero; it made negative sense. Bielema was a Big Ten lifer: born in Illinois, played at Iowa, coached at Iowa, has an Iowa tattoo on his leg. His mentors were Big Ten lifers, too. Hayden Fry recruited and coached Bielema as a Hawkeye, gave him his first job as a graduate assistant, and promoted him to his first full-time job. Bielema then coached at Wisconsin before he was promoted to replace his outgoing boss, Barry Alvarez, who became the Badgers’ athletic director.

And, of course, Bielema won at Wisconsin. Hell, he won big at Wisconsin, which isn’t exactly a given, historically. He’d also settled in: At the time of Bielema’s jump, only one other Big Ten coach (Kirk Ferentz at Iowa) had enjoyed a longer tenure at the same school. Bielema’s retro, between-the-tackles philosophy had continued paying dividends in Madison long after most of his peers had been forced to evolve. His offense consistently ranked at or near the top of the conference and annually turned random, walk-on farm boys into colossal NFL draft picks.3 He was under contract for more than $2.5 million a year through 2017, the remainder of which Arkansas had to buy out when it hired him. At that particular moment, with Ohio State and Penn State serving NCAA sanctions and Nebraska and Michigan still clawing their way out of the Dark Ages, Bielema’s program looked like the gold standard for stability and traditional Midwestern strength.


3.

Nine Wisconsin offensive linemen were drafted during Bielema’s tenure, including seven in his last three years.

He had no professional connection to Arkansas or the South. Arkansas had never won anything as a member of the SEC. The Razorbacks were no closer to their well-heeled peers than Wisconsin was in terms of tradition, resources, or home-state recruiting. Their previous three non-interim head coaches had all been fired under increasingly sordid circumstances. Crazy Wisconsin fans might have a beer or six too many, but crazy Arkansas fans will subpoena your cell phone.

What Arkansas could offer, though, was a higher ceiling — not only in terms of money,4 but also in terms of the one rung Bielema hadn’t reached at Wisconsin: a national championship. Under the new playoff format, which had been approved just a few months before Bielema’s departure, the SEC will have a shot at placing multiple schools into the four-team bracket on a regular basis; had the same format been in place the last five seasons, the Big Ten likely would have been shut out all five years. “[The playoff] was a big factor,” Bielema said before the 2013 season. “That gives us an even better shot.”


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Bielema is making $3.2 million per year, a 28 percent raise from his salary at Wisconsin, and can also offer more to his assistants, a sticking point in Madison.

Despite winning those three consecutive Big Ten crowns, Bielema’s Badgers never so much as sniffed serious national title contention. Like most coaches, his ultimate goal is that top rung, which he believed the SEC would make more accessible — even, apparently, at a school that has yet to claim its first conference championship despite more than two decades in the fold.

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Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The irony, of course, is that Bielema’s blueprint for taking the Razorbacks to new heights is B1G to the core. The trend in the SEC is toward maximum tempo on offense, led by Malzahn and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, whose frenzied attacks led the conference in 2013 in both yards and points per game. (A&M also had the league’s most prolific offense in 2012, Sumlin’s first season there.) Arkansas, true to Bielema’s professed stance on no-huddle schemes, is the tortoise, averaging fewer plays per game in 2013 than all but two other SEC teams. In 2014, Arkansas (65.5 plays per game) has been slower than anyone else in the league except Georgia (62.7) and Vanderbilt (57.8).

It’s axiomatic in the modern, quarterback-driven NFL that run-heavy offenses are a result of winning, not a cause; the diffuse talent level ensures no team is physically dominant enough to consistently push around opposing defenses, and the only time it makes sense to try is when protecting a lead. But that doesn’t always hold true in the college game, where big, powerful lines like the ones Bielema consistently had at Wisconsin and is trying to install at Arkansas can shove overmatched opponents around.

14.09.24-SEC-Rushing-Chart-(Vertical)

Click to enlarge.

Still, the SEC in general and the West Division in particular doesn’t offer many opportunities for physical mismatches. Given that reality, it’s telling that Arkansas kept the ball on the ground on 61.2 percent of plays in 2013 despite a 3-9 record that would naturally lend itself to more passing as the deficits mount; in the SEC, only Auburn (12-2) and LSU (10-3) ran more often as a percent of their total snaps. Situationally, the Razorbacks ran on 57 percent of first downs last year, third in the conference only to Auburn and Tennessee, and on nearly two-thirds (64.5 percent) of all plays when the margin on the scoreboard was within seven points in either direction — that is, when they were more likely to be running their base offense according to script, rather than becoming more conservative with a comfortable lead or (more likely, in Arkansas’s case) more aggressive in an attempt to catch up. It was an offense fully committed to establishing itself on the ground until doing so was no longer a viable option.

This year, that commitment is beginning to pay off: The final score of the Razorbacks’ 49-28 win at Texas Tech offers some hint of how the afternoon unfolded, but the details are Bielemian in the extreme: As a team, Arkansas ran 68 (!) times for 438 yards and 24 first downs, racking up a 21-minute advantage in time of possession. Excluding a meaningless snap at the end of the first half, the Razorbacks had 10 offensive possessions in Lubbock, seven of which resulted in touchdowns, all via the run. Two of those drives were the direct result of Texas Tech turnovers inside its own 15-yard line; on the other five, quarterback Brandon Allen attempted a grand total of three passes, completing two for 20 yards.

On a first-quarter scoring drive, the Hogs went 68 yards on 11 plays, all of them runs.

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On their next possession, they went 71 yards on five plays, with the help of two personal foul penalties against the Red Raiders and (gasp) one completed pass for 8 yards.

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In the second half, the Razorbacks opened their first possession with a quick pass from the shotgun, gaining 12 yards. From there, the remaining 63 yards were covered on 11 runs, interrupted only by an incomplete pass on second-and-goal. That was the last pass Allen would attempt.

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Up next: 13 plays, 82 yards, all in chunks of 10 yards or fewer.

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To that point, Arkansas’s longest gain of the day had covered just 21 yards, on a scramble by Allen. Finally, after three quarters of body blows, sophomore tailback Alex Collins delivered an 84-yard knockout early in the fourth.

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On that play, Texas Tech went down for the count and stayed down. When the Razorbacks next got the ball back, they proceeded to kill the final 9:10 of the game on — any guesses here? — 14 consecutive runs. Excise the final kneel-downs from the box score and Arkansas averaged 6.7 yards per carry, a very high percentage of which seemed to gain exactly that.

Statistics don’t exist in a vacuum, and in the context of Texas Tech’s defense, over-the-top numbers come with the territory: Three other offenses have ground the Raiders into dust en route to 400-yard rushing days since the turn of the century, most recently in 2011, and no doubt a few others could have if they, too, had decided to stop passing altogether. But from Arkansas’s point of view, this was a mission statement. This wasn’t Navy or Georgia Tech running the triple option through a flurry of cut blocks; this was a wall-to-wall paving by a starting offensive line that averages a shade more than 328 pounds per man.5


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The smallest starter, per the official roster, is right tackle Brey Cook at 6-foot-7, 314 pounds. The largest is left guard Sebastian Tretola, a junior-college transfer listed at 6-5, 350.

Just as it was against Texas Tech, Arkansas’s priority against A&M will be to establish control of the line of scrimmage, stay on schedule with the running game, convert makeable third downs, and milk the clock for all it’s worth while Kenny Hill and the rest of the Aggies cool their jets on the sideline. A slow start, a turnover, or anything else that gives Hill a chance to build a double-digit lead will make sticking to that game plan impossible. If, however, the Razorbacks are able to reprise the bulk of the success they managed in Lubbock and keep the score within realistic striking distance into the fourth quarter, they’ll be able to leave the game confident that they’ve found their niche — even if they don’t leave it with a win. Then, it’ll just be a matter of carving more footholds for a very long, very patient climb.