Bret Bielema's Arkansas team showing similarities to his Wisconsin teams
The 2014 Arkansas Razorbacks began to look eerily similar to Bret Bielema’s Wisconsin teams down the stretch.
Power run game complimented with great, physical defense.
Even though the on-field product in Fayetteville is beginning to resemble that of Bielema’s old teams, don’t be mistaken, the circumstances couldn’t be more different.
Bielema inherited a talent-laden roster as a young head coach taking over for the legendary Barry Alvarez in Madison. He never had to undertake a complete rebuilding project as he has at Arkansas.
The Razorbacks’ roster was decimated with little talent when Bielema took over, the effects of which are still visible.
Even though the head coach and philosophy is the same, it will take some time before you can really compare Bielema’s Wisconsin teams and his Arkanasas team.
He’s building his program at Arkansas the way he had success at Wisconsin; an effective run game and a great defense.
In just two years, Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney have groomed junior Jonathan Williams and sophomore Alex Collins into two of the best running backs in the SEC. The Hogs ranked fourth in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging more than 220 yards on the ground. Both Williams and Collins surpassed 1,000 yards on the year, while the Razorbacks tied for third in the league with 30 rushing touchdowns.
Williams and Collins split time equally in the Arkansas backfield this season. Not until 2010 did Bielema have to deal with that at Wisconsin.
From 2006-08, P.J. Hill served as the guy in the Badgers backfield, rushing for more than 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons.
During Wisconsin’s 2010 campaign in which the Badgers went 11-2 and won the Big Ten title, Wisky boasted a three-headed monster in the backfield. John Clay and James White both rushed for more than 1,000 yards and Montee Ball added 996 rushing yards.
In 2011 and 2012, Ball served as the feature back for Wisconsin, with White taking some carries off his legs.
Bielema built a conference power at Wisconsin behind a pro-style, power run game. Arkansas’ identity in two seasons under Bielema has been built on an effective ground game.
First-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith orchestrated an impressive turnaround of a defense that gave up more big plays than just about anyone in the country in 2013. The front seven has been the strength for Arkansas with seniors Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight, and sophomores Darius Philon and Brooks Ellis having huge years at both the defensive line and linebacker positions.
The secondary improved during the second half of the season, cutting down on the number of big plays over the top it gave up.
Arkansas closed the regular season ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring defense, a considerable improvement over last season’s mark of allowing 30.8 points per game. The Razorbacks surrendered at least 30 points seven times in 2013.
During his stay at Wisconsin, Arkansas ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense three times.
In Bielema’s first season as CEO of the Badgers, the defense allowed just more than 12 points per game, second in the country.
During his back-to-back-to-back Big Ten championship seasons from 2010-12, Bielema’s defenses allowed 20.5, 19.0 and 19.1 points per game.
With the progress the Hogs showed on defense late in the season, Smith provided fans reason for optimism and he is able to recruit his first class and continue to install his scheme to assistants and players.
What Bielema had at Wisconsin that he doesn’t currently possess at Arkansas is talent.
Following the Razorbacks’ last 11-win season in 2011 under Bobby Petrino, the roster was decimated by departures of seniors and early exits to the NFL, along with the John L. Smith experiment. Arkansas still lacks talent, and depth, at the skill positions on offense and in the defensive secondary, and it showed it big moments this season.
The Hogs held a lead or were tied at the half in five of their six losses this season. However, a combination of lack of experience, talent and depth cost Arkansas late in each of those games.
Bielema also doesn’t have the level of talent at Arkansas he did at Wisconsin at one key position: Quarterback.
Five of Bielema’s seven Badgers quarterbacks threw for more than 2,000 yards in a season and at least 16 touchdowns. Two of those quarterbacks had a completion percentage of 64 percent or higher.
The two quarterbacks that didn’t eclipse 2,000 yards through the air and completed less than 60 percent of their passes — Dustin Sherer in 2008 and Joel Stave in 2012 — led the Badgers during their worst seasons under Bielema, a 7-6 season in 2008 and an 8-6 campaign in 2012.
The name we all remember is Russell Wilson, but Bielema’s success was aided by great quarterback play throughout.
Sure, Brandon Allen has been solid for the Hogs this season. The junior Fayetteville native threw for 2,125 yards and 18 touchdowns to 5 interceptions. He completed just 56 percent of his passes, however. Allen is good throwing short to intermediate passes, but struggles down the field.
Allen locks in on his first read, and rarely makes it entirely through his progressions. The second-year starter fails to see open receivers downfield, and can be rattled when facing complex blitz packages or hidden coverages.
Bielema made his name as a young head coach at Wisconsin, becoming just the third coach in NCAA history to win 12 games in his first season. He won 17 of his first 18 games, the second best start to a head coaching career in Big Ten history.
When he made the jump to the SEC, many questioned whether “Big Ten football” could translate to a league moving to spread offenses, average defenses and speed. Bielema showed glimpses this season that his style of play can work with consecutive shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss, the first time Arkansas has notched two straight shutouts of SEC opponents since joining the league in 1992.
The Iowa native still has work to do in Fayetteville. However, we saw late in the season that if you want to beat the Hogs, you better out-physical them or make them one-dimensional.
Because as long as Bielema is leading the Razorbacks, they’re going to run the ball downhill and hit you hard.