Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS FOOTBALL:
Bielema: Offense must complement defense
Bret Bielema (right) will make $3.2 million per year as head coach at Arkansas.
FAYETTEVILLE Bret Bielema was a gritty player at defensive tackle at Iowa.
Bielema’s teams have reflected his burly approach in his time as a head coach and defensive coordinator.
During his seven years at Wisconsin, only one of his teams averaged less than 200 rushing yards per game.
And when it came to stopping the run, the Badgers ranked in the NCAA’s top 30 three times in the past four years and never lower than 60th during his tenure.
But Bielema’s Wisconsin teams played with brains as well as brawn, rarely committing penalties and turnovers. A good illustration came in 2011 when the Badgers led the nation in fewest turnovers (9) and fewest penalties per game (3.15).
“If you follow my track record the last several years at Wisconsin, we don’t give the ball away, we don’t make dumb mistakes, we aren’t penalized, we don’t put ourselves in position to fail before we snap the ball,” Bielema said.
Offensively, Bielema’s teams have traditionally built powerful lines with the ability to play ball control, but his new offensive coordinator,Jim Chaney, has been known for more wide-open attacks.
Melding their styles to fit Arkansas’ offensive personnel will be their charge in 2013.
“Without any question, make no bones of that, balance is what we’re looking for all the way,” Chaney said.
“I think your offensive and defensive philosophies have to be married together,” Bielema said. “There are some teams that may be really, really good on offense but their defense is terrible because of the pace that they play and the problems they put their defense in.”
That description could be applied to Arkansas for parts of the past few seasons. Wisconsin, however, has been consistently stout.
Wisconsin finished in the top 20 in total defense in five of his seven years, including each of the past four, and never lower than 38th.
The Badgers’ worst year on defense under Bielema, when they allowed 357 yards per game in 2007, is better than all but two of the past seven seasons for the Arkansas defense. Its annual average in that span comes out to 366 yards allowed per game.
Bielema hasn’t gone into great detail about the schemes he plans to run at Arkansas, but he gave strong indications in a teleconference just before Christmas, saying the Razorbacks would not pursue an up-tempo style on offense and would work from a base 4-3 on defense.
“Offensively, it was very apparent to me that things maybe I grew accustomed to at Wisconsin weren’t already in the base here at Arkansas,” Bielema said. “You can’t just force-feed something into a situation.”
Bielema’s offenses have gained 51 percent of their yardage on the ground, running the ball on 65 percent of their plays, according to statistics released by Arkansas.
Bielema went with Chaney because he’s had experience, and success, working in Spread and pro-style offenses.
“There are a lot of great offensive philosophies out there,” Bielema said. “The things that I’ve seen work on the biggest stages have been offenses that can be consistent in what they’re doing. They move the chains, they score touchdowns in the red zone, they don’t beat themselves before the ball is snapped.”
Bielema’s aim is to average 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game. That kind of balance typically leads to positive results. Three of his Wisconsin teams pulled off the 200-200 average, and the 2010 Badgers came up just short while averaging 199.5 passing yards per game. The combined record of his 200-200 teams in 2007, 2009 and 2011 was 30-10.
With Russell Wilson under center in 2011, the Badgers averaged 235 rushing yards and 234 passing yards per game while ranking 14th in total offense. In comparison, Arkansas passed for 300 yards per game that season, rushed for 137 yards per game and ranked No. 29 nationally in total offense.
“Everybody assumes he’s a grind-it-out run guy, but there’s a lot of firepower in his offense,” Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long said on the day Bielema was introduced as coach. “And he and his offensive coordinator are going to adapt that to the skills that they have.”
The Razorbacks had a quick-strike passing attack in 2010 and 2011, but both of those Arkansas teams averaged fewer points per game than the Badgers.
Arkansas’ inability to produce a bruising run game to protect leads, which was most evident in its 34-31 overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe this season, not only hurt in its ability to work the clock, it punished the Razorbacks’ defense.
“I do think to win a championship we’re going to have to be stronger on defense,” Long said. “And I think that to be stronger on defense, there is some kind of offensive strategy you employ to help make your defense better and vice versa.”
Too often under Bobby Petrino, plays were called and fourth-down gambles were taken with seemingly little regard for their impact on the defense.
Asked on ESPN’s College Football Live recently whether the style he employed at Wisconsin would be a good fit at Arkansas, Bielema said, “I’ve always admired coaches that maximized their personnel the best. And obviously they’re going to have a personnel scheme here that isn’t quite a fit for what we did at Wisconsin right away. We’ll transition to that.”
Defensively, Bielema will need to bulk up the front seven to continue the run stopping success his teams have enjoyed. Arkansas, with a veteran defensive front backed up by a young linebacker corps, ranked No. 20 against the run in 2012, the best statistical finish for the Hogs’ offense or defense.
“The scheme that we employ is going to be adjustable based on the personnel that we have there at Arkansas,”defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “It’s going to be adjustable based on what we have to do to stop our opponents.
“Everybody has a strong conviction and belief in what they do schematically, and I have that. I also understand it’s got to be flexible to fit one, the personnel and two, the opponent we have to stop and defend on a weekly basis.”
Bielema’s defensive staff has heady credentials. Ash and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge followed him from Wisconsin, while linebackers coach Randy Shannon has a national reputation for his work as defensive coordinator at Miami before taking over as the Hurricanes’ head coach for four seasons beginning in 2007. His Miami defenses ranked in the top 10 in five of his six seasons as defensive coordinator from 2001-2006, and he was named Defensive Coordinator of the Year in 2005 by Rivals.com.
Cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson served last season as Arkansas’ linebackers coach, giving the players a touchstone to the previous staff, along with Bobby Allen, who remained with the program as director of high school relations.
Sports, Pages 15 on 01/15/2013