AUBURN, Ala. -- Arkansas coach Bret Bielema isn’t a fan of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. He made that crystal clear at SEC media days this summer, citing player safety as his primary concern.
“When I first heard that, to be honest with you, I thought it was a joke,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said during his turn at media days. ”As far as health or safety issues, that’s like saying the defense shouldn’t blitz after a first down because they’re a little fatigued, and there’s liable to be a big collision in the backfield.”
But Bielema wasn’t joking.
“I’m not a comedian,” he said. “You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, that’s my fault. I can’t do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I’m on offense or defense.”
Shots were fired, but, of course, Auburn is pressing on with its up-tempo style.
On Saturday, the two first-year head coaches will meet for the first time since the 2007 Capital One Bowl when Bielema was at Wisconsin and Malzahn was still the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. Similar to that game, there will be a glaring contrast of styles between the two coaches this weekend.
Malzahn will run his no-huddle offense out of the spread while Bielema will play “normal American football” as he referred to it this summer. The base formations might look very different, but when it comes down to it, both coaches simply want to run the football.
“Any time you can run the football, that opens other things up,” Malzahn said. “So far we’ve been effective running the football.”
Auburn has been effective. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, averaging 315 yards per game. There’s obvious concern for an Arkansas defense that yielded 352 yards on the ground to Alabama in their last game.
However, the Razorbacks have been solid in their own right when it comes to running the ball. Led by freshman running back Alex Collins and his counterpart Jonathan Williams, they’re averaging 210 yards per game, good for fourth in the conference.
The talk has been about how Arkansas plans to stop Malzahn’s offense, but how will Auburn do against a smash-mouth style of offense, unique to what they’ve seen this year?
“It'll be a little bit different,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “There’s going to be some subtle adjustments. A lot of things you see against the spread is defensive backs running all over the place. Against a team like this, linebackers playing the gaps and some of those other safeties dropping down are really going to have to be perfectly fit, because their running backs, once they find a crease, they can really run.”
Under Johnson, the Tigers have improved dramatically against the run this season. They’re only allowing 138.5 yards per game on the ground after giving up 197.6 yards per game a year ago. They have also shown improvement in yards per carry allowed and opponents’ rushing touchdowns.
But, in spite of all of that, there are still concerns heading into Saturday.
The last time Auburn faced an offense similar to what Arkansas runs was in September against LSU. In that game, Jeremy Hill rushed for 152 yards in the first half against Johnson’s defense. He finished with a career-high 184 yards and three touchdowns.
“The biggest thing that hurt us in the running game there was not not being physical at the line of scrimmage, we just got out of position,” Johnson said. “We messed around, left some gaps open and they did a real good job of hitting them.
“It was more X’s and O’s and being in the right place at the right time than it was not being physical.”
Outside of that game, the Tigers have only allowed seven rushing touchdowns all season.
Still, it’s safe to assume that Bielema and his staff will watch the film and try to emulate what LSU did. Auburn’s defense will have to correct those mistakes and play better if they want to keep the Razorbacks out of the end zone.