Before the start of spring practice in late May, Bret Bielema noticed a change in his program. It was Year 2 for him at Arkansas, and the dark days of Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith were fading into the distance. Bielema saw fewer heads down, better communication and a renewed sense of focus. He saw more physical, tough players, which was the goal all along.
Bielema couldn't turn around Arkansas in an instant. His brand of football -- smash-mouth, old school football, that is -- requires time and patience. The losing got old last season, of course, but there was some solace outside the final score. The games were close. On average, Arkansas entered the fourth quarter of games against Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M down by less than a touchdown.
But the divide between building and breaking through is cavernous. Looking at his players through spring and fall camp, Bielema saw the gap closing.
On Saturday at Texas Tech, Arkansas broke through, snapping a losing streak against Power 5 teams that dated back to 2012. And not only did the Razorbacks win big, they won their way, abusing the Red Raiders with a power running game that produced 438 yards and seven touchdowns. "Normal American football," as Bielema so famously described it, won the day.
"When I left Wisconsin we had been winning a long time," Bielema told ESPN on Sunday evening. "It was very hard to see our guys here do anything but that.
"When you haven't tasted success, when you haven't felt those things, it's tough to get it going. But I think we're stepping in the right direction now."
Bielema admitted that there were times last season where, "I don't know if we took the field with 100 percent conviction of expecting success." There was a belief that things would get better, but not much evidence to back it up. Against Texas Tech, there finally was.
Jonathan Williams rushed for 145 yards and four touchdowns. Alex Collins, a star recruit in Bielema's first signing class, carried the ball 27 times for 212 yards and two touchdowns. Their skepticism about sharing carries turned into a full-fledged belief that there is "strength in numbers," Bielema said.
In a day and age of spread offenses, it was a win in the column of the committed.
"The game has evolved so much while we have stayed consistent," Bielema said. "We have remained very, very firm in our beliefs and my philosophy of recruiting a certain player to play in this offense.
"Those programs that don't recruit fullbacks and tight ends and linemen the way we do, it makes us really get a niche on those players. We really truly can go coast to coast and recruit the best linemen in the country. We did it when I was at Wisconsin and we're doing it now."
Arkansas may not play with pace, but it uses plenty of force, and it's a wake-up call to the increasing number of teams that value speed over power.
"Programs just don't have anyone on their roster to emulate a 250-pound fullback," Bielema said. "They don't have a 280-pound tight end. They don't have a roster of 330-pound linemen to simulate that."
Texas Tech learned the hard way.
But how will that translate for Arkansas moving forward?
"In SEC play we have to be a lot more balanced and there might be games where we have to throw it more than we run it," Bielema said. "It's just with that game on the road against that type of offense I thought we had to monopolize the clock and take the wind out of them."
Brandon Allen, Arkansas' second-year starting quarterback, will have to become more involved. He was efficient against Texas Tech, completing 6 of 12 passes for 61 yards, but not inspiring.
"Our numbers aren't huge in volume, but they've been very, very productive numbers," Bielema said. "They've done what we've asked them to do. ... It's been the perfect storm to keep our passing game quiet, and we all feel it's one of the best kept secrets in the SEC right now."
A win at Texas Tech isn't the end of the turn around at Arkansas. It's probably just the beginning. But in terms of perception and recruiting, it was a huge step in the right direction.
With five coaches recruiting Texas -- "We talk all the time about Tex Hogs," Bielema said -- the Lone Star State might be ripe for the picking. Maybe there Arkansas can continue to grow.
"To get a win on Saturday on the national stage, that said a lot for our program," Bielema said. "It does a lot for our recruiting, it does a lot for our players' confidence and, more than anything else, it gives the Hog nation something to smile about.
"There have been some dark days the last couple of years. If they even just began to see what we're doing on the field, it's very positive."