Arkansas’ offensive philosophy is no secret. The Razorbacks want to run the ball -- a lot.
Using that power-football identity, the Hogs are showing themselves to be a much-improved team in Bret Bielema’s second season in Fayetteville. After the Razorbacks’ obliterated Texas Tech in Lubbock earlier this month to the tune of 438 rushing yards and 49 points, Bielema described his team thusly:
“This is Arkansas football, hog-ball, hog-strong, whatever you want to say it, this is what we are,” Bielema told reporters afterward. “I know at times it ain't that pretty, but it's a heck of a lot of fun.”
The Razorbacks are hoping to have more fun at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday when they meet No. 6 Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It will serve as the season’s first true test for the Aggies’ run defense.
Yes, Texas A&M played a talented South Carolina team -- one that is known for running the ball well in its own right -- in its season opener. But the Aggies raced out of the gate so quickly that the Gamecocks, whose star running back Mike Davis was limited by an injury, were left to play catchup and eventually abandon their running game. South Carolina ran the ball 22 times in the Aug. 28 opener and the Aggies held them to a mere 67 yards.
Arkansas averages 45 rushes per game. Against the Red Raiders, the Razorbacks ran the ball a whopping 68 times. Even in their season-opening loss to Auburn, they averaged 5.3 yards per carry. The Aggies, while having performed admirably in Columbia, South Carolina, still must to prove they can stop what the Razorbacks, who have the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC (324.5 yards per game), want to do.
“They're going to make you defend the run and try to go over the top and get behind you with the deep balls and keep the chains moving with the intermediate passing game,” Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “It's no secret what we're going to see Saturday.”
When the teams met last season, the Razorbacks ran the ball quite well. They compiled 201 rushing yards on 30 carries, a healthy 6.7 yards-per-carry average. The Aggies were young and thin on defense then, and while they are still relatively young, the difference in their depth and experience on defense this season is night and day thanks to the baptism many of those players received a year ago and the addition of a top-five nationally ranked 2014 recruiting class that brought in a host of immediate-impact defensive players.
But in 2013, circumstances led to a disastrous season on defense for A&M, especially against the run. The Aggies were last in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (222.3) and 110th in the nation. This season, they're better (124.7 yards per game, sixth in the SEC and 42nd nationally).
Snyder knows what lies ahead. That’s why an emphasis was placed on defending this style long ago.
“We've been working on this for quite a while,” Snyder said. “We worked on it during spring, through fall camp, obviously we had a couple weeks getting ready for South Carolina. Obviously, some of that recall is going to have to come back for some of our guys. This won't be the first offense we've faced that likes to run the ball. We thought we'd get a good dose of that in the first game this year. But they're awfully good.”
Bielema, whose offense returns virtually all of its production from a season ago, expects an improved Texas A&M outfit on defense.
“They're better and they're a more disciplined group,” Bielema said Monday. “They're still a multiple front. ... Mark Snyder is a tremendous X's-and-O's guy. Really good football coach. ... Now it's another year with him and that program, doing what he likes to do, and you can definitely see the rewards of it.”
The Razorbacks boast a large offensive line: At an average of 328.4 pounds per player, their starting offensive line is bigger than any starting NFL offensive line was in Week 1 of pro football. That group is paired with a two-headed monster at running back in Alex Collins (490 rushing yards, 7.5 yards per carry, five touchdowns) and Jonathan Williams (391 rushing yards, 8.1 yards per carry, seven scores).
Those two, combined with the play of the Razorbacks’ offensive front, have been the core of the Razorbacks' success. The improvement of quarterback Brandon Allen has helped the Razorbacks take the next step offensively, and the elevated play helps loosen things up for the running game.
“They don't abandon their run game at all,” Texas A&M junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “If they have two straight losses on the run game and it's third-and-18, they might still run the ball. They don't abandon their run game. They have a big, physical offensive line and I know their head coach used to be at Wisconsin. They would run the ball all the way up there; he has a Big Ten mentality, old-school football, ‘I might put eight offensive linemen on the line of scrimmage this play.’ It's just kind of crazy stuff and they just love their run game."
How Texas A&M handles both of those elements Saturday will determine whether the Aggies truly are an improved defense this season or if there is still much work to be done as the schedule toughens.
“Bret knows what he's doing,” Snyder said. “I spent 10 years in the Big Ten going against Coach [Barry] Alvarez, that's where he got it from. So we have to build a wall and stop the run and have great eyes on the back end.”
The Aggies sound like they’re ready for the test.
“I'm really looking forward to it,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “[Against] South Carolina we were preparing for that kind of a game and they did run it, but we got ahead so we kind of forced them to throw. I don't think we've really seen our fill of running game to this point in the season. I think we're really ready for it.”