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Bielema coaches balance


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The name "Bret Bielema" is just ripe for parody, but the style of play really isn't.

Arkansas's 32nd head football coach has probably been miscast as a guy who just wants to assemble a bunch of lummoxes and beat the hell out of the other team's linemen. Wisconsin certainly flashed one of the country's strongest rushing attacks under Bielema's careful watch from 2006 to 2012, fittingly capped with a Big 10 championship mashing of Nebraska in which two Wisconsin backs logged over 200 yards. Undoubtedly the Hogs will revert somewhat to a grinding approach.

Wisconsin effectively neutered the opposition year after year by simply playing keep-away. In 2007, the Badgers led the country in time of possession, and no Bielema-coached team has ever logged less than 31 minutes of clock time on average. Meanwhile, the recent iterations of Razorback football have been so utterly dependent on quick-strike scoring that not once in the past five seasons did Arkansas rank among the nation's top 30 teams in aggregate possession time. In fact, the 2008 Arkansas team that held the ball for 31:04 per outing was the highest-rated that Bobby Petrino had, and that team limped to a 5-7 record.

The Petrino model was always built on keeping the opposing defense stuck in perpetual reverse, predicated on willful downhill momentum. The ever-present drawback was that an often-outmanned defense would barely catch its collective breath. Consequently, when the offensive philosophy failed, as it did against LSU and Alabama in 2011, the result was nothing short of a blowout. For as successful as the Hogs' 11-2 season was, it's hard to sustain an argument that the team was truly the third-best in the country when it had been so thoroughly destroyed in its two biggest tests.

Over the past three seasons, Wisconsin has lost 10 games, but none by more than 10 points. Twice in the 2011 season the Badgers were defeated on Hail Mary pass plays and even in the five-loss campaign that recently concluded, all such defeats were of the one-possession variety. This is not to suggest that losing close games somehow represents a salve, because that's hardly true, but Wisconsin has elevated itself into the country's hierarchy by following gameplans that are designed to keep the opponent an arm's length away.

Some have charged that Bielema has gotten fat on the so-called weak sisters of the Big 10, the Gophers and Hoosiers and such. They may point to his record against the heavy hitters in the league and scoff, but the rose-colored reflections upon the Petrino era belie the fact that Saint Bobby whiffed all four times against Alabama, split two and two with LSU, and fattened his record with plenty of routs. It's what coaches do, frankly, to put a sheen on their achievements, and there's no sin in pummeling the dregs of the league, only slipping up against them.

And Bielema didn't do that. Wisconsin had trouble with Ohio State but largely dispatched those teams it was favored to beat, and only in rare instances did the Badgers self-destruct. A mark of a quality team is not only its ball control, but also its ability to win the turnover battle: Wisconsin placed sixth nationally in 2010 and fifth in 2011. Arkansas just completed a season where it nestled in the country's bottom five, so there was an immediate need for the team to remedy its worst habits through better conditioning and fundamentals.

Bielema was obviously not the consensus pick, and opinions vary as to whether he was the truly proper one. When Long pursued and bagged Petrino in late 2007, it represented a sea change in the philosophy of Razorback football, so to many the efforts to secure Bielema strayed from that commitment. But did they really? Petrino's attack may have been modernization in form, but in substance it was taking a flyer on a cocky, middle-aged guy who wanted to recast the image of Arkansas football as a national also-ran. It's hard to characterize the Bielema hire any differently, despite the surface appearance. Bielema's press conference wasn't just the customary introduction: He showed humor, humility and zeal in a lengthy and only momentarily awkward appearance (please cease and desist with the Hog call at these events — it's a travesty almost every time). He also refused to anchor himself to a given style, underscoring his comments with the word "balance" often.

The viability of a hire like this cannot be assessed in a matter of minutes or even months. Bielema is here for a presumable long haul, and he has to make that haul up an incline that nobody anticipated to be this steep. Arkansas loses much from a team that lost much, and patience among the fan base, perpetually thin anyway, is practically gossamer at this point. Bielema's salary and profile only accelerate the demands of success, but at first blush, he seems awfully equipped to comply.


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