Bielema, Arkansas thrive in role as power-run outliers

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Bret Bielema doesn't come across as counter-culture, despite his affinity for flip-flops and desire to occasionally needle college football's established powers.

Yet, that's exactly where the Arkansas coach finds himself these days - a seeming minority in the era of the spread offense.

Bielema's belief in a balanced, pro-style offense dates to his days as a player at Iowa under coach Hayden Fry, and it led to three Big Ten championships in seven seasons at Wisconsin.

Now, after two years of rebuilding an Arkansas program left in ruins following the Bobby Petrino scandal, Bielema's time-tested method of power football appears ready to assert itself in a Southeastern Conference more and more influenced by the spread.

''I definitely think it's a little bit of a dying breed, and that kind of helps us,'' Razorbacks running back Jonathan Williams said. ''Because everybody's not used to seeing the way we play football, so it's tough for them to stop our offense when you don't see it week in and week out.''

Exactly how much the Razorbacks can improve on last season's surprising 7-6 record, during which the school snapped an 17-game SEC losing streak, remains to be seen.

What is certain is how dependent Arkansas' fortunes are on the combination of a gifted offensive line and the star-studded backfield of Williams and Alex Collins.

The duo were the only major college football teammates to each top 1,000 yards rushing last season, and they return after Williams decided to wait on the NFL and return for his senior season.

Williams finished with 1,190 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns last season, while Collins reached the 1,000-yard plateau for the second time in two college seasons - finishing with 1,100 yards on the ground.

They became the second pair of Bielema-coached running backs to each top 1,000-yard mark in a single season, following James White and John Clay at Wisconsin in 2010.

Collins, who was recruited by Bielema from the time he was 14 years old, signed with Arkansas knowing Bielema's preference for a more balanced offensive approach than many of today's pass-happy offenses.

Williams, however, originally came to the Razorbacks when they were still part of the Petrino-influenced teams that led the SEC in passing. It's a switch in philosophy that has paid off in more than 2,000 yards rushing over the last two seasons for the 6-foot, 223-pound bruiser - one that played a key role in his decision to return this year.

It's a philosophy celebrated by an offensive line that returns four of five starters, one that forms the unquestioned identity at Bielema's Arkansas.

''I think every lineman here came here to play big-boy football,'' right tackle Dan Skipper said. ''And that's what we're trying to do. We're going to line up and do whatever it takes to win.''

Bielema first saw the spread's influence begin to take hold across the country while an assistant with the Badgers under Barry Alvarez. He believed in Alvarez's pro-style offense, and stayed with it after he took over as coach in 2006 and began to read what opponents had to say about playing Wisconsin.

''Week after week, it was `they're so hard to prepare for, they're so unique,' and that's why I stuck with it,'' Bielema said.

There's no turning back now for Bielema. It's just a matter of turning that belief into wins.

''I feel like it's an honor to be a part of a team that wants to run the ball,'' Collins said. ''A lot of teams having been switching up and going to the gun and spreading them out and just throwing it. And just to see (coaches) commit to both and still run the ball efficiently and pass the ball efficiently, it's just something great to be a part of.''

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AP College Football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org

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