Arkansas searching for answers to struggling rushing attack
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Bret Bielema has made a career out of coaching teams that have the ability to run the ball effectively, even against opponents who know what is coming.
After a stunning 16-12 loss to Toledo that marked the second consecutive game with a lackluster rushing attack, the Arkansas coach hopes to kick start his Razorbacks this week against Texas Tech.
Arkansas (1-1) averaged 218 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry last season, and it was the only major college football program to produce a pair of 1,000-yard running backs in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
With Williams out for likely the entire season, and a reshuffled offensive line struggling to find its chemistry, the Razorbacks enter the game against the Red Raiders (2-0) 11th in the Southeastern Conference with an average of 142.5 yards rushing per game.
They are also gaining only 4.4 yards per carry, a stark drop when considering their first two opponents came from Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference - not the mighty Southeastern Conference defenses coming up following this weekend.
''We definitely have got to be able to run the football,'' Bielema said. ''That's an emphasis in our program that has got to come to light more than at any time ever before.''
Arkansas' run struggles began in a season-opening win over UTEP, though the final numbers - 182 yards rushing on 34 carries - appeared acceptable at first glance. However, 70 of those yards came on Collins' draw on the final play of the first half, against a sagging Miners' defense eager to avoid giving up a touchdown.
Without the Collins run, the Razorbacks had a more pedestrian 112 yards rushing on 33 carries in that game - a line that was similar to the 103 yards rushing on 31 carries they had against Toledo.
Collins finished with 54 yards on 20 carries against the Rockets, who Arkansas center Mitch Smothers said followed UTEP's strategy of moving their defensive line in an attempt to confuse Arkansas and clog the middle of the field.
''We're not going to let one game define this whole season,'' Smothers said. ''We've still got a lot of football left to play, and we're definitely going to work on (running the ball).''
Williams rushed for 1,190 yards last season for the Razorbacks, including 145 with four touchdowns in a 49-28 win over Texas Tech, but his loss isn't the only change in the running game.
Arkansas returned four of five starters on the offensive line entering the season, but it did so with junior Denver Kirkland moving from guard to left tackle and former left tackle Dan Skipper - who also played guard last season - taking over on the right side.
Bielema dismissed any questions about the line's chemistry following the moves, saying left guard Sebastian Tretola and right guard Frank Ragnow have continued to play well through the first two weeks with the rest of the group.
However, he was adamant the entirety of Arkansas' offense must improve running the ball this week and as it prepares to open SEC play with three straight road games.
''I do know this, we had our five best players on the field, there isn't any doubt about that,'' Bielema said about the offensive line following the Toledo loss. ''But we've got to get our five players playing better.''