It may be too early to break down the Liberty Bowl. After all, Arkansas was working against itself the last few days as they tried to mix football with final exams.
But that was what Robb Smith was asked to do last weekend when the Arkansas defensive coordinator met with the media. What does he think of the Wildcats and how do you prepare for the possibility of three different quarterbacks?
First, Smith said there was a need to work on fundamentals. Defensive football is as much about individual technique as it is putting together a game plan.
Clearly, an Arkansas defense which gave up an average of 404 yards per game needed to improve on individual fundamentals before trying to break down a K-State offense averaging just 341 yards. That's my take, not Smith's.
But that's what Smith said the Hogs were doing. They were trying to hit “the re-start button” after some time off following the 28-3 victory over Missouri the day after Thanksgiving. And, they were working on stopping the run, against the Arkansas offense. There was also a lot of work on coverage techniques.
The installation of the game plan won't begin until later this week, although it was obvious that Smith has looked at plenty of K-State tape.
“They are physical,” he said. “They are tough. They like to run the football. I think they are going to run the football with their quarterback and they have got a really explosive wide receiver out on the perimeter. Those are the things that really jump out at you right now.”
Smith said the team is in the process this week of game planning. He said they are getting deeper into preparation and trying to “unpeel the onion a little bit more and get ready.”
The onion that is K-State offense hasn't made many cry this season. The Wildcats do try to run the football, but average just 3.9 per attempt. Arkansas is decent against the run, allowing just 3.8. So that looks to be a stalemate, boding well for the Razorbacks. But there were some defensive efforts by the Hogs that were a crying shame.
That's why it's good to get in some developmental work with youngsters like T.J. Smith, Derrick Graham, Jamario Bell, Willie Sykes, and Nate Dalton. Sykes was the only one in that bunch not to redshirt, but he didn't get a lot of snaps. All are going to be able to contribute next season, providing much needed depth for this defense.
It's with a nod towards those guys that Smith said, “For us right now we are just trying to get back to basics, try to hit the re-start button a little bit. Whether it’s dictating daylight in the run game. Or denying our man the ball in pass coverage. Just the little details of each position .. that’s what we have kind of worked on across the board and we are happy with our progress at this point in time.”
The one thing that bowl preparations allow is to really study the opposition and develop a comprehensive plan. When you look at the K-State offense, the personnel groupings dictate the way the Hogs will play. One of the interesting things to ponder, what's the personnel K-State wants to play against.
The Hogs played base (with three linebackers) against LSU and had good success. K-State might prefer to spread Smith's defense.
“One thing I can tell you their top two personnel groupings,” Smith said, “their first one is 10-personnel which has four wide receivers and it’s tied statistically with 21 personnel which is two running backs and one tight end which would have us in base personnel. So we are going to have to have both groupings ready to go and like always match people on the field.”
When the Hogs played base against LSU, they went with defensive end Karl Roesler as the strongside linebacker. Roesler did well. That's a big strongside linebacker at 6-1, 260.
Dwayne Eugene, out with a broken wrist, could be available to play the strongside spot in the bowl game. It's too early to pin down Smith.
The main goal is to play like they did against LSU and Missouri and not like they did against the two Mississippi schools. The Missouri effort – and it's clear the horrid weather was a boost to defenses that day – is a confidence boost of sorts.
“I think that means a lot for us,” Smith said of holding the Tigers to one field goal. “It’s no secret we have had our ups and we have had our downs. We want to play more like we played against LSU and more like we played against Missouri at the end of the year. We have got to find ways to do that and I think our guys have embraced the challenge. We will work on that here throughout our preparation.”
If Smith is happy with progress, that's a good sign. He knows help is on the way with the look at young players in the developmental practices and some of the speedy linemen and linebackers in the next class.
There is no thought that the Wildcats will be an easy touch. Smith has heard about Bill Snyder's teams from head coach Bret Bielema for years. It's a given that the Wildcats are improving as they approach the Jan. 2 date with the Razorbacks. Bielema has noted several times that Snyder's bowl preparations are relentless. That's a sobering thought as the Hogs hit the re-set button on defense.