Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: The Running Game and the Liberty Bowl Matchup Between Arkansas and Kansas State

Taking care of the football is the first order of business for Arkansas running backs coach Jemal Singeton, but there's no question that the yards are nice, too. Alex Collins is the bell cow heading into Arkansas' game with Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl.

Jemal Singleton appreciated the stats, but he was dead serious about not knowing any of them. Forgive the Arkansas running backs coach if he single minded when it comes to statistics. It's not about yards.

Singleton looks at ball security, almost singularly. Touchdowns are great and needed. Yards per carry is an interesting number, too.

But it's the fumbles lost that Singleton underlines on the stat page. Arkansas lost just three fumbles this season, something that he's proud to state with one qualifier, that the Hogs fell short of the goal.

“It's zero,” Singleton said as the Hogs wrapped up preparations to play Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. Game time is 2:20 p.m. Saturday.

“I felt we had a really good year. I came here on a mission, to help this team have the least turnovers in the country. Reducing fumbles by the running backs helped us accomplish that goal.

“We were at the top of the nation when I looked last and that's the key stat. There is no better stat to help you play winning football than that. I think we did well in all areas and that's running backs, quarterbacks, tight ends and wide receivers. They all handle the ball a lot and they all took care of the ball.”

Arkansas tied with South Carolina with just three lost fumbles to lead the nation. The Hogs were tied for third in total turnovers, losing just 10. Navy led with seven, LSU had nine and Arkansas and Florida State had 10.

There were other goals when Singleton arrived. Primarily, he wanted all of the running backs to get better at their craft. For junior Alex Collins, Singleton thought it centered on understanding blocking schemes better.

“It was really something different for every back,” he said. “For Alex, it was being able to focus on the man he was going to have to beat.

“If you know who that man that's free is going to be, it gives you an idea of how to set him up for the cut. Maybe he missed a few cuts this year, but not many.

“Alex had a great year. He knew the reads. He knew the blocking schemes. He knew how to set up the defenders. I really felt he had a great year from start to finish.

“But it starts with ball security. He knew where he had to have the ball on each play as he set up the defenders for his cut. He always had it in the right place. He worked hard on that. You want no fumbles, but two lost fumbles (by Collins) is pretty good.

Collins rushed 248 times for 1,392 yards. He averaged 5.6 and scored 17 touchdowns. He averaged 116 per game, one of the best Arkansas seasons. He went over 100 yards nine times, second only to Darren McFadden's best of 10.

It's always good to look a little deeper into the stats. What is done against SEC competition – the best in the nation – might tell a little more about the way the Arkansas running game performed. Here's a breakdown of the last three seasons. It's easy to see that the Hogs got better this year in the running game.

Tailback stats from 2013, SEC only:
Alex Collins - 104-545 (5.2 ypc), 2 TDs
Jonathan Williams - 87-482 (5.5 ypc), 1 TD
Korliss Marshall - 17-146 (8.6 ypc)
Kody Walker - 6-32 (5.3 ypc)
Total 214-1,205 (5.6 ypc), 3 TDs

Tailback stats from 2014, SEC only:
Jonathan Williams - 129-575 (4.5 ypc), 4 TDs
Alex Collins - 117-520 (4.4 ypc), 6 TDs
Korliss Marshall - 14-66 (4.7 ypc)
Kody Walker - 8-34 (4.3 ypc)
Total 268-1,195 (4.5 ypc), 10 TDs

Tailback stats from 2015, SEC only:
Alex Collins - 172-868 (5.1 ypc), 9 TDs
Kody Walker - 61-253 (4.2 ypc), 4 TDs
Rawleigh Williams - 31-174 (5.6 ypc), 1 TD
Total 264-1,295 (4.9 ypc), 14 Tds

It's amazing that the Hogs improved in 2015 despite losing Jonathan Williams. Bret Bielema said in preseason that the Hogs were more able to handle the loss of a possible all-conference player than anyone in the country. Perhaps he was correct. But also, it's most probable that the expansion of the passing game eventually helped teh running game.

"We had to get to running the ball to make the passing go, but we had improved our passing," said Sebastian Tretola, the All-American guard. "As the season went along, we had the running game, the play-action passing and the dropback passing and it all come together the way a good offense does. Running helps passing. Passing helps running."

It will be about running the ball in the Liberty Bowl. The Wildcats feature four veteran defensive linemen in their front seven, a tough bunch that doesn't give up running yards in bunches. The Hogs will have to grind on K-State in the running game.

Conversely, that's about the only thing K-State does with any effectiveness on offense. They run the ball with dogged determination. Basically, they have about five plays for the quarterback to keep the ball, with formations and blocking schemes that vary to offer confusion for the opposing defense.

Quarterback Joe Hubener has scored 13 touchdowns. He's got 807 yards gained, with 194 in losses for a net of 613. It's not a big-play offense. The longest run for the Wildcats this season is 34 yards, by Hubener. He averages 3.4 and that's not bad considering pass protection is spotty. K-State has allowed 33 sacks.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith explained the challenge from the K-State offense as the diversity in the formations and alignments.

“They work hard to be difficult to defend,” Smith said. “The numbers say you are going to have to defend the quarterback running game. They give you so much to prepare for as far as formations. And, they will find a play that works each game and hit it five or six times.

“They have 11 different personnel groups on first and second down. That's by far the most of any team we've played. Usually, there are three to four formations over first and second down

“That makes our preparations more difficult. We are fortunate that we have extra time for the bowl game. We try to make things simple and we'll do that in this case, too.”

Smith was not surprised after talking with Bret Bielema, the Arkansas head coach who served two years on the Kansas State staff under Bill Snyder.

“That's the thing that Bret told us, they take pride in outworking you and making it difficult to handle all of the things they do,” Smith said. “I had heard Bret describe their work schedule and some of that is similar to what we do here.

“It's just the detail in how they do everything that makes Kansas State unique. Bret has referenced Coach Snyder often. We know what we are facing as far as the detail that they put into it and know that they will have some new things for us in the bowl. They always do and they will be good at it as far as fundamentals.”

The formations the Wildcats use are multiple and the numbers say their top two personnel groupings are with four wideouts and with a tight end and two backs.

“It's almost identical with those two groupings, so we know this is a game that we'll be in our base defense with three linebackers maybe 30 snaps,” Smith said.

One of the options in base is to switch Karl Roesler, a backup end, to strongside linebacker. Roesler was elevated from walkon status to the scholarship list two weeks ago.

“Karl is going to be on the field in this game, maybe like he was against LSU, at linebacker,” Smith said. “He's very deserving of the scholarship. He's been on the field more and more as the season has progressed.”

Roesler's best asset is ability to chase the quarterback with speed and quickness. That's an obvious reason for his move to strongside linebacker. He will be an asset against K-State's quarterback run game.

“He's a rush guy,” Smith said. “He's a guy who can disrupt the tight end, too.”

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