MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It was noticeable to the Arkansas media, but the Kansas State writers and broadcasters picked up on it almost immediately. They indicated over the last two days that there is an entirely different vibe from the Arkansas players concerning the matchup with the Wildcats in the Liberty Bowl.
That's in comparison to what they sensed after the 2011 season when they covered an Arkansas team prepping for K-State in the Cotton Bowl. They say there is not the arrogance that rippled through the Razorbacks when they faced the No. 11 Wildcats in Arlington, Texas.
I was told today that the Hogs they interviewed on the floor of AT&T Stadium four days before the game spoke of the power of the SEC and the superiority of the league above everyone else in the college football world. I don't remember that, but maybe I wasn't in the right interviews or asking the right questions. More than one member of the K-State media reminded of those conversations in the past 48 hours as the Arkansas players left the room at the Embassy Suites.
“This is so different,” one sports writer said. “These guys seem so respectful of Kansas State, Bill Snyder and their opponent for the game. “Those Arkansas players four years ago acted like it was not going to be much of a game because of their experience in playing SEC games all year.”
I understand the change in attitude, or at least the perception of the K-State media. It's a difference in preparation by the head coach. Bret Bielema has spent the last three weeks explaining the history of Kansas State under Bill Snyder. He's Bielema's mentor. Bielema coached two seasons for Snyder, the 76-year-old legend in his 23rd season as K-State head coach.
Interestingly, Kansas State players and coaches understand that relationship as well as the Arkansas players. The Wildcats saw Snyder's touch in the way the Razorbacks play and think it's no coincidence. They call the Hogs disciplined, physical and tough. And, Arkansas players say the same thing about the Wildcats. None have indicated they think K-State will be anything but a tough matchup.
KSU quarterback Joe Hubener didn't have to be asked about Bielema's resume. He knew it well and said tape study of the Arkansas defense reminded him of playing against his own defense in practice.
“They’re just a solid defense overall,” Hubener said. “They’re very disciplined and I feel like they’re coached very similar to us and I think that’s part of their coach being under Coach Snyder early in his career. I think he teaches them a lot of the same stuff that Coach Snyder teaches us.”
Kansas State left tackle Cody Whitehair saw it almost immediately when he turned on Arkansas tape. Whitehair is a first team All-Big 12 performer and has started 50 the last 51 games for the Wildcats.
“They’re a sound football team and they’re a disciplined football team,” Whitehair said. “They have a lot of the same characteristics that we have. They take pride in their toughness; you can see it on film. It’s going to be a big matchup for us and a good matchup for us and a challenge we’re up to.”
There is little doubt that Arkansas has the better passing game, but the teams are similar in that they run clock with their offense. The total number of plays run in the game might be much lower than a typical Big 12 game.
Dana Dimel, co-offensive coordinator and running backs/tight ends coach, pointed out the similarities in ball control.
“It’s going to be an interesting matchup,” Dimel said. “I think they average in the sixties for plays and I think we average in the sixties and have for many years, so it’s going to be a battle.
“They’re very good at time of possession and so are we, so it’s going to be a battle of who can have success offensively and control the clock and keep the other team’s defense off the field. They’re very, very good at running the football and do a great job scheming it, but they’re also good at throwing the football.
“Obviously, our defense will have a big challenge, but for us it’s to do our job and keep our defense off the field if we can by getting multiple first downs.”
The Kansas State defense has a big challenge in stopping an Arkansas offense on a roll over the second half of the season. The Wildcats know the Arkansas offensive line is massive. KSU defensive tackle Travis Britz said it reminds of a couple of foes this season, but more massive.
“It’s really not a big deal because we’re just going to be doing what we do," Britz said. "Baylor has a big offensive line. Oklahoma has a big offensive line. They’re not as heavy and not as big as Arkansas’ offensive line, but we’ve seen big guys before. It’s just something that we’re going to have to handle, keep poise and just do what we do. We’ve faced big talent before so we just have to do what we can do and understand our blocking schemes and what we’re going to get and our techniques that we have to use.”
KSU defensive coordinator Tom Hayes bubbled about what he saw on tape of the Razorbacks, especially in the 5-1 hot streak over the second half of the season.
"The last six, they put on a show and scored a ton of points and were very effective in the run game and pass game. They just did a great job and to me, again, as you used the word evolution, it was a process I think," Hayes said. "As they’re building their program, everyone has bought in. They have some talent in certain positions across the board, certainly their running back and their quarterback.
"I think he’s (Brandon Allen) got 34 or 35 starts, that’s hard to come by these days. He does a great job managing their offense, getting into the right plays and keeping plays alive. He’s an extender as I call him because you get the great rush, you’ve got everybody going at him and he still finds a way to get it off or get away and get it off or take off running, one of the two. They just do a nice job. They’ve got a big, physical offensive line and their approach is that way.”
While Arkansas runs a more traditional pro scheme, Kansas State has a quarterback running game, rotating Hubener with Kody Cook, a starter at wide receiver for the last 21 games and a part-time signal caller. Hubener is strong, punishing runner. Cook likes to roam the perimeter when he's taking the snaps.
Hubener can throw the deep ball, but isn't so good in the short, possession type throws. He's just a 47 percent passer. He's been at his best against some of the toughest foes on the schedule. He ran for 111 yards and four touchdowns against TCU and 153 and two more scores against Baylor.
Hubener's running is built around a scheme that loads the blocking for his option keepers. Fullback Glenn Gronkowski will move before the snap into an in-line tight end spot to make it tough on the Hogs as they recognize the strong side with their defensive shifts.
“They change their formation just before the snap and you have to be good at making adjustments,” said Robb Smith, the Arkansas defensive coordinator.
They can put a pinch on the keys for sophomore free safety Josh Liddell as they force the Arkansas deep man to play the quarterback keepers. He's often going to be the unblocked man in the center of the field responsible for getting Hubener to the ground.
Running quarterbacks have been tough on the Hogs all season, but Hubener doesn't have the jets of Patrick Mahommes, Chad Kelley or Dak Prescott. He's more of a downhill runner and not as elusive as some the Hogs have faced.
How Liddell handles the quarterback runs will be as big a key as there is in the Liberty Bowl for the Arkansas defense. We've got some more keys ready ahead of the 2:20 p.m. Saturday kickoff.
Top 10 Keys to Victory
1, Stop the Run – Obviously, this has been a strength for the Arkansas defense this season. The Hogs can run the ball and they can play the run. Over the last six weeks of the season, that's been the ticket for success. A mobile quarterback in the passing game has hurt the Arkansas defense, but Hubener isn't a Chad Kelly-type runner. But he is a solid threat. The best news is that he's not a great passer and he's been trapped in the pocket more than any quarterback the Hogs have faced this season. The Hogs haven't been great at sacks, but better of late with the emergence of end Deatrich Wise as pass rusher. He led the league in sacks in SEC games only with 10. Wise may have a big day against the Wildcats.
2, The Arkansas Wideouts – Kansas State doesn't play much press coverage in the secondary. The Wildcats try to avoid the big play. That might turn loose Drew Morgan and Jared Cornelius on underneath routes as Dominique Reed, Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle stretch the field. Morgan and Reed are both coming off injuries that slowed them late in the season. Both are fully recovered. Reed's high ankle sprain appears to be fully healed. Morgan battled a trick shoulder but benefitted from a couple of weeks of rest. The Hogs have big-play ability in the passing game. Kansas State will be hard pressed to keep this part of the UA offense in check. K-State has given up an average of 283 yards per game in the passing game. The Wildcats have intercepted only four passes.
3, Brandon Allen – Left off all of the major All-SEC teams in favor of Dak Prescott and Chad Kelly, there is a feeling that Allen wants to prove everyone wrong. He was the clear third man in the race for all-conference. Teammates want to prove people wrong. “It was just terrible,” said Sebastian Tretola, the Hogs' All-America guard. “We want this game to be a show case for Brandon as he finishes his career.” Allen tried to downplay missing out on postseason honors. But he said, “I am always wanting to prove things. I try to play with a chip on my shoulder. I understand why Dak and Chad were picked. They are deserving. I just want to keep proving people wrong.” Allen threw for 29 touchdowns to give him 63 in his career, tops on UA lists. This might be a chance to add a few more to that school record.
4, The K-State DL – The strength of the Kansas State defense is a veteran defensive line. Ends Jordan Willis and Marquel Bryant have been solid. Willis leads with 7.5 sacks and Bryant has 5.5. The tackles, Travis Britz and Will Geary, combine for 17 tackles for losses and 7.5 sacks. It's a veteran group that will have to be contained by a good Arkansas offensive line. Tretola said, “They play their tails off. They are very good. I've been impressed watching them on tape. It gives us some juice because we know it's a good K-State front.”
5, The Clean Machine – That's pretty much been the Hogs down the stretch. They went from being one of the SEC's most penalized teams in a 2-4 start to one of the bests. They also were among the best as far as turnovers, too. They did not beat themselves for the final six games. The one loss was incredible because they won the turnover battle 3-0 and did not have an offensive penalty while scoring 50 points. The Hogs were plus seven in turnovers for the season. Kansas State had nine more penalties than the Hogs on the season and was 12 ahead of the opposition. Kansas State recovered 11 opponent fumbles, but was still minus 2 in turnovers. This is a statistic that should favor Arkansas.
6, Burns Can Burn – That's simple, but correct. Return specialist Morgan Burns, a starting cornerback, is an elusive kick returner. He scored five times in special teams, including four kickoff returns for scores. His 97-yard kickoff return was the decisive play in the 24-23 victory over West Virginia to end the regular season. It will be interesting to see who kicks field goals for the Wildcats. Jack Cantele made 12 of 14 before an injury in the 10th game forced Matthew McCrane to handle the final four tries of the season. He made all four. Special teams are solid for the Wildcats, per the norm for a Snyder-coached team. It was a punt return by Joe Adams that got the Hogs started the last time the two teams met, in the Cotton Bowl four years ago.
7, Weakside Improvement – Most opposing quarterbacks have gone after the youngster in the UA defense, true freshman Dre Greenlaw at weakside linebacker. Greenlaw has earned Freshman All-America honors after recording 93 tackles, second to team leader Brooks Ellis (101). But Greenlaw hasn't always made those stops near the line of scrimmage. He's got only 3.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Contrast that with what Martrell Spaight did last year, 10.5 behind the line. Greenlaw has had some time to concentrate on keys and fundamentals the last month in bowl preparation and learn the K-State system. Can he track the quarterback runs and avoid the false keys with an option attack? It will be one of the early things to track in the Liberty Bowl.
8, Tight End Mismatch – To say the Hogs have an edge here might be the understatement of the bowl season. Arkansas has the nation's top tight end, junior Hunter Henry, the Mackey Award winner. Henry has 46 catches. Jeremy Sprinkle is also considered a starter and has 23 catches, six for touchdowns. And what about K-State? Dayton Valentine and Cody Small do not have a catch on the season. Zero. Dan Enos added plays for the tight ends each week. He's had one month to come up with a few more for Henry and Sprinkle. The Wildcats use their fullback at tight end some and Glenn Gronkowski is a fine blocker with the quarterback run game.
9, The Juice – Who wants it the most? That's always the question to be asked ahead of a bowl game. Some teams want to be there. Some don't. Both teams finished with momentum. K-State won three in a row to end the season just to get to six victories and become bowl eligible. But they were hardly against heavyweights as the Wildcats beat Iowa State, Kansas and West Virginia. Meanwhile, the Hogs were going 5-3 in the SEC with five victories over the final six weeks. So who has the juice for the game? It would seem to be Arkansas, a double digit favorite. The Hogs should have more fans at the game, although Kansas State fans always travel.
10, The Intangibles – It's hard to know what kind of momentum Kansas State has after winning its last three games. There are rumors that it could be the swan song – for the second time for Snyder. It's interesting that one of his students, Bielema, is on the other sideline. UA receivers coach Michael Smith also played and coached under Bielema. Snyder is a tough cookie, but a funny guy, too. He dropped the best line at the Memphis introductory press conference for the two head coaches the week after the bowls were announced. Asked how the coaches arrived at the hotel, Snyder said, “On a motorcycle,” an obvious reference to Bielema's predecessor at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino. While Snyder was cracking jokes, Bielema teared up when he was asked to talk about Snyder's role in his development. Bielema said he was “scared” of Snyder during the two years he spent in Manhattan as co-defensive coordinator.