A blank canvas attracted Bret Bielema to the hills.
That's essentially what the Arkansas football program represented in late 2012, an interim coach and staff scattered to the four winds and Fort Lewis, Colorado. There were other factors for Bielema, of course -- more money for assistants, the lure of the SEC, perhaps even a desire to escape a certain overbearing shadow.
But Bielema recognized a rare opportunity when he accepted Jeff Long's invitation to take over a program that had lost its rudder: an opportunity to rebuild a program from scratch, to stamp it with his own unique brand. After all, he built impressively on what Barry Alvarez began in Madison.
With each week in the Ozarks, the big picture vision for Bielema's Arkansas Razorbacks comes into focus with more clarity. Saturday's routine disposal of what was expected to be a game Northern Illinois squad had the look of a top 20 team.
Here we are in week 5 of year 2 of the Bielema era, after starting from scratch, and the Hogs are doing a pretty good Wisconsin bit. Granted, we won't know for a while yet whether NIU simply isn't as good as advertised or if we're simply that much better. Perhaps a little of both. (Same goes for Texas Tech, off this week but with Okie State on Thursday).
NIU, as expected, loaded the box on Saturday and the Hogs made it pay through the air. We didn't run for a mile this week, but achieved that Zen balance on offense coveted by coaches. Bielema scripted it himself last week - let's run for 215 and pass for 215, he said. The Hogs were three yards shy of that exact mark.
And the defense was superb. NIU got some garbage yards late, and with the exception of two drives, the D looked about as far away from the mess that was the last two years as we could've hoped. (You know Tevin Mitchel is back at 100 percent when he's trash talking as much as he did.)
In fact, several indicators from Saturday seemed to reveal corners being turned:
- Third downs. We made some big ones, converting 10 of 14 and holding NIU to 6 of 15 including 0-for-2 on fourth.
- Zero turnovers.
- Answering NIU's second-quarter score with a drive and score of our own to close out the half and go back up three TDs. That was HUGE, especially since the Huskies got the ball to open the second half. NIU was never given even a glimmer of hope.
- Speaking of, Brandon Allen's scramble and TD pass to Jared Cornelius on that play was a thing of beauty. BA is looking more and more like Greg McElroy.
- Defensive and special teams scores. That's what good teams produce.
Of course, murderer's row awaits. Not sure how anyone could lay claim to a tougher remaining schedule than ours. But this year's results -- outside of the second half in Auburn -- speak for themselves. Remember, we were underdogs in Lubbock and opened as just 8-point favorites against the Huskies, who had won 17 straight road games, three of them over Big 10 teams, and crashed the 2012 BCS party.
This picture of smash-mouth, ball control, fundamental football in Fayetteville is coming into focus. Not just for us: A&M knows it has a real game on its hands this coming weekend in the Metroplex. A game that represented an automatic W for many Aggie fans over the summer...now not so much. Perhaps it even represents a question mark for some.
And let's be honest. Kool-Aid aside, doesn't it feel like we've got a shot on Saturday? Like pieces of the puzzle are being added each week?
We may be 0-1 in the SEC, but we're 1-0 in the SWC (let's roll with that, shall we?) and we've owned the Aggies in Dallas.
Murderer's row may await, but so does our big picture. Can't wait to see how it develops further in Big D.