IRVING, Texas — The Southeastern Conference may be known for its stiff defense, but it’s Arkansas that possesses the league’s top offensive unit.
Led by quarterback Tyler Wilson, the Razorbacks averaged an SEC-best 37.4 points and more than 445 yards a game this season, which is 25th nationally.
Though impressive, it’s nothing new for Kansas State, which faced six of the top 13 offenses in the country this season — winning four of the contests.
Both teams will meet in the Cotton Bowl on Friday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas — televised on FOX beginning at 7.
The Razorbacks (10-2) are a team a built on speed at the skill positions with an accurate passer delivering the ball with precision. Wilson passed for more than 3,400 yards this season, while throwing 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
His targets include three guys with at least 40 receptions each, led by Jarius Wright, who is Arkansas’ all-time leader in receptions. Wright caught 63 balls for 1,029 yards and 11 TDs. Joe Adams, the nation’s top kick returner, had 49 catches for 630 yards and three scores. And then there’s tight end Chris Gragg, who has 40 receptions for 492 yards and two touchdowns.
Wilson wouldn’t go as far as to say Arkansas’ approach will be ripped straight from the Wildcats’ losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. But the junior QB did say he’s paid very close attention to what the Sooners and Cowboys did to hand the Wildcats (10-2) their only two losses of the season.
“The two games I’ve really keyed in on during film study were Oklahoma and OSU,” he said. “They threw the ball around pretty well on them and I think our personnel is very similar to that of OU and OSU — we can take advantage of that.”
The Razorbacks — ranked No. 6 in the BCS — have the capability to be balanced in their offense, as well, due in large part to running backs Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr. The two have combined for 1,077 yards rushing and six touchdowns.
But more importantly, Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said he wants K-State’s defense to have to defend both the run and the pass, which doesn’t necessarily mean the Hogs will have to be balanced.
“As long as they have to defend the run and the pass, then you’re in good shape,” he said Monday. “You have to take advantage of what they’re giving you, but you have to make them defend both.”
In terms of the passing game, Wilson said he’s impressed with the Wildcats’ secondary that features second-team Walter Camp All-American Nigel Malone, who has a Big 12-best seven interceptions on the year.
“Their corners are very aggressive and they have two safeties that make plays on the ball,” said Wilson, who completed 63 percent of his passes this season. “They’ve done that all year and they’ve baited quarterbacks into making some throws that they’ve taken advantage of. As a quarterback, we’re going to focus on taking care of the football.”
Though K-State has surrendered gobs of yards this year — 398 total yards per game — the Wildcats do have 18 interceptions, which is second in the Big 12 and fifth-best nationally.
“A lot of people are just looking at what they give up, but they had 18 picks this year and returned (three) of them,” Adams said. “They’re a good defensive team and they’re going to play hard all the way to the last second.”
Wilson also said a key to an Arkansas win is to get going early against K-State and don’t allow the Wildcats to hang around late. The Wildcats do, after all, have eight wins by seven or less points.
“They have figured out a way to battle and they understand how to win games when it’s late and all on the line,” he said. “You’d like to find a way to not have them in the game so late, obviously, but we’ve done the same thing as well — won the game late against A&M, won late against Vanderbilt, won a game late against Ole Miss.
“Both teams understand what it takes to win deep in the game. But we’d like to get off to a fast start and not be in that situation at the end.”
K-State linebacker Emmanuel Lamur said Arkansas reminds him of a combination between Miami and Texas A&M. The Aggies are the only similar opponent the Wildcats and Hogs share. Arkansas won 42-38 and the Cats won 53-50 in four overtimes.
“They’re big and physical and their offensive lineman are physical,” said Lamur, who is third on K-State with 77 tackles. “Their running backs are thick and like to take the ball down field. And their receivers get open, have good speed, like the Miami Hurricanes.”
But if there’s a team that knows receivers, it’s K-State. The Wildcats — ranked No. 8 in the BCS — faced off against Baylor’s Kendall Wright, Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles and of course two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon.
“You can look across the board at any teams we’ve played,” K-State senior safety Tysyn Hartman said. “Baylor has a lot of track guys — fast guys — and Oklahoma and then the Biletnikoff Award winner at Oklahoma State, and even Miami. There are so many good ones we’ve played.”
Lamur said the key to slowing the Hogs’ passing game is communication.
“We all know the Big 12 is heavy on passing, so that could be an advantage for us,” said Lamur, who moved from safety to linebacker this season. “They like to spread the ball out and they do a great job with their receivers. For us, its all about communication out there and awareness of what’s going on around us.”
Arthur Brown called Friday night’s Texas showdown against the SEC’s best offensive team a “great opportunity.”
“We played against some great offenses throughout the year that are in the Big 12 and the opportunity to showcase that in a matchup with an SEC team is big,” said Brown, who leads the Wildcats with 95 stops.