Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Nothing like getting knocked out by a one-two punch to close out the year, but I guess Hog fans have learned to take a punch in 2016.
It hasn’t exactly been a great calendar year for the Arkansas Razorbacks’ major sports programs or their fans. The Hogs missed the NCAA Basketball Tournament last spring, finishing with a 16-16 mark, and failed to make a NCAA Baseball Regional for the first time in Dave Van Horn’s 14-year tenure as coach.
While the football team posted a mediocre seven-win season, the losses were so lopsided or so tragic, it’s kind of hard to remember them winning at all this season in the emotional haze following their Belk Bowl performance.
The Belk Bowl was a soul-sucking loss for Hog fans, and it only underscored the stink of Arkansas’ season-ending loss to a less-than-average Missouri squad when the Hogs surrendered a 24-7 halftime lead to fall 28-7.
The Razorbacks melted down in the second half of the Belk Bowl to lose 35-24 to what appeared to be a hapless Virginia Tech team in the first half.
Appearances can be deceiving, though. The Hokies had been a resilient team all season, making a number of comebacks to win nine games during the regular season as well as including taking No. 2 Clemson to brink the ACC Championship Game.
Arkansas led 24-0 at halftime before the Missouri-like déjà vu kicked in. While a comeback of some sort by Virginia Tech had to be expected by Hog fans, a 24-point cushion would certainly be enough, wouldn’t it?
The Hogs wouldn’t be blanked in the second half, would they?
Unfortunately for Hog fans, Virginia Tech turned the table on the Razorbacks, whose record fell to 7-6. Instead of being the team victimizing themselves with bad decisions and sloppy play, the Hokies made halftime adjustments and stepped up their play and put the Hogs away like a bad habit.
Instead of turning the ball over to the Hogs, Virginia Tech began taking advantage of the Razorbacks’ sloppy play, and in less than a quarter of play, the Hokies turned three Razorbacks turnovers into 21 unanswered points.
The Razorbacks still led 24-21, but with Virginia Tech stuffing the Hogs’ running game and now bringing unimpeded pressure on Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen, it seemed pretty clear which way the game was headed.
The Razorbacks inability to run the football plagued the team the whole season against the best opponents. It was there in the Hogs’ razor-thin 21-20 victory over Louisiana Tech, it was there Thursday against Virginia Tech and in most games between.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema’s system is predicated on the offense and the defense scratching each other’s backs. The offense shortens the game, and the defense bends but doesn’t break. Field-position football begins with a strong running game and that never truly materialized this season, despite Rawleigh Williams leading the SEC with more than 1,300 yards rushing.
Arkansas’ tackling woes on defense were undercover most of the first half, thanks to the Hokies’ turnovers. However once Virginia Tech found some footing because of the Razorbacks’ turnovers, the Hokies began to prod the tender spots in Arkansas’ defense that had been evident all season.
Virginia Tech also capitalized on the Razorbacks’ inability to respond to the Hokies’ halftime adjustments. This has plagued the Razorbacks all season, and it is at least part of the reason fans have witnessed so many second-half Razorback collapses this season.
From an outsider’s view, it’s hard to determine if it is a coaching or a talent issue. It’s probably a combination. However, in-game adjustments that actually work are an aspect of the game all teams must be capable of on both sides of the football if they are going to be successful.
Again all of this starts with Arkansas’ running game, and much of that falls on the offensive line. Virginia Tech stonewalled Arkansas’ rushing attack, giving up just 36 net yards for the game. The Razorbacks protected Allen well in the first half when the Hokies overcommitted to stopping the run, but the Hogs up front failed to adjust to the stunts and blitzes Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster called upon the second half.
Under duress, Allen misfired and threw interceptions as he did in several other Razorbacks’ losses when the running game was stymied. The Razorbacks also had an inordinate number of pre-snap penalties along the offensive front, which only put more pressure on Allen to make something happen in the passing game.
It’s hard to say if the issue with Arkansas’ offensive line had more to do with experience, talent, or the coaching. Again it’s probably a combination. During the middle of the season, it appeared the offensive line might be coming together, but now that seems more like an indictment of the opponent’s weaknesses rather than actual improvement.
Bielema spoke of addressing some of Arkansas’ defensive issues with a scheme change from a 4-2 base to a 3-4 next season in press conferences prior to the bowl game. The change should allow the Razorbacks to use more blitzes, while attempting to remain sound on the back end. We’ll just have to see what materializes.
The Belk Bowl was an ugly end to a roller-coaster season, and a bad beginning to what will likely be an uncomfortable offseason to all involved with the Razorbacks football program.
I’m guessing there will be movement within Bielema’s coaching staff. There has been each of the past three seasons. Some assistants might move on their own volition, or Bielema might be the one making the call.
As fans, we might not ever know for sure unless a firing is deemed necessary for public relations purposes.
The next six weeks should be interesting around the program as Bielema makes staffing decisions and the 2017 recruiting class is locked down, but it probably won’t be exactly comfortable.