With news slow, why not a dive into the world of sports with friend and colleague Jim Harris’ tough assessment of the Razorbacks’ defeat by Virginia Tech yesterday in the Belk Bowl.
He said more sharply what some hometown reporters seemed to be reluctant to say. Might leadership, both on the field and in the athletic administration, be lacking?
By Jim Harris
Jeff Long has given a ridiculous, mostly one-ended buyout contract to Bret Bielema that guarantees eight figures to send him away, so urging that the head coach be shown the door after Thursday night’s second-half debacle and 35-24 Belk Bowl loss to Virginia Tech in Charlotte, N.C., is wasted breath.
But frankly, after his Razorbacks blew a 24-0 halftime lead with a second half that was as comical as it was stunning, it’s hard to imagine Bielema ever can get the majority of the Razorback fan base back on his side. No amount of “Being Bret Bielema” and daily reports of Baby Bielema’s progress will change that. He wouldn’t win a popularity contest with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Wisconsinites were laughing Thursday night with a “we told you so,” that at first glance four years ago read like scorned-fan bitterness, just as Ole Miss fans scoffed at Hog faithful who warned them in 2009 what they were getting with Houston Nutt. The rest of the SEC, having long tired of Bielema’s blowhard pronouncements since his arrival in Fayetteville, were chortling at the complete collapse of an “uncommon” squad of players and a sideline of coaches that seemed as lost as their charges.
ESPN color commentator Ed Cunningham was chuckling when Virginia Tech took the lead for good with its 27th and 28th points with nearly a full quarter still to play. When it was over, Cunningham was proclaiming it a “comeback for the ages” for the Hokies.
It was also a loss for the ages for the Razorback football program, and one that leaves many Hog faithfully wondering if the wrong guy is in charge of the football program.
Long, as athletic director, should be feeling some heat too as he tries to sell more end zone skyboxes and lords over a still mediocre basketball program. Thursday night was a double whammy, with North Little Rock native KeVaughn Allen (21 points) and Florida coming into Bud Walton Arena and in control throughout in a 9-point, SEC-opening win over Mike Anderson’s sixth edition of Razorbacks.
This comes fresh off the Hogs’ blowing of a 17-point halftime lead at Columbia, Mo., on the day after Thanksgiving. Maybe Arkansas fans should take solace in knowing that if a terrible Missouri squad could overcome Arkansas’s 24-7 halftime lead, a quality team like Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up and 9-win Virginia Tech, which was used to making furious second-half rallies, was quite capable with athletes on both sides of the ball to turn the Belk Bowl around after halftime, especially if the Hogs relaxed.
This time, though, Bielema promised Arkansas would play a full four quarters. And, it’s not that the Razorbacks quit playing after halftime. In fact, some like senior receiver Drew Morgan may have tried to do too much to assure a 24-point halftime edge wouldn’t go to waste, and it backfired. Morgan, ever the great competitor whose UA career shouldn’t be remembered just for this last 30 minutes, which included his late ejection for spitting on a Hokie, struggled for extra yardage among a few ball-hawking Hokie defenders to extend the Hogs’ first possession of the second half. He coughed up the ball, setting up a quick Tech touchdown to put the favorites finally on the scoreboard.
Then, the very next series, Morgan had beaten the Hokie safety deep and took in a perfect Austin Allen deep throw, broke from a tackle attempt near the 10 and stretched the ball toward the goal line. And somehow he lost it. The Big 12 officiating crew, which displayed a level of incompetence throughout that made the worst examples of SEC crews seem good, ruled the ball had bounced into the end zone before going out of bounds, a touchback. Arkansas only maintained possession because the Hokie defensive back had been flagged at the line of scrimmage for a personal foul shot to the head on Morgan. But the Hogs didn’t have the ball at the lip of the goal line now but back on their end, and three snaps later they were punting – and were never the same.
Junior quarterback Austin Allen certainly was never the same, with a sudden loss of composure we had not seen all year during his team MVP season. With the Hogs still up 17 and the UA defense still playing the game of its year, Allen forced a third-down pass into double coverage in the middle of the field and was intercepted. Big junior quarterback Jerod Evans and the Hokies drove from the Hogs’ 44 to close the gap to 10 points.
Just ONE PLAY after the Virginia Tech score, Allen threw behind redshirt freshman tight end Austin Cantrell, and the ricochet off Cantrell’s fingers fell into a Hokie’s arms at the Hog 14, setting up a one-play, 5-yard scoring drive. Now, the partisan Hokie crowd in the stadium was fully engaged and the Hog fans, so loud for 30 glorious minutes of the first half, suddenly realized they’d seen this train wreck before.
Virginia Tech’s only sustained drive of the night put the Hokies ahead 28-24 with 12 minutes to play. Arkansas, unable to run the ball even against five men in the box (36 rushing yards for the game) and six defending the pass, showed nary a sign of threatening to rally anyway, but Allen quickly ended any doubt with yet another terrible sling to a Hokie d-back to set up yet another short drive.
The difference in Arkansas’s play from first half to second was staggering. The Hogs steamrolled the Hokies offensively early with a great mix of play calls and an opportunistic defense, one that forced and recovered a fumble on the game’s first play at the Hokie 26, that recalled past, stirring Arkansas bowl upsets as a decided underdog.
Players who had been hardly counted on during the year were making huge plays. Young, speedy Deon Stewart, filling in for the injured wideout Jared Collins, made two catches and set up an Allen quarterback sneak for a score. Redshirt freshman tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, heavily needed with senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle suspended for alleged shoplifting on a Belk Bowl-sponsored $450, 90-minute shopping spree, at a Belk store no less, was left alone down the middle of the field for a 28-yard scoring strike from Allen. Senior Keon Hatcher, playing at the top of his game, made an NFL play at the left pylon of a perfectly spun Allen pass for 12 yards and another touchdown.
To that point, Allen had hit nine passes in a row and could do no wrong. Arkansas couldn’t run with SEC-leading back Rawleigh Williams, but Allen was carving up the Gobblers, as VaTech was once known, which it was also known as ol’ VPI, too. The offense to that point had been nearly mistake-free, the mostly maligned line giving its quarterback good protection while not stopping drives with penalties and mental mistakes.
Arkansas and Virginia Tech fans alike couldn’t believe what they were seeing, with Arkansas up 24-0 and more than half of the second quarter still to play. Signs of cracking started appearing as the second quarter waned, though, when the Hogs failed to pad the lead. Then respective fan bases merely change roles for a second half that will live in infamy in Arkansas for a very long time.
Follow Jim Harris on Twitter @jimharris360