FAYETTEVILLE -- The decline and likely fall under Bret Bielema at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has a few initiating triggers, such as lack of recruiting in Texas, the inability to establish the coach's bruising running style in big games, and insufficient in-game adjustments.
But the downward spiral the Razorbacks (4-7, 1-6 SEC) are riding into today's 1:30 p.m. regular-season finale against surging Missouri (6-5, 3-4 SEC) might be traced to a very specific event.
A year ago, on a gray Black Friday in Columbia, Mo., Arkansas held a 24-7 halftime lead over Missouri, which was 3-8, out of the bowl picture and playing before a lackluster crowd. The possibility for Bielema to extend his streak of increasing win totals at Arkansas to three consecutive years looked bright.
Then, the Razorbacks were shut out in the second half. Despite piling up 185 yards in the last two quarters -- and 503 for the game -- and driving to the Missouri 3, 1, and 9-yard lines, Arkansas did not score against the Tigers in the final 30 minutes and lost 28-24.
The Razorbacks dominated time of possession by 40:22 to 19:38, but their 50 percent scoring success rate (3 of 6) in the red zone was an albatross.
"We were controlling the ball all game, controlling the first half," said Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen, who will be honored today along with 15 other players on the Hogs' senior day. "First drive of the second half, marched the ball right down the field. ... We had all those trips inside the 20-yard line and didn't get any points out of it, so not quite sure what that was all about. Hopefully, if we do get those opportunities on Friday we'll capitalize and finish them out with some points."
Missouri, capitalizing on a successful fake punt from its own 7 late in the third quarter, got its deep-passing attack in gear, intercepted Allen twice inside the Tigers' 5-yard line in the second half, and rallied for the victory to stun the Razorbacks.
Arkansas suffered an even bigger second-half collapse while trying to win a bowl game in a third-consecutive year for the first time in program history. Virginia Tech rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit to claim a 35-24 victory in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 29.
It was the worst blown lead in Arkansas football history.
"The learning experience is just part of who we are today," Bielema said. "It was a disappointing second half after we played tremendously well against a good bowl team.
"We've got to play four quarters and close it out. There's a variety of different factors we've addressed and continued to look at."
Bielema's teams have not done well in the team's "trophy" games, compiling a 3-9 record. Texas A&M is 5-0 in the Southwest Classic and LSU owns a 3-2 advantage in the battle for the Golden Boot. Since the Battle Line Trophy was introduced, Arkansas and Missouri have split two games.
The losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech are included in Arkansas' current 1-9 stretch against Power 5 opponents. The Razorbacks are alone in the SEC West cellar heading into today's game.
"I realize and our players realize we haven't won all the games we wanted to," Bielema said. "We haven't exactly lost to skid row either. We've had some tough opponents."
Missouri Coach Barry Odom is expecting a supreme shot from the Razorbacks today.
"I know Bret will have them ready to play," Odom said. "I've got a lot of respect for him and his program and the things he's done over his career."
Bielema's 29-33 overall record includes an 8-13 mark in games decided by eight points or less, including an 0-9 run to begin his tenure.
Second-half shortcomings have been a consistently nagging issue since the Missouri and Virginia Tech losses.
Arkansas has been outscored in every quarter this season, but the margins are narrower in the first half: 79-69 in the first quarter and 86-83 in the second quarter. Opponents have outscored Arkansas by 32 points in the third quarter, 95-63, and by 41 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, 126-85.
"It's been talked about a lot, and let me tell you this, we have certainly made a big, huge point of emphasis on our staff and players," tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said.
"We've certainly spent a significant amount of time emphasizing those types of things and we've had some success on the back end of that," he said, referencing the comeback at Ole Miss. "We've got to play a four-quarter game. We need four quarters of good football to be a good football team."
Arkansas lost its first SEC game of the season to Texas A&M in a similar way that has become familiar against the Aggies. The Razorbacks led 21-7 in the first half and 21-17 at halftime, but the Aggies rallied behind a series of big plays -- with four touchdowns of 20 yards or longer -- and beat Arkansas in overtime for the third time in four years.
After beating New Mexico State 42-24 in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks suffered through a debilitating stretch of injuries and painful losses that have put the writing on the wall for Bielema.
Consecutive setbacks of 48-22 at South Carolina, 41-9 at Alabama and 52-20 at home against Auburn gave the Razorbacks four losses of 20 or more points to Power 5 teams, and when LSU thumped the Hogs 33-10 two weeks ago, it gave Arkansas a school-record five losses of 20-plus points in the same season.
With freshman Cole Kelley in at quarterback for the injured Allen, the Razorbacks rallied from a 31-7 deficit at Ole Miss with its biggest comeback on record for a 38-37 victory. However, they couldn't sustain that momentum and had to rally from a 13-point deficit to defeat a 1-7 Coastal Carolina team 39-38 at homecoming before a tepid crowd on Nov. 4.
Arkansas capitalized on some fortunate bounces last week to lead No. 14 Mississippi State 14-0, but the Bulldogs rallied from a 21-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 28-21. It marked the 12th loss for the Razorbacks under Bielema when entering the fourth quarter with a lead.
Coaches around the conference talked on Wednesday's SEC teleconference about the strain Bielema is under.
"As far as him staying focused and the team staying with him and playing for him is absolutely no surprise to me because of the quality of coach that Bret is," said Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops.
"You've just got to stay the course. He's been there and done that, and even though he hasn't faced this kind of adversity as a head coach, it doesn't surprise me the way he handles things because he's always done things right."
Said Odom, "I think he's a tremendous coach. And aside from coaching, take that away from it, I respect him as a person and a friend in this business."
Bielema has continuously stressed to the players about keeping the chatter from detractors and the growing levels of negativity on social media out of the locker room.
"We keep the outside noise out of these walls," Allen said. "I know people don't really want to believe that, but we really do.
"We all came here for Coach B. He's the one that recruited us all here. He's our guy. He's a guy who we all want to play hard for. ... So we're going to play the first snap to the last whistle for him on Friday. He's our coach. Whatever happens, happens, but that's our coach."
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Sports on 11/24/2017
Print Headline: Stormy season ends today; Bret Bielema could be coaching his final game at Arkansas. Where did everything go wrong?