-Connor Goodson and Evin Demirel
When officials aren’t the culprit, fourth quarter implosions have too often been a source of heartache for loyal Hogs fans over the years. The most recent example came on December 5 when Arkansas blew a 40-26 lead to Missouri in the fourth quarter. Dating back to the 2016 season there have been ten games in which the program has held a lead or was tied in the second half, but ultimately lost the game.
A timeline of these collapses paints a pretty clear picture of the downward trend that Arkansas football was on before the arrival of Sam Pittman. In the span of two calendar years Arkansas lost 20 consecutive SEC games and fired two head coaches in Bret Bielema and Chad Morris. The program’s national reputation took a massive hit, to the point that a defining characteristic of Razorback football — scrappiness and toughness — was replaced by the perception of a new main trait: predictable late-game ineptitude.
“Hogs gonna Hog” came to mean “Hogs gonna crumble” instead of “Hogs gonna fight.”
By the end of Chad Morris’ stint at Arkansas, apathy had set in throughout the fan base and seemed to be emanating onto the field through the players. The silver lining in all those collapses is that they cleared the way for a new coach and new era.
Sam Pittman’s arrival in late 2019 sparked cautious optimism among fans. The players got behind him immediately and this translated to early success that snapped the 20-game SEC losing streak with a win at Mississippi State. The three-win season ultimately earned the Hogs an invitation to play TCU in the Texas Bowl.
Overall, the Pittman era is off to a good — not great — start. That’s primarily because the way the Razorbacks lost against LSU and Missouri eerily resembles the type of losses that ended the Arkansas tenures of Bielema and Morris.
The late, great astronomer Carl Sagan stated: “You have to know the past to understand the present.” With that in mind, looking back at the ten games since 2016 where Arkansas football collapsed will help us better see that the program is trending in the right direction now, despite losses like LSU and Missouri.
Week 12: @ Missouri, L 28-24
The shine had already started to fade on Bret Bielema’s tenure in Fayetteville. After an 8-5 record the season before, many Razorback fans expected the program to take another leap forward. The leap didn’t happen as many had envisioned, but there was still a chance to improve in the win column if they took care of business at Missouri and in the bowl game.
Arkansas drove the field at will in the first half and built a 24-7 halftime lead. In the second half Missouri capitalized on two Austin Allen interceptions for a 28-24 lead with 2:53 left. Arkansas marched down the field on a 10-play drive, but on fourth-and-goal Allen was sacked giving Missouri the ball and the win.
This gave first-year Missouri head coach Barry Odom and his team only their fourth win of the season, while Arkansas fell to 7-5 while limping into preparations for their bowl game against Virginia Tech.
Belk Bowl: vs. Virginia Tech, L 35-24
It looked like Arkansas had put their issues from the Missouri game behind them during their bowl preparations. They built another 24-0 lead heading into halftime, holding the No. 22 Hokies to only 180 yards in the first half. Austin Allen led the Hogs with a spectacular first half, going 13-16 for 216 yards with one passing and rushing touchdown.
However, the second half was a much different story for consecutive games, starting with an Arkansas fumble on their first offensive possession. It would go completely downhill from there. Allen’s first half performance didn’t translate as he later threw three interceptions. The Hokies scored 35 unanswered points, five touchdowns on their first seven possessions, and cruised to a victory.
“The second half has been our melting point,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “I’ve never seen anything like it and the tide turn against us like that in all three phases of the game.”
The game was also infamous for Arkansas star tight end Jeremy Sprinkle’s suspension from the team the days before kickoff. On the bowl game trip, Sprinkle was cited in a police report for stealing from a Belk department store during a team shopping spree that was paid for by the store as part of their sponsorship.
Following this game, more and more fans lost trust in Bielema. This was the beginning of the end for his tenure at Arkansas.
Week 3: vs. Texas A&M, L 50-43 (OT)
After getting dominated by TCU 28-7 the week before, many people outside of the Arkansas program were calling for Bielema’s job. This Texas A&M game was extremely important to the rest of the season.
Arkansas’ offense looked sharp early as they would ride a 21-17 lead into halftime. It was a back-’n-forth offensive shootout in the second half with both teams trading leads seemingly every possession. Trailing 40-36 with 5:10 left in the quarter, Arkansas scored in just four plays to take a 43-40 lead. Texas A&M had 3:39 left and used an 11-play drive to get into field goal range and tie the game up to send it to overtime.
In overtime, it took Texas A&M only three plays to score, making it 50-43. Arkansas had a chance, but Austin Allen’s third down pass was intercepted. With a 1-2 record, Bielema’s seat began growing hotter than anyone’s in the country for the rest of the season.
Week 11: vs. Mississippi State, L 28-21
Just three days leading up to this game, it was announced that Jeff Long had been fired as athletic director at Arkansas. Almost everyone knew that this meant Bret Bielema’s fate as head coach had been sealed, but he wasn’t deterred.
The game itself was a low-scoring affair, being tied at 14 going into halftime. Devwah Whaley would score with 4:53 left in the third quarter, giving Arkansas the lead. They would hold this lead until 3:57 left when Nick Fitzgerald threw his first touchdown pass of the game.
Bielema’s desperation as head coach emerged in the form of a fourth down attempt from their own 44-yard line. Arkansas didn’t convert and turned it over on downs with 3:18 left. Nick Fitzgerald threw his second touchdown pass of the day with only 17 seconds left, giving the Bulldogs the win.
Week 12: vs. Missouri, L 48-45
In the week leading up to this one, Bielema dodged questions about his future. The speculation and lackluster season so far made the actual game seem like an afterthought. The game was a high-scoring offensive shootout, much like the Texas A&M game earlier in the year. Arkansas had twice led by 14 points and was up 35-31 going into the fourth quarter.
Missouri’s Drew Lock had two of his five touchdown passes come in the fourth quarter, his last giving the Tigers a 45-42 lead. Connor Limpert knocked in a 42-yard field goal to tie the game up with 5:00 left. At this point most Arkansas fans knew what would come next. Lock would lead Missouri on a 14-play drive to get into field goal range to win it. Bielema was essentially fired as he left the field after the game.
Week 2: @ Colorado State, L 34-27
The hire of Chad Morris at Arkansas was met with optimism by the majority of Arkansas football fans. After four seasons of the run heavy, pro-style offense of Bielema, fans were ready to “put it in left lane, hammer down, full-tilt boogie.” After an easy win against FCS program Eastern Illinois in week one, Morris and the Hogs went to Fort Collins to take on the Colorado State Rams.
Arkansas started out of the gates slow, allowing a below average Colorado State team to hang around. With only a 13-9 advantage at halftime, the Razorbacks used back-to-back touchdown passes from Cole Kelley to go up 27-9 with 7:28 left in the third quarter. These were Arkansas’ last points of the game.
Colorado State drove straight through the Arkansas defense to start a 25-0 run for the Rams. Arkansas had a chance with six seconds but wouldn’t convert. It would be Chad Morris’ first of 18 losses as head coach.
Morris came out of the game with the majority of the fan base questioning his coaching decisions. Most notably the decision to punt the ball on a fourth-and-one from the 50-yard line. The punt was returned by the Rams back to the 50-yard line and set Colorado State up for another touchdown, spearheading their comeback. This was the first time Morris’ was largely criticized for a questionable decision.
It would not be the last.
Week 7: vs. Ole Miss, L 37-33
Following the collapse at Colorado State, Arkansas lost four consecutive games coming into their matchup with Ole Miss. The Rebels were 4-2 with their only losses coming to No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 LSU. Arkansas had shown some flashes of being a capable team in their losses but struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball.
Arkansas came out on fire on both sides of the ball. Jumping out to an early 17-3 first quarter lead, but that momentum was slowed after losing starting running back Rakeem Boyd to injury after he rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, Boyd wasn’t the only Hog to go down to injury. Early in the third quarter, Arkansas lost Boyd’s back up, Devwah Whaley, along with starting quarterback Ty Storey.
Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta’amu ran all through Arkansas’ defense, almost single-handedly bringing the Rebels back. Arkansas had a 30-17 lead with 9:28 left in the third, when Ta’amu threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to ignite a 20-3 Rebel run. Down 33-31 the Rebels only needed 1:20 to drive 97 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 42 seconds left.
After losing three starters on offense, it was clear that Arkansas struggled to hold the lead against a good offense. Ta’amu exploded with 528 yards of total offense against the Arkansas defense, but fans weren’t necessarily jumping off the Morris train yet. However, fans had started to become more aware of how Arkansas was losing games.
This collapse differs from most of the others in 2017-2019 in that Arkansas had a valid excuse for losing. Still, in other ways, it resembled the aggravating second-half efforts under Bielema Morris’ losses, however, were happening in more winnable games against lesser competition. Some fans thought Morris could recruit his way out of it and that players left over from the Bielema era were the cause. But as we see in the next season, things continued to spiral downward. It became obvious the biggest issue wasn’t the players.
Week 4: vs. San Jose State, L 31-24
Coming off of a momentum-building win over Colorado State, Arkansas was 2-1 on the season and people were thinking that the rebuild was back on track. After replacing Ben Hicks as quarterback, Nick Starkel was supposed to be the guy going forward. Starkel spear-headed a comeback win against Colorado State in week 3, a win that temporarily won back a portion of Morris-doubters. These next three games were the most important stretch of Morris’ short tenure at Arkansas and are a main reason he is no longer head coach.
Against San Jose State, Arkansas football should never be out-coached, out-played or look completely out-matched. But on this day, Arkansas football was dominated. San Jose State jumped out to a 24-7 lead, meanwhile Arkansas looked like they forgot they had a game to play. After throwing an early touchdown, Nick Starkel couldn’t take care of the ball at all. He would throw two of his five interceptions in the second quarter.
Arkansas never held a lead but was able to claw their way back and tie the game with 2:46 left in the game. San Jose State only needed 1:43 to score a touchdown and take a 31-24 lead. Starkel would get intercepted on his next pass attempt, allowing the Spartans to pull off the incredible upset.
Arkansas fans began jumping off the Morris bandwagon in droves following this loss. Traditionally, you give coaches a few recruiting cycles before you decide their fate. However, this loss was an embarrassment to the program that was eerily similar to the infamous 1992 loss to the Citadel. Following that game, Frank Broyles fired head coach Jack Crowe and made it known that losing games to lesser programs, like the Citadel or San Jose State, was unacceptable at Arkansas. Nearly three decades later, Broyles’ precedent would be put to the test.
Week 5: vs. Texas A&M, L 31-27
Following the last week’s embarrassment, Arkansas was looking to change the narrative surrounding their season. Ending a seven-game losing streak to No. 23 Texas A&M would be a great way to do it.
Arkansas dug themselves into an early hole, trailing 14-3 early in the second quarter. A De’Jon Harris fumble recovery for a touchdown followed by a Mike Woods touchdown reception turned the tide right before halftime. But an Aggie 11-play drive capped off by a Kellen Mond touchdown pass gave Texas A&M a 21-17 lead before halftime.
Unlike previous games in the Southwest Classic, this game was a slug-fest instead of a shootout. Devwah Whaley scored the lone third quarter touchdown to give Arkansas a 24-21 lead with 10:24 left. Arkansas would carry the lead into the fourth quarter, but the issues holding a late lead reared their ugly heads again.
Kellen Mond threw a touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, while Arkansas was only able to kick a field goal. Down 28-27 with 8:46 left, Arkansas’ defense allowed A&M to kick a field goal after draining four minutes off the clock. Arkansas would have one more chance with 3:52 left but needed a touchdown. The offense looked extremely efficient on this final drive marching all the way down to the Aggie 19-yardline. On fourth down, Ben Hicks’ pass to Cheyenne O’Grady was incomplete, giving A&M the ball and the win.
Week 6: @ Kentucky, L 24-20
After a bye week following their demoralizing losses to San Jose State and Texas A&M, Arkansas’ game against Kentucky was a must-win for Chad Morris. Kentucky starting quarterback Sawyer Smith had been injured heading into their bye week, and it wasn’t announced who his replacement would be until gametime.
Lynn Bowden Jr., the team’s leading receiver, would be the starting quarterback for Kentucky, and Arkansas’ defense held him in check early on. Arkansas was up 13-0 with 5:28 left in the first half. But Bowden Jr. would carve up Arkansas’ defense right before halftime using his legs, scoring on a three-yard rush.
Arkansas would be up 13-10 with 9:02 left in the third quarter, leading late in the second half in consecutive games. Bowden Jr. would give Kentucky the lead on a 10-yard passing touchdown, one of his only seven completions in the game.
Rakeem Boyd would give Arkansas back the lead with his second rushing touchdown of the game early in the fourth. Bowden would answer with his second rushing touchdown to give Kentucky a 24-20 lead with 6:53 left in the game. In a situation almost exactly the same as the previous game against Texas A&M, Arkansas would be down four at the end of the game and need a touchdown.
Like how it ended against Texas A&M, Ben Hicks had a fourth down pass fall incomplete. Kentucky ran out the final two minutes of clock, leading to a 24-20 win. This wasn’t the final nail in Morris’ coffin as head coach, but it was obvious things weren’t heading in the right direction at this point.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
For some fans, the rest of the season was a blur of pain and misery. Other fans masochistically recall each gory detail of the blowouts Arkansas suffered in the following four games. The fourth loss came to a Western Kentucky team that was led by former Razorback starting quarterback Ty Storey. Storey transferred out after Morris’ first season at Arkansas, then came back to Fayetteville and blew his former team out 45-19. Morris was fired the following week, paving the way for Sam Pittman.
In his first year, Pittman brought a refreshing change of pace and delivered actual SEC victories instead of just talking about how close the team was to getting them. Arkansas football was 3-3 heading into the final stretch of the season, producing the heart-pounding moments seen below, when things headed south.
This time, however, Arkansas had valid excuses for its late-season struggles. It lost two games due to terrible officiating, a rash of injuries and COVID-19 protocols. While missing a cohort of defensive linemen, for instance, Arkansas lost to a very beatable LSU team thanks to a bogus targeting call on star safety Jalen Catalon. Catalon was ejected and it set up LSU to score the go-ahead touchdown.
In the following game, Arkansas blew a fourth quarter lead to Missouri in a game where Feleipe Franks was sidelined with an injury. Redshirt freshman K.J. Jefferson made his second career start and showed that he has the skills to run the offense. However, Arkansas’ defense could not stop Missouri from outscoring that Hogs 24-8 over the final 13:15 in the fourth quarter, giving Missouri the win on a last second field goal.
Pittman’s team has shown the kind of fight and a belief in its coach that Arkansas football fans have been waiting for the previous three seasons. Despite this, the losses to LSU and Missouri resemble the ten collapses that preceded them because they were winnable games that Arkansas couldn’t finish. Fans will know Arkansas is again a national power when it can overcome depth and injury injuries and still win these kinds of games. While no one likes to make excuses, there is a fair argument to be made that biased officiating, injuries, COVID or a mix of all three played a role in these losses.
Even though the Texas Bowl was cancelled, there are plenty of positives heading into next season.
For starters, Arkansas won’t play an exclusively all-SEC schedule. Hopefully, the restrictions with COVID will be in the rear view. The losses to LSU, Missouri and even the blowout to Alabama (because the Tide rolled everyone this season) should prove to be exceptions to the Pittman era at Arkansas, rather than deep-seated issues that can’t be resolved by next season.
Thanks to the blanket NCAA waiver, we know at least seven seniors will return in 2021. The fact Sam Pittman convinced Grant Morgan, Myron Cunningham, De’Vion Warren, Dorian Gerald, Ty Clary, TJ Hammonds and Blake Kern to play for another year speaks volumes about their trust in him. Arkansas’ recruiting efforts, which produced the nation’s No. 20 recruiting class during the early signing period, will heat up once restrictions on visits and meetings are lifted.
The program’s rise back to national prominence isn’t a straight, smooth line upward. It’s more of a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of thing. And those fourth quarter collapses are part of this improvement’s jagged, uneven nature. In the big picture, there is still cause for legit optimism and hopefulness when looking at the future of Arkansas football. Glancing back at some of the darkest days from the last few years makes the light at the end of the tunnel seem closer than ever before.
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