FAYETTEVILLE - For a half on Thursday Arkansas’ month long stench from the Razorbacks’ miserable second half at Missouri disappeared into the Charlotte, N.C. wind.
Then it billowed back from Charlotte doubly odious and entirely engulfing Arkansas in a football stink not apt to lift until September at the earliest.
For only proving they can play a real second half against a real opponent can make the Razorbacks truly believed in by their fans. It defies belief, these unbelievably consecutive second-half meltdowns in the Nov. 25 SEC season finale against Missouri in Columbia, Mo. and Thursday’s Belk Bowl in Charlotte against the Virginia Tech Hokies.
At Columbia, Coach Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks led Missouri, 24-7 at half. Arkansas lost, 28-24.
At Charlotte, the Razorbacks led 24-0 at half. Arkansas lost, 35-24 leaving Bielema bewildered.
How can a team consecutively start so well and dissipate so fast?
“I’ve never seen anything turn the tide so quickly in all three phases,” Bielema said. “I wish I could put my finger on it. We made uncharacteristic busts in the second half on offense and defense. The second half has been our melting point.”
It was supposed to be the strong point when Bielema came to Arkansas in 2013 after six years head coaching Wisconsin teams with big offensive lines and pounding running backs customarily wearing down opponents in the second half.
But even with SEC rushing leading running back Rawleigh Williams and freshman flash Devwah Whaley running the ball, the Razorbacks netted but 36 yards rushing on Virginia Tech.
They won the first half in Charlotte on quarterback Austin Allen’s passing game. They lost it in the second half unable to protect him from getting six times sacked and throwing three second-half interceptions.
Even when he completed second-half passes, Allen couldn’t capitalize on them. Senior Drew Morgan, throughout the season the most reliable among a corps of mostly reliable receivers, fumbled striving for more yards on the first second-half turnover opening the gate to Virginia Tech’s first score.
Morgan fumbled again trying to extend for another yard. Catching a 74-yard pass from Allen, Morgan at the one fumbled out of the end zone for what would have been a touchback.
Instead of Virginia Tech getting the ball at its 20, Arkansas was able to keep the ball at its 40 because of a Virginia Tech personal foul. But the damage was done with that fumble at the one. The Razorbacks eventually had to punt and never again had anything like that first and goal would have been.
“We had opportunities to make it 31-7,” Allen said. “It might have been a different ballgame there, but then we turned the ball over and do it again.”
Arkansas’ defense, mostly beleaguered throughout this 7-6 season, bowed up to blank the nationally No. 22 Hokies in Saturday’s first half but got no help from its turnover-plagued offense in the second half.
“The offense just put the defense in bad places, gave them short fields turning the ball over,” Allen lamented.
Despite its 24-0 halftime lead, the Razorbacks began unraveling before the Belk Bowl kicked off.
Jeremy Sprinkle, the fifth-year senior tight end from White Hall regarded as one of their reliables off the field and a preseason Mackey Award candidate on the field invited to play in the prestigious Senior Bowl all-star game and likely to go high in this spring’s NFL draft, was suspended by Bielema before his final game.
According to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police report, Sprinkle was alleged to have attempted to shoplift $259.59 worth of shirts, underwear, socks and wallets from a Belk’s department store.
The sponsoring host of the Belk Bowl, Belk’s already had awarded players on both teams $450 gift cards and a 20 percent manager’s discount.
Compounding the Razorbacks’ disciplinary breakdown, Morgan got ejected for spitting into a Virginia Tech player’s face, Bielema said he was told by officials.
“I was told he spit in a guy’s face, so I’m assuming he did,” Bielema told media postgame. “Very embarrassing for me as a head coach to say that. I of course agree he needed to be removed from the game.”
Bielema already had expressed his disappointment in Sprinkle in the Thursday afternoon press release announcing Sprinkle’s suspension.
“When you act out of character you get out of character results,” Bielema said during Thursday’s postgame. “That’s what we have to teach these guys.”
It seemed he had taught them well given the Razorbacks’ overall cleaner conduct and vastly improved academic achievements compared to the recent Arkansas football administrations preceding his.
But now that gets reevaluated, too, along with everything else.
“I will address everything from A to Z around the program,” Bielema said.
Expect some changes of addresses as Bielema addresses change.