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Two Halves Make a Whole Hog

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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With 24-7 and 24-0 leads in their final two games against Missouri and Virginia Tech, it appeared that Arkansas would finally crack the eight-win ceiling that had avoided them since that fateful day in April 2012 when former head coach Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle.

With 24-7 and 24-0 leads in their final two games against Missouri and Virginia Tech, it appeared that Arkansas would finally crack the eight-win ceiling that had avoided them since that fateful day in April 2012 when former head coach Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle.

Two second-half meltdowns later, the Razorbacks were done for the year at 7-6, a one-game drop from 2015’s promising 8-5 campaign, that included a 6-1 close. Fifth-year coach Bret Bielema isn’t in hot seat territory yet, due at least in part to being much more well-liked within the walls of the Arkansas athletic department than his predecessor was, but 2017 is an important year for him. Relationships only get you so far in the scoreboard business.

The Hogs are just 10-22 in SEC play under Bielema, and have yet to beat either Alabama or Texas A&M. Like the blown leads late last season, the Southwest Classic rivalry with Texas A&M has been known for Arkansas collapses. Razorbacks leads of 28-14, 21-13 and 17-10 the past three years against the Aggies have all ended in defeats.

Even in victory, Arkansas has had to overcome blown leads. In a road win at TCU last September, the Hogs saw a 20-7 fourth-quarter lead quickly evaporate into a 28-20 deficit before rallying to win in double overtime.

“Too many things accounted for all of that,” Bielema said Monday. “It’s part of our history. We embrace it. There are things we talked about as coaches that we really installed in our winter program. We played really well in the first half. You have to understand there are two halves to every game, and when they end the way they do everyone wants to talk about the negatives, but as a coach you have to find the positives. I think it’s something that can be done.”

It’s no surprise that the most important Arkansas player on the field has also struggled once the bands leave the field and the fans return to their seats. As a junior, quarterback Austin Allen led the SEC with 3,430 yards and was second in touchdowns with 25. However, a deeper dive into the numbers shows why the Razorbacks struggled to protect leads.

In first halves last season, Allen completed an efficient 66 percent of his pass attempts, with 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions. After halftime, things fell apart for Allen. His completion percentage dropped to 56 percent, and he had more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (nine).

Like his head coach, Allen says the team has owned those low points this offseason.

“We went back and watched the second half of the Missouri game, the second half of the Virginia Tech game,” Allen said. “It just stings. That was just embarrassing. That’s something that can’t happen again this year.”

In Allen’s defense, he wasn’t working behind the same offensive line that his older brother, Brandon, had during his three seasons as the full-time starter at Arkansas from 2013-15. In those three years, the Razorbacks allowed only 36 sacks combined. Last year alone, they allowed 35, an increase from 0.9 per game to 2.7.

Senior center Frank Ragnow expects the downward trend to reverse this season, as the Hogs go from 47 career returning starts up front in 2016 to 70 in 2017, led by Ragnow’s 26.

“With every position, the more you play, the more the game slows down, but I think especially with offensive line,” Ragnow explained. “The more gametime experience is crucial. It’s huge for our development. Now that we can settle down and have found five guys that we’re going to go with, it’s been really huge for us.”

Ragnow echoed Allen’s sentiments on the blown leads.

“It didn’t reflect us as a team, but I think it was great for us in the long run. We weren’t accountable. The leaders didn’t step up the way they needed to step up. We want to be the most consistent team from start to finish. We’re going to play from minute one all the way through.”

TCU and Texas A&M are two of Arkansas’ first three opponents this fall – two teams of similar stature to the Razorbacks against whom they couldn’t slam the door a year ago. We’ll know before September ends whether or not this recent epidemic has been cured.

Bielema’s newborn daughter, Briella, is just 48 hours old. Eventually though, she’ll have to learn fractions, such as one half plus one half equals one. Her father’s teams haven’t quite mastered that yet, and if he hopes to still be in Fayetteville when she learns how to add fractions, Bielema better figure it out soon.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.