Among the litany of meaningless sports cliches we hear over and over, one of the best is "learning how to win." As in, "that team just doesn't know how to win yet" or "that hare would've beat that tortoise, but he just didn't know how to win."
It's as if winning or losing comes down not to athletic skill or xs and os or coaching or getting a lucky bounce, but whether a team or player has earned an official certification that acknowledges the study and training and book learning that enables them to win.
Does a team really have to learn how to win before they actually win? Does a team have to major in winning and earn a winning degree before the W column gets filled?
A lot of people seem to think that's the case. I'm not sure if the Arkansas Razorbacks have actually learned a lot since they lost to Auburn a couple of weeks ago or since last year's LSU game, but the team has certainly demonstrated improvements in many areas over the last couple of games.
There's been a lot of talk the last couple weeks about many of the improvements. Brandon Allen. The offensive line. The secondary. Martrell Spaight. All better.
But one vital aspect that hasn't garnered nearly the attention is the Razorbacks' 4th quarter performance, or mainly their lack thereof over the last few years.
When the Texas Tech scored late in the third quarter to cut Arkansas' lead to seven points, it became clear the game would be decided in the fourth quarter. That was concerning to me because the Razorbacks had basically never played well in the 4th quarter since Bret Bielema took over the program. The only really good 4th quarter came against Samford last season. Most every other game - somewhere between terrible and meh.
In the last four games of 2013, when most agree the team began to show significant improvement, the Hogs only had one touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of all of those games. Everything else was a punt, fumble, missed field goal or interception. The team hadn't shown they had the faintest clue "how to win".
I even tweeted this as the 4th quarter neared:
To win Arkansas is going to have to play well in the 4th quarter, which basically they've never done in the Bielema era.— Doc Harper (@doc_harper) September 13, 2014
Fans on Twitter promptly told me to be quiet, which was probably fair. But everything turned out fine, because, as we all now know, the Razorbacks completely dominated the fourth quarter. The Hogs were never stopped on offense, scoring two touchdowns and ending the game in the victory formation after holding the ball for over nine minutes. Texas Tech had the ball for less than four minutes in the quarter and never came close to scoring.
It was easily the most impressive quarter Arkansas has had against an opponent not named Nicholls since 2011. Does this mean the team has learned something new? Maybe. It's certainly fair to say they've learned from previous mistakes. They seem to be more consistent in their execution on the field. It feels like Brandon Allen might have tried to throw the ball somewhere (to Jared Cornelius? to the sideline?) last year instead of running the ball into the end zone for the easy touchdown. The offense converted 10/14 3rd and 4th downs. The defense is clearly more aware of the ball while its in the air. The coaches weren't talking after the game in Lubbock about figuring out how many snaps various players could play.
If all those things mean the team has learned how to win, then fine, they've learned how to win - at least that day. If it's truly something they've learned, they will show it by continuing everything this Saturday against Northern Illinois, and if/when the opportunity arises to shut the door on opponents the rest of the year, they'll do like they did in Lubbock and take over the game.
There's been talk this week of whether the Hogs have "turned the corner," which is basically the same thing. The answer comes with finding out if the team will continue doing all the little things they did right against Texas Tech. It wasn't just one player or one position group or one coaching decision, it was everybody. The team showed some of what they're capable of last Saturday, and this week they have the opportunity to begin showing that they really have figured a lot of things out.
The stage is set up perfectly for Arkansas. They get a night game at home against a respectable opponent, and a fan base desperately wanting to celebrate with them. It should be a lot of fun. Especially if they're running all over the Huskies in the fourth quarter.