That really couldn’t have gone any worse.
Just about everyone watching thought Arkansas’ 24-0 halftime lead in the Belk Bowl seemed a little fluky, but I don’t think anyone expected it to fall apart like that. It was so bad that Arkansas wasn’t even competitive in the final seven minutes in a game they had once led by 24 points.
It is (probably) the biggest blown lead in school history, and, in the long run, it raises this interesting point:
I don't know how Bielema can win the fan base back after this and Mizzou collapses, w/ 9 months to stew. No good head coach blows this twice— Jim Harris (@jimharris360) December 30, 2016
That will certainly be discussed at length in the future.
What Arkansas did well
Before we dive into this nightmare, it wasn’t all bad. Let’s take a look at the good, especially as it pertains to the future.
- Cole Hedlund is back. I’m not sure why, the redshirt sophomore handled placekicking duties instead of Adam McFain, whose career is now over. Obviously, Hedlund has struggled during his career, but his 38-yard field goal was perfect. He finishes the season 5 of 7 with a long of 38 yards. He’s no Zach Hocker, but Arkansas’ placekicking unit is probably going to be okay.
- Robb Smith’s defense showed signs of life. As the numbers below bear out, the defense really isn’t to blame for this loss. No, it wasn’t a great performance, but it wasn’t a terrible one, and it was much better than we saw all season. Tech’s 5.5 yards per play was slightly below its season average of 5.7, and the Hogs pitched a first-half shutout without dominating time of possession. As for the 35 points, recall that four Virginia Tech drives started in Arkansas territory.
- Cheyenne O’Grady looks the part. With Jeremy Sprinkle out due to suspension, one of his replacements got an extended look. O’Grady snagged his second and third receptions of the season, and looks like he could be a weapon in the passing game in the future.
All right, time for the bad stuff.
- Same story, another verse up front. Arkansas’ horrendous offensive line couldn’t block for the run and couldn’t protect its quarterback. Any lead, even a 24-point lead, is shaky if you can’t run the ball. It’s hard to blame Dan Enos, at least playcalling-wise, because there’s so many things you can call when every running play gets shut down.
- The third quarter was a nightmare. Virginia Tech’s offense erupted with a 71.4 percent success rate, compared to just 17.6 percent for Arkansas.
- Both offense and defense collapsed at the same rates. Arguably, the defense outplayed the offense in the first half, but both fell by 30 percent in success rate for the second half: offense went from 48 percent to 18 percent, while the defense went from 34 percent to 67 percent.
EV gives us more solid point values to compare. Some observations:
- Arkansas got drilled in field position. From the keys to the game in the game preview:
Flip the field. Neither team hits many big plays, so winning field position will be important. Toby Baker needs to have another good game, while Arkansas either needs to use turnovers or returns to set up some quality field position for the offense, while denying the Hokies good field position as well.
Baker did indeed have a good game, but outside of a 21-yard punt return by Keon Hatcher in the second quarter, Arkansas did nothing with returns. The Hogs also gave the ball away four times in their own territory, allowing Tech to score 7 points based on starting field position alone.
- The offense contributed more to the loss than the defense did. Offensive issues cost Arkansas 10.1 points, while defensive issues cost Arkansas only 7.7 points. Neither are good, but Arkansas hangs its hat on offense.
- A 7-point swing can be attributed to penalties alone. Penalties were responsible for nearly half of Arkansas’ offensive loss of production (4.7 out of 10.1 points lost), and more than a third of the defensive loss of production (2.9 points out of 7.7 points lost).
Heading into the off-season with the kind of negativity this game (plus the Mizzou game) has brought into the program isn’t healthy. At some point, Bret Bielema has to start winning. He has to field a competent offensive line and defense, something he hasn’t consistently done despite purporting to hang his hat on.
I’m working on a comprehensive season review, with several different kinds of breakdowns of offensive and defensive production. Hopefully it will help us learn more about what went right and wrong in 2016.