Arkansas eager to shed reputation for blowing late leads
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — The 10-point lead for Arkansas in the fourth quarter at Colorado State might have felt secure in some places. Not so much to those familiar with the Razorbacks under coach Bret Bielema.
Sure enough, the Rams scored 17 unanswered points to earn its first win of the season, 34-27, and drop Arkansas to 1-1.
“We did not handle success well,” coach Chad Morris said. “We lost our focus. We lost our attention of what got us to that point. We were one stop and one score away from that thing being over with.”
When Morris was hired in late 2017, he inherited a team that had seen its fair share of squandered leads. Of Bielema’s 34 losses, Arkansas led going into the fourth quarter 13 times — that’s a blown lead 38 percent of the time.
The loss to Virginia Tech in the 2016 Belk Bowl has often been cited as the beginning of the end for Bielema — and it may have been the beginning of the program’s fourth-quarter woes. After letting the Hokies come back from a 24-0 deficit at halftime, the Razorbacks led by a field goal going into the fourth quarter. Tech scored twice in the final period to win 35-24, and the team’s hangover carried over into last season.
“Three years ago, we began to understand what it means to finish strong from what we did against Texas (in the Texas Bowl) and what we did in the (Liberty) Bowl last year, and then this year was a huge emphasis on starting fast,” Bielema said at the time. “The second half has been our melting point, so a really good point of emphasis moving forward will be that.”
Bielema was dismissed after the final game last season — when Arkansas couldn’t hold a fourth-quarter lead over Missouri.
Morris said the past is the past. Instead of focusing on what happened then, he said, it’s his responsibility to eliminate that style of losing.
“We train for moments like this, and at some point, we’ve got to break this cycle,” Morris said. “There’s going to be a moment where we’re going to break it.”
It took Morris three seasons to turn SMU around and earn a spot in bowl season. The difference between his first SMU team and this Arkansas squad is simple: the Mustangs won zero games the season before he got there, and the Razorbacks won four last season. He had to do an entire overhaul of the Mustangs’ culture. Morris said there’s still a lot to play for despite the dispiriting loss to the Rams.
“The great thing about this is we’ve got 10 more opportunities ahead of us, and we’ll discuss all that at the end,” Morris said. “At some point, we’ll talk about that, but for right now, the talk is about North Texas. There’s no mindset in this building that anybody’s walking through this door thinking these guys can’t achieve and have a great season ahead of us.”
With the loss fresh on everyone’s minds, this style of losing is simply still a part of Arkansas’ makeup. Morris said it’s his job to figure out how to change the culture.
“I don’t know what’s happened in the past, but this is on my watch,” he said.