Rapid Reaction: Arkansas blows 24-point lead, loses Belk Bowl in stunning fashion
How much worse can it get?
For Arkansas, which blew a 24-0 lead and lost 35-24 to No. 22 Virginia Tech on Thursday night at the Belk Bowl.
For the SEC, which fell to 1-4 this bowl season — its only victory courtesy of game-saving blocked field goal against a .500 MAC team.
For pure shock value, it will be difficult — and painful — to top the Razorbacks’ surreal collapse.
The second half was a complete debacle, but the key span was three turnovers in 11 offensive snaps that led to 21 Virginia Tech points. All of it happened in a third quarter that Bret Bielema might have feared was coming.
The Razorbacks, after all, had been outscored by 62 points in the second half during the regular season. Virginia Tech had overcome a 17-point deficit, on the road, to beat Notre Dame in mid-November.
Maybe that’s why, when it all seemed so right — up 24-0 at the break — Bielema said in a halftime interview that the Razorbacks had to keep playing.
Instead, it was Virginia Tech, the ACC Coastal Division champion, that made all the plays after intermission.
Arkansas contributed mightily to the mess.
Three plays after the Hokies stripped Drew Morgan on the opening possession of the second half, Tech QB Jerod Evans scored on a 4-yard keeper to make it 24-7.
Morgan fumbled again on the next possession — this time reaching for the end zone after a 75-yard reception. The ball bounced through the end zone, however, which would have given Virginia Tech possession, but a defensive holding penalty wiped out the play. Arkansas maintained possession, but Virginia Tech maintained momentum.
The Hokies intercepted Allen and made it 24-14 when Evans hit Sam Rogers for a 3-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter.
After dominating the first half, Arkansas’ first three possessions of the second half were fumble-punt-interception. Its 24-point lead, seemingly so safe, was trimmed to 10.
It got worse.
Allen’s next pass, a hurried check-down, was tipped an intercepted. Virginia Tech took over at Arkansas’ 5, and Evans hit Chris Cunningham on the next play for a touchdown to make it 24-21.
The Mizzou redux was in full force.
Minutes into the fourth, the Hokies drove 76 yards for their first lead. After another Allen interception, they added the final score to cap a 35-0 second-half beatdown.
The turn of events was especially shocking after Arkansas played a flawless first half.
Allen threw for 222 yards and two scores in the first 30 minutes. He threw three interceptions in the second half.
Cheyenne O’Grady, a 6-5, 251-pound freshman, caught a 28-yard touchdown pass. That was notable for two reasons: First, it was O’Grady’s second catch (and first TD) in college, and second, he was filling in for Jeremy Sprinkle, who was suspended after being accused of shoplifting … at Belk.
Keon Hatcher, who led the Hogs with 7 TD catches during the regular season, added another on a splendid sideline grab just beyond the pylon. That catch extended the Hogs’ lead to 24-0 early in the second quarter.
At that point, the only remaining drama appeared to be whether Arkansas could exceed its bowl-record total of 45 points, set last year in the Liberty Bowl against Kansas State, and how many individual records might be broken in the chase.
Instead? A Meltdown in Mecklenburg County, one so unimaginable it rendered one of the craziest sequences this season moot.
Not that Arkansas needed any breaks during that dominant first half, but the Razorbacks appeared to get one during a wild punt return sequence in which Virginia Tech fumbled the punt, which Arkansas appeared to recover but never did. The officials blew the play dead, however, just as a Virginia Tech player scooped up the loose ball.
A long — bowl record-long, perhaps? — review ensued, and officials awarded possession to Arkansas. Nobody who saw the play understood why.
Wow. The refs debated for ten mins about VT recovering the fumble after punt and gave it back to Arkansas…replay doesn't show that.
— Kristen Kennedy (@KKennedy_WX) December 30, 2016
haha they gave the ball to Arkansas! They screwed up every single aspect of that call, discussed it, reviewed it, and still got it wrong.
— Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) December 30, 2016
I have never seen a team recover a fumble when they didn't recover it but Arkansas just did it
— Will Elliott (@Will_Elliott22) December 30, 2016
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) December 30, 2016
Only Arkansas, owners of last season’s 4th-and-25 miracle conversion, could be involved in such a crazy sequence, right?
Alas, the Hogs didn’t do anything with this gift, and the half ended 24-0.
So, too, did their chances of a fourth consecutive bowl victory.