So close, so painful: Hogs must win close ones to turn corner

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, September 30, 2017
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema stands on the sideline during a game against Texas A&M on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. The Razorbacks lost 50-43 in overtime to the Aggies, marking Arkansas' 12th one-score defeat under the fifth-year coach.
Photo by Benjamin Krain
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema stands on the sideline during a game against Texas A&M on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. The Razorbacks lost 50-43 in overtime to the Aggies, marking Arkansas' 12th one-score defeat under the fifth-year coach.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Angry Razorbacks and frustrated fans will converge on Reynolds Razorback Stadium today.

The Arkansas Razorbacks, upset after losing to Texas A&M for the sixth consecutive year and the third time in overtime in the past four seasons, will get back to the grindstone at 11 a.m. today against perhaps the best New Mexico State team in decades.

Crazy 8s

• Bret Bielema is 6-12 (.333) in games decided by 1 possession, 8 points or less, during his 4-plus seasons at Arkansas. A look at those games.

SEASON;OPP.;RESULT;COMMENT

2013;@Rutgers;L 28-24;Led by 17 in 3rd; gave up punt return TD

2013:Miss. State;L 24-17 (OT);Late fumble at Bulldogs’ 9 in 4th

2013;@LSU;L 31-27;Led 27-21, yielded FG, 99-yard TD drive

2014;Texas A&M;L 35-28 (OT);Led 28-14 in 4th

2014;Alabama;L 14-13;Fumbled inside 1, dropped INTs

2014;@Miss. State;L17-10;Led No. 1 Bulldogs 10-0 in 2nd

2014;@Missouri;L 21-14;Led 14-3 late in the 2nd quarter

2015;Toledo;L 16-12;Penalties, red zone woes strike in LR

2015:Texas A&M;L 28-21 (OT);Led 21-13 in fourth quarter

2015;@Tennessee;W 24-20;9-game skid in tight games ends

2015;Auburn;W 54-46 (4 OT);Shootout had do-or-die conversions

2015;@Ole Miss;W 53-52 (OT);Bielema highlight: Henry Heave, bold OT call

2015;Miss. State;L 51-50;Blocked late FG ended string of narrow vicrtories

2016;La. Tech;W 21-20;Allen leads late TD drive, defense holds

2016:@TCU;W 41-38 (2 OT);Shootout erupts after Hogs led 21-7 in 4th

2016;Ole Miss;W 34-30;Ramirez’s forced fumble securies victory

2016;@Missouri;L 28-24;17-point halftime lead dissolves

2017;Texas A&M;L 50-43 (OT);Held 21-7 lead, gouged by big plays

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, dropped to 1-2 after suffering yet another gut-punch loss, which has become a common occurrence under fifth-year Coach Bret Bielema, who has a 6-12 record in games decided by eight points or less at Arkansas.

New Mexico State (2-2) enters its big payday game after thumping Texas-El Paso 41-14 to complete a sweep of rivals UTEP and New Mexico for the first time since 2002. The Aggies are 17-point underdogs.

As upset as the Razorbacks were after a fourth overtime loss during his tenure, Bielema said the players have responded with upbeat practices all week.

"Tuesday was actually one of our more spirited, live practices since we started fall camp," Bielema said on Wednesday. "We've got a good group of kids. They obviously are very, very upset and angered that we are a 1-2 team and realize we could have done some different things to get to a different spot, but you live the life you're in right now. I like our attitude."

Bielema took a question about whether the Razorbacks had gotten over a "mental hurdle" with red zone scores against the Aggies on Monday and expanded it into a state-of-the-team response.

"If we were digressing or moving backwards I'd be concerned, but I couldn't be more excited about where ... we're going and what we showed," Bielema said.

A fan asked Bielema during his weekly radio show, On the Air with Bret Bielema, on Thursday night how he handles the team during rough times.

"I know you've got to coach these moments and you've got to move forward," Bielema said. "I know I'm a good football coach who knows what I'm doing. ... We've just got to find the right formula to get where we want to be, and it's a work in progress."

Senior safety Josh Liddell is asking Arkansas fans to keep the faith.

"It's easy to look at that game and just say we didn't play very well," Liddell said of last week, but "for the majority of the time we played really good football."

Arkansas fans want to see a reversal from recent trends, and the bottom line is the Razorbacks have lost each of their past four games against Power 5 schools, three of the losses coming after leading by 14 or more points.

"We can't allow any part of failure to win, or losing, or any way you want to say it, to creep into the program," Bielema said. "Guys were, after they watched film, pissed about not being able to capitalize. We did so many good things, did a lot of positive things on all three phases of the game. ... And then, when it really, really mattered, or maybe you did it right five times and the sixth time it wasn't great."

Arkansas' series of overtime losses to A&M under Bielema, along with many other narrow defeats, have Arkanas fans wondering which way the program is headed.

The Razorbacks seemed on the brink of turning the corner with a 6-1 finish in 2015, but they have fallen back. Only Vanderbilt (9-24) and Kentucky (9-25) have worse records in conference play than Arkansas (10-23) does under Bielema.

Bielema is 6-12 in games decided by one possession, defined as eight or fewer points, and Bielema's record in games decided by eight points or less in SEC play is 4-10.

ESPN producer Chris "Bear" Fallica, came to a speaking engagement at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club this week armed with "close-loss" data, and cited Arkansas' 5-12 record in games decided by a 7 points or less under Bielema as being better than only Iowa State and Purdue, among 65 Power 5 conference teams.

"It's a couple of plays here and there," Fallica said. "It's a couple of wins. When you say 12 losses in five years, you figure if you can pick up two wins a year, you're going from 7-5 to 9-3. It's just a couple of plays here and there.

"I think he's a really good fit here. I think he fits in with the community and the Arkansas program. I like him."

Bielema said recently he knows the Razorbacks are very close to becoming a team for which the fans, players and organization can be proud. If he could turn around the Razorbacks' record in the tight games, he might already be there.

The negative trend started in 2013, Bielema's first season, when the Hogs took a 3-0 record into a nonconference road game at Rutgers, without starting quarterback Brandon Allen, who had suffered a should injury in the previous week's victory.

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The Razorbacks -- using creative means like a fake punt and a halfback pass for a touchdown with AJ Derby at quarterback -- held a 24-7 lead late in the third quarter at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights returned a punt 58 yards for a touchdown to begin their comeback, then converted a fourth and 12 with a 33-yard touchdown pass in their rally for a victory.

The Hogs didn't win again that season, ending up 3-9.

Last year, Arkansas stood at 7-4, ready to to improve to 8-4, when it held a 24-7 halftime lead at Missouri, which entered the game 3-8 and without suspended star tailback Demarea Crockett of Little Rock.

Last week's loss to A&M is an example of a few key plays telling the story. In overtime alone, three plays stood out.

On Texas A&M's first snap, linebacker De'Jon Harris tipped Kellen Mond's slant pass just beyond the line of scrimmage. The ball lingered tantalizingly just behind Harris but fell to the turf before a defender could grab it.

The Razorbacks thought they had a stop on a third and 8 incomplete pass that fell well short of intended receiver Jhamon Ausbon, but an official flagged cornerback Kamren Curl for pass interference. The Aggies got a fresh set of downs and threw a touchdown pass on their next snap.

On Arkansas' offensive possession, Allen had tight end Jeremy Patton open in the back of the end zone on first and 10 from the 14 and completed the pass. But the timing and placement of the play were a little off and Patton's right foot landed out of bounds.

"It's just one of those things like every time we turn around something hits us in the head," Bielema said. "At some point those are going to break free.

" I think you've got to be extremely strong in your faith and in your unwavering idea to get better every day. If they just keep getting better, we'll have a chance and then eventually we'll break through."

Bielema and the Razorbacks are hoping the breakthrough in tight games starts soon.

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