FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema plans to build a program that can confidently close games by imposing its will on opponents in the fourth quarter.
His first season showed Arkansas still has a long way to go.
The Razorbacks’ 31-27 loss to LSU was a heart-breaking blow for a group on the verge of snapping an eight-game losing streak in its season finale. But the ending was indicative of Bielema’s first season with the program. It was the third time the Razorbacks took a lead into the fourth quarter during their long slide.
“I think the part that’s the most disappointing is to know that you put yourself in position to win a game and you didn’t do it,” Bielema said after the LSU loss. “You didn’t close it out. The dynamics of why we lost the game are so easily fixed. It’s inexcusable. We can’t allow that to happen and expect to have any type of success.”
The LSU loss was easily the most painful because of the way the Razorbacks lost.
“We’ve just got to learn how to finish,” Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry said. “We’ve got to step on people’s throats and continue to press. We’ll learn that.”
While quarterback Anthony Jennings’ 49-yard touchdown pass to receiver Travin Dural will stand as the indelible image, there was more to the fourth-quarter issues.
Arkansas’ offense managed only 24 yards in the final 15 minutes and gained only one first down. The Razorbacks had 11 rushing yards on 7 carries and failed to “monopolize” the ball as Bielema typically describes it. They had it for just 4:30.
“It hurt, you know?” Arkansas receiver Keon Hatcher said. “I was one of them. I had caught a pass and I was short. I mean, I’ve got to be disciplined enough to know where the chains are at and get the first down for my team.”
Still, the Hogs appeared to be in good shape when they got a big special teams play from punter Sam Irwin-Hill in the closing minutes. The junior boomed a 65-yard punt that was downed at LSU’s one-yard line with 3:04 remaining.
The defense still surrendered a 99-yard touchdown drive, capped by the third-and-10 touchdown pass from Jennings to Dural. The receiver was alone in the secondary, beating cornerback Jared Collins and safety Eric Bennett.
“It’s tough, because all week long we emphasized bringing back the (Golden) Boot,” linebacker Braylon Mitchell said. “I felt like the whole game we had the mindset that no matter what, when we leave Louisiana, we’re taking the Boot back with us. So to have it dome down to that one play, and us not bring back the Boot is very difficult.”
Arkansas was outscored 72-35 in the fourth quarter this season.
It included 72-14 during its nine-game losing streak to end the year.
The Razorbacks began the slide by blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of its 28-24 loss at Rutgers on Sept. 21. It led Mississippi State 17-10 two weeks ago, but surrendered the game-tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter and fumbling the ball inside the Mississippi State 10 later to push the game into overtime.
The struggles continued six days later in Baton Rouge, La.
“We’re going to get there,” Bielema said after Friday’s loss. “I feel terrible for Razorback fans that bleed as much as our players and coaches and everybody. But it’s going to make the victories and the future that much sweeter.”
It will have to wait until next season, though, because of Arkansas’ fourth-quarter struggles in the season-ending loss to LSU.
“You’ve got to finish,” Hatcher said. “We had the game. We just have to finish.”