FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was impressed with Florida’s defensive stand in the closing minutes last Saturday.
The Gators held a comfortable 20-point lead and had secured their third straight Southeastern Conference win. But it didn’t matter. Bielema said nothing stopped Florida from going all out, digging in to keep the Razorbacks out of the end zone.
“Their intensity ratcheted up,” Bielema said. “They were not going to let us in the end zone. … To me, there was a difference in where the programs were right there.”
Arkansas prided itself on fourth quarter dominance during its three-game win streak to open the season. But as the level of competition has been increased, the script has been flipped dramatically on the Razorbacks in three losses.
Late-game struggles have become Arkansas’ identity during its current slide.
The offense has had trouble scoring points. The defense has had issues pushing opponents off of the field. It has all culminated in disappointment for the Razorbacks (3-3, 0-2 in Southeastern Conference), who are hoping things change once again against No. 14 South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 in SEC) on Saturday.
“Winning is a process,” Bielema said. “It’s a process to get through a four-quarter game, and we’re getting there. Each week I can see gains as a head coach to get to where we need to be. We’re just not in that mode yet where we can do it against a quality, ranked opponent. But this week is another opportunity.”
The struggles began when Arkansas blew a fourth quarter lead at Rutgers, surrendering two late touchdowns in a 28-24 loss. The Razorbacks trailed Texas A&M and Florida heading into the fourth quarter and could never do enough on either side of the ball to come from behind to win.
Arkansas has been outscored (27-0) and outgained (341-164) by a wide margin in the fourth quarter of the past three games. Another key statistic: Opponents have held the ball for 25:15, while Arkansas has controlled it for 19:45.
It’s a drastic change from the three wins when the Razorbacks outscored (21-0) and outgained (308-78) Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Miss. It seemed Arkansas never let go of the ball either, keeping it for 35:46 of a possible 45 minutes.
“We’re executing plays to be able to control the ball that way,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said of the success last month. “We’ve been able to get the down and distance and stay in front of the markers and get first downs.”
Arkansas is 3-for-12 (25 percent) on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down in the fourth quarter of its three losses. The Razorbacks were 7-for-13 (53.8 percent) on third down and 2-for-3 on fourth down in the fourth quarter of the three wins.
It didn’t help Arkansas to play from behind in the fourth quarter at Florida. Most of the damage was done in the second and third quarters, when the Gators built a 24-7 lead. But defensive end Chris Smith said it shouldn’t have mattered to the Hogs.
“We are still going to go out there and play hard and know we can win, no matter what the scoreboard said,” Smith said. “We felt like we could come in and win, at which times we showed that. But we’ve just got to finish.”
Arkansas couldn’t. The defense allowed a touchdown to give the Gators a 20-point lead midway through the quarter. The offense, meanwhile, became one-dimensional as it tried to catch up through the air. It led to disappointing results against a Florida defense that was able to tee off on quarterback Brandon Allen down the stretch.
“We hate that we had to get one-dimensional there in the fourth when we’re down by two (touchdowns),” Chaney said. “We felt like we needed to start winging it and open it up a little bit. We made it down there, we couldn’t put it in the end zone.”
Bielema was asked Monday if the fourth-quarter struggles coincide with the increase in competition. Arkansas’ first three opponents, after all, are a combined 7-9. Rutgers, Texas A&M and Florida are a combined 12-3
Bielema said it’s possible. But he refused to use it as an excuse.
“I believe it comes down to execution,” Bielema said. “You want to be able to execute in the fourth quarter just as well. You take a look at the first quarter, we were executing at a high level, offense, defense, special teams. So, we were executing against the same competition at the same point. But obviously in the fourth quarter we wore down and got away from the fundamentals that we believe in, or we want to install in our kids and the results were negative plays.”
So Bielema hopes his team was paying attention to Florida’s demeanor during its goal line stand, though. It’s the mentality his team showed in the fourth quarter earlier this season, one he said must rediscover as they press on in SEC play.
“That was a great teaching point for our guys,” Bielema said. “It will be a point of emphasis in the offseason because you have a great defense who wants to hold onto that 30-10 win vs. a 30-17 win. It meant everything to them. You could see it.”