Arkansas’ Bret Bielema walked off the field at halftime Thursday with a 24-0 lead. As he headed for the locker room, the coach confidently promised his team wouldn’t let up in the second half. He’d make a point to remind his Razorbacks to finish strong.
Despite Bielema’s assurance, they failed to do that, as they have so often this season. There weren’t many teams as poor in the second half of games as Arkansas in 2016. By the end of Thursday’s Belk Bowl collapse against No. 22 Virginia Tech, there were even fewer. The Hokies beat Arkansas 35-24, overcoming the three-score, halftime deficit to win 10 games for the first time since 2011.
It shouldn’t be a surprise each team’s fortunes flipped in the second half. Arkansas (7-6) entered the game ranked 110th in second-half scoring margin, the worst among teams with a winning record, and blew a 17-point halftime lead in its regular-season finale. After Thursday’s loss, opponents have outscored Arkansas by 97 points in the second half of games.
Over the past 10 seasons, teams were 3-902 when trailing by at least 24 points. Arkansas, meanwhile, is just 21-8 since 2013 when leading at intermission, which ranks 104th in FBS.
Earlier this season, Virginia Tech (10-4) came back from a 17-0 deficit to beat Notre Dame. It nearly overcame a two-touchdown deficit in the ACC championship game against Clemson. The last time the Hokies were shut out at halftime in a bowl game, they came back to win, too.
Thursday’s 24-point comeback victory is the third-largest of the 2016 season and largest in Hokies history.
The Razorbacks were in control early, capitalizing on Virginia Tech turnovers. They opened the second half with a fumble inside their own territory, however, and would turn it over in their own zone three more times, including twice inside their own 20. Each time, Virginia Tech turned it into a touchdown.
For the past month, Virginia Tech wanted no part of any conversation already labeling the 2016 season a success. Much of the talk was how much first-year coach Justin Fuente accomplished, but the Hokies still had goals remaining. The season wasn’t yet over, they said, and 10 wins still loomed.
Virginia Tech has been a part of bigger victories, having won ACC titles and major bowls. Yet the win over Arkansas clinched double-digit wins for the first time since 2011. Virginia Tech won at least 10 games in every season from 2004-2011. The Hokies’ seniors pledged to bring the Hokies back into the championship conversation, and they should end the season ranked in the final AP poll for the first time since that 2011 campaign.
10 WINS!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/R1q6I2148q
— Justin Fuente (@CoachFuente) December 30, 2016
If receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges elect to return in 2017, the Hokies will likely be the favorite to repeat as ACC Coastal Division champions. Frank Beamer expressed his confidence when he stepped down as coach after last season that the Hokies were only a quarterback away. Fuente recruited Jerod Evans, who will be back as a senior in 2017.
It’s a disappointing finish for Arkansas, which had an opportunity to win nine games if not back-to-back collapses to end the season. Bielema is 25-26 in four seasons with the Razorbacks.