Overtime experience makes Razorbacks SEC's drama kings

When Bret Bielema got to Arkansas, he did some homework.

Following his final season at Wisconsin, when his Badgers suffered three tough overtime losses in three tries, the head coach decided to dive into overtime to figure out how to get better at winning such games.

"One of the things I did when we transitioned here was to really look at overtime, look at the dynamics of it from the standard easy answer, [which] is always go on defense, but there's a lot more that goes into it than that," Bielema said Wednesday. "[Have an] aggressive style when you're on the road, when you're an underdog, when you're playing a certain type of offense, when you're in a certain situation to score touchdowns vs. a field goal; all of those little things have really become a major studying point for me before those days came."

Though it took some time for Bielema and the Razorbacks to get the results they wanted, they’ve had ample opportunities to test Bielema’s newfound knowledge: No FBS team has played more overtime games in the past four years than Arkansas (six).

Just call them the drama kings of the SEC.

Of the six overtime games Arkansas played since Bielema arrived, five have come against SEC teams, including two against Week 4 opponent, Texas A&M, who the Razorbacks meet on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). Both games, which were won by the Aggies, were particularly heartbreaking for the Razorbacks -- none more so than the last such meeting, when the Hogs led 21-13 late in the fourth quarter but eventually lost 28-21 in overtime.

"Not finishing that really hit us hard," senior linebacker Brooks Ellis recalls.

But it was at that point that the Razorbacks’ fate began to change. It started with a stern message from then-senior offensive lineman Sebastian Tretola as he addressed the 1-3 Razorbacks in the locker room after that game.

"He was really emotional and really gave us a good talk," Ellis said. "He inspired us for the next week. We knew we had to change something."

Tretola, now with the Tennessee Titans, offered what Bielema called "tough love."

"Sometimes tough love is the best love," Bielema said. "If you know Sebastian, he doesn't really mince words. He speaks from his heart, he speaks from experience. He saw an opportunity for us to make improvements in short fashion. He's been very impactful."

Since then, the Razorbacks are 3-0 in overtime games after going 0-for-3 in their initial attempts under Bielema. They beat Auburn in four overtimes last October, and of course, many college football fans remember the Hogs’ 53-52 overtime win against Ole Miss that included a wild fourth-and-25 conversion. This season, they came from behind to force overtime and beat TCU on the road, 41-38.

Not only have the Razorbacks improved in overtime games since last year’s loss to Texas A&M, that also served as the line of demarcation when it comes to their success in close games. Through last September, Arkansas in the Bielema era was 0-9 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Since then, the Razorbacks are 5-1, including the TCU victory and a one-point win against Louisiana Tech to open the 2016 season.

The week after they lost to the Aggies last season, Arkansas went on the road and came back from an early two-touchdown deficit to beat Tennessee 24-20.

“It was huge,” offensive tackle Dan Skipper said of that win. "We were down 14-0 early and we were looking around at guys' eyes, and you could see 'We’re done letting this happen to us. We’re going to go take charge of this.'"

That victory gave them the confidence they needed to close out tight games.

"It was mostly mental," Ellis said. "If you don’t think you’re going to win, you’re not going to. I think our mental strength has built up as a team throughout the years. We’re finally at the point where we know what it takes to get over the hump in the fourth quarter and maybe overtime, and do what it takes to win."

The team spends time in preseason training camp practicing live overtime periods, and throughout the season -- like many teams -- Arkansas will practice two-point conversion plays, something else at which they’ve become proficient. Bielema says the coaches discuss it with their players, too.

"We go through difference scenarios and you prepare for the moment," Bielema said. "Then, you know, it comes full circle. In that TCU game I had a couple messages and emails and texts from fellow coaches that are just like 'Wow, how you do that, I don't know.' But if you see our kids every day, it's really not a big surprise."