ARLINGTON, Texas — The stage was set for Arkansas to make a significant statement to the rest of the SEC West.
Once possessing a two-touchdown, second-half lead and on the verge of making it three touchdowns, the Razorbacks gave No. 6 Texas A&M all it could handle on Saturday at AT&T Stadium. They had the Aggies on the ropes; all they needed was one decisive knockout blow.
They couldn’t land it. As a result, the Razorbacks (3-2, 0-2 SEC) remain on the hunt for their first league win since 2012.
“When you got your foot on somebody’s throat, keep on it,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said after his team’s 35-28 overtime loss to Texas A&M. “I think we need to have that killer mentality, to put that thing away.”
Despite the loss, Arkansas continues to take big steps forward. Bielema’s first year in Fayetteville was lined with struggles as the Razorbacks finished 3-9. This season they’ve already matched that win total and their two losses have come to teams ranked in the top six nationally (Auburn and Texas A&M).
In their season opener against Auburn, they went toe-to-toe with the Tigers for a half before Auburn broke the game open in the third quarter. On Saturday, the Razorbacks looked even better -- and probably should have won, considering how they controlled the game in the first three quarters.
“For whatever reason, we weren't able to have the success we wanted to in the end here,” Bielema said. “But there are a lot of positive steps. But I didn't fly to Dallas to make a positive step. I came here to win, and I think our players did, and to get that close and to not have it, it's a critical week for us.”
That’s the kind of mentality that has to be fostered if the Razorbacks are going to start closing these types of games out. The SEC West is unapologetically difficult. Arkansas’ schedule is brutal down the stretch after their open date this week. Alabama is waiting on the other side of it. So are dates with Georgia, Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri.
What’s clear is the Hogs have a system and a style they believe in and they continue to improve while staying true to both. Bielema has a well-documented history of success with his teams playing this physical, old-school style, and the seeds are being planted for future success in Fayetteville now. There is quality on both the offensive and defensive lines and that’s where everything starts. Their running back tandem of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams is a challenge for any team to deal with.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin argued leading up to Saturday's game that Arkansas should have been considered to be a top-25 team. The Razorbacks validated that opinion for much of the day, and it's clear Arkansas is moving closer to being a real factor in the SEC.
The disconnect came late for the Razorbacks, who couldn’t close things out Saturday. By leaving the door creaked open slightly, the Aggies burst right through it, scoring a come-from-behind win, something they’re quite used to. The Aggies have learned how to finish tight games in their still-young SEC tenure. The Razorbacks, in their second season under Bielema, are still learning how to close games out against good teams in crunch time, perhaps signaling the difference between where the two programs are currently.
The Razorbacks were on the losing end of an SEC game for the 14th consecutive time because of critical mistakes that prevented them from building an even bigger lead than the 14-point advantage they once held Saturday.
In the first quarter, Arkansas fumbled a center-snap exchange in Texas A&M territory that killed a drive. In the second, a 34-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Allen to Hunter Henry was wiped off the board thanks to a holding penalty by left tackle Dan Skipper. In the fourth, a 56-yard run by Williams all the way to the Texas A&M 2-yard line was also revoked because of a tripping call on Skipper. If not for the penalty, Arkansas would have had a prime opportunity for a 21-point lead.
“It comes down to playing clean and not doing anything to hurt ourselves,” Allen said. “That’s what it came down to [Saturday]. Anytime you get those big plays called back on something you’re doing to yourself, it’s tough to win.”
Bielema and everyone in that locker room knew that minus those mistakes, things could have been different. Even so, the Razorbacks had their chance to finish late, missing a field goal, breaking down on defense and not getting a first down in overtime. They couldn’t take advantage of their opportunities. The Aggies made them pay for it as a result.
What's clear though, is that the necessary steps are being taken in Fayetteville, but growth doesn't come without growing pains. Saturday was evidence of both for Arkansas.
“There's a lot of really good things coming,” Bielema said. “This could be a very exciting time ahead of us.”