By David Rogers. December 29, 2016. CHARLOTTE, NC — College football pundits called Thursday night’s Belk Bowl one of the intriguing matchups of the holiday bowl season. That was before the game. Afterwards, they called it one of the craziest gridiron contests to be played, ever, even with heavily favored Virginia Tech emerging as the winner over Arkansas with a fairly normal score, 35-24.
COVER IMAGE: Virginia Tech’s Cam Phillips was named Belk Bowl “MVP” because of catch-and-runs like this. Photographic image by Brad Batchelor for Blowing Rock News
Check out the slideshows at the bottom of the article — exclusively for Blowing Rock News
A reported 46,902 college football fans witnessed a story that could easily have been penned by Charles Dickens: “A Tale of Two Halves.” Or perhaps it was a study of momentum swings by physicists, or a narrative crafted by statisticians to demonstrate the principles of “reversion to mean.”
It was as if the Razorbacks from way down south were allowed to go on a first half shopping spree, then arrested for shoplifiting at halftime. That’s because in the second half of play they were little more than handcuffed mannequins.
Arkansas finished the regular season in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) as the 5th place team in the SEC West division, becoming bowl eligible by virtue of non-conference wins over the more lightly regarded Louisiana Tech (C-USA), Texas Christian (Big 12), Texas State (Sun Belt) and Alcorn State (FCS level, Southwestern Conference), while defeating conference opponents Ole Miss, Florida, and Mississippi State. The only surprise “big win,” so to speak, was in their manhandling Florida at home, 32-10.
It looked like the wheels had completely flown off the Hokies’ Conestoga wagon.
So as the redheaded stepchild of the SEC, Arkansas had a chip on its shoulder coming into the Belk Bowl, hoping to prove that it is, for sure, a program on the rise and deserving to be mentioned in the same SEC breath as Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, and the like.
In the first half at Bank of America Stadium, they played with that chip — and with a “take no prisoners” attitude that had everyone in the college football world on the edge of their seats
Arkansas won the coin flip and deferred, meaning that Virginia Tech would have opening possession of the pigskin and the first opportunity to put points on the board. It was an opportunity the Hokies fumbled, quite literally.
On the very first play from scrimmage, 6-4, 235-lb. junior quarterback Jerod Evans fumbled the snap from center and Arkansas’ star linebacker Brooks Ellis was Johnny-on-the-spot, gathering in the ball on the VT 26. It was as if the Razorbacks had received the opening kickoff and fashioned a 74-yard return. They had great field position with hardly any time ticked off the clock.
To their credit, the Hokies’ defense held firm and limited Arkansas to a 38-yard field goal by sophomore Cole Hedlund. But nothing seemed to go right for Virginia Tech after that. They imploded. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks were hungry hunters and playing angry.
The Hokies punted. A short while later, Evans hurled an interception, the ball falling short along the right sideline. It was correctly aimed at a wide open receiver, but ARK’s sophomore DB Ryan Pulley, a 3-star rated prospect coming out of Fort Myers, FL’s Island Coast High School, plucked the ball from the air near the 4-yard line and returned the INT 50 yards — and it was compounded by an unnecessary roughness penalty against VT’s redshirt senior offensive lineman, Augie Conte. Two plays later, Arkansas QB Austin Allen found tight end Cheyenne O’Grady for a 28-yard TD.
I was thinking, ‘Sheesh!’
After Hedlund’s FG and an earlier 90-yard drive for a punch-it-in TD, the Allen-to-O’Grady scoring aerial — as well as the scorching defensive play by the Razorbacks — meant that the visitors from Fayetteville had ambushed the Hokies for a 17-0 lead in just the first quarter.
Virginia Tech’s head coach Justin Fuente, in his first year at the helm after getting the nod to replace retired coaching legend Frank Beamer, told reporters later that Arkansas changed their defensive scheme from what he and his coaches had seen on film. The Razorbacks were bringing pressure up the middle that his Hokies weren’t handling.
And when ARK’s Allen commanded yet another first half TD-scoring march (covering 54 yards in just 6 plays), culminating in a 12-yard pass to senior wide receiver Keon Hatcher with still more than 10 minutes left in the second quarter, it looked like the wheels had flown completely off of the Hokies gridiron wagon.
Virginia Tech’s junior WR Cam Phillips recalled for reporters afterwards that his Hokies had come back from a 17-point, second quarter deficit against Notre Dame during the regular season (Nov. 19) before eventually winning, 34-31. But when a scribe asked him what his thoughts were in being down 24-0 at halftime against Arkansas in the Belk Bowl, the Charlotte native replied, “I was thinking, ‘Sheesh!’ Especially the way we were playing.”
Whatever Fuentes and his Virginia Tech coaching staff did to rally the troops at halftime, they need to bottle it and sell it to all football coaches at every level. In the first half, the Hokies’ eight offensive possessions all came up empty with four punts, a fumble, and interception, turning the ball over on downs, and a missed field goal. In the second half, Virginia had seven offensive possessions and punted twice, but had five TD-scoring drives, 35 straight points for which the Razorbacks had no answers.
For in the second half, it was the Razorbacks’ Conestoga wagaon that had its wheels come off. In its eight offensive possessions after intermission, Arkansas fumbled away the opening drive opportunity, then finished the game with four punts and three interceptions.
I have never seen anything turn the tide so quickly.
“I have never seen anything turn the tide so quickly,” Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema admitted to reporters in his post-game press conference. (Virginia Tech) played against us in all three phases: offense, defense, and special teams. I wish I could put my finger on one thing that was said or not said (at halftime)…”
“…(In the second half) we were so concentrated on what they were doing or not doing,” Bielema added. “We made uncharacteristic busts in the second half on offense and defense. Simple things, like putting people in motion, putting people in the right routes, guys improvising and doing things that are uncharacteristic of what we asked them to do…
Bielema explained to reporters that he became concerned about his team’s will to win in the the 4th quarter. “I saw too many of our guys with their heads down in the 4th quarter. You don’t get anywhere in life with your head anywhere but up, looking forward.
“The second half has been our melting point,” said the 4th year Razorback mentor, who previously served as head coach at Wisconsin from 2006 to 2012. “A really good point of emphasis moving forward will be that (melting point). I will address that and everything from A to Z around the program as well. I am very, very disappointed. I apologize to the (Arkansas fans) who made the trip, the friends, the family — that we couldn’t close this thing out because I know it meant a lot to them.
“We had a few guys speak up at the end of my (locker room) talk,” Bielema concluded, “about guys moving on, as well as the guys coming back and what we need to do to move forward. It is not alright to accept this.”
Did we mention this game had just about everything?
- An upset in the making that suddenly went south
- The biggest comeback win in Virginia Tech history
- There a multitude of play reviews, including at least one reversal
- There was an inadvertent whistle with about 1:55 remaining in the first half on a punt. The return man fumbled the ball forward, then it was fumbled along the ground by an Arkansas player, then the Hokies’ Adonis Alexander scooped it up off the ground. Although the ball was “live” throughout, the inadvertent whistle appeared to rule the ball recovered and downed by Arkansas. The referees were bailed out by a concurrent holding call on the receiving team, which gave the ball back to Arkansas back upfield. Got it?
- There was a 74-yard bomb from Arkansas’ Allen to Morgan, that Morgan fumbled while diving for the goal line. The ball tumbled out of bounds as Morgan plowed face first into the right side pylon. It was ruled a touchback, that would have given Virginia Tech the ball at its own 20, but a Hokie player was flagged for an illegal hands to the face penalty back up at the line of scrimmage, so Arkansas got a “do over.”
In the 4th quarter, Morgan was ejected for “flagrant unsportsmanlike conduct.” In the coach’s press conference later, Bielema said in answer to a reporter’s question that one of the referees reported to him that Morgan had spit into a Virginia Tech player’s face.
- There were pass interference penalties that were called — and other blatant ones that weren’t called.
- There were turnovers: 2 by Virginia Tech in the 1st half and 4 by Arkansas in the disastrous 2nd half.
- There was a targeting call — that was reversed upon review.
- There was a horse collar tackle.
- There were one-handed TD catches.
- There were passes deflected at the line of scrimmage that were intercepted.
- There were ball carriers upended and flipping head over heels with a thud to the ground.
- There were spectacular pass catches, as well as determined, even inspirational runs after catch for big gains.
- The official start time was 5:36 pm and it officially ended at 9:31 for an official duration of almost four hours that seemed longer. The post game interviews weren’t finished until well after 10:30 pm.
Did we mention that there were some enthusiastic fans with lusty cheers when things went right and loud, bombastic “boos” when things went wrong?
QB Austin Allen was 18-31 for 278 yards, 2 TDs, and 3 INTs for a 135.3 rating
- As a team, Arkansas only rushed for 36 net yards
- WR Keon Hatcher caught 6 passes for 105 yards and 1 TD
- Arkansas’ total yards for the game: 314
- Arkansas capitalized on turnovers for 10 points
- Arkansas converted just 2-of-14 third down opportunities
- Arkansas tallied 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 5 pass breakups
- Virginia Tech
- QB Jerod Evans was 21-33 for 243 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT for a 139.4 rating
- Evans was the Hokies’ leading rusher, with 22 carries for 87 yards
- VT rushed for a total of 159 yards
- VT’s total offensive yards: 402
- Evans was sacked 6 times
- VT scored 28 points off of turnovers
- VT converted 7-of-15 third down opportunities
- VT recorded 6 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 2 pass breakups