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The end is near

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Bret Bielema (file photo) - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Bret Bielema (file photo)

Those unspectacular 'Cocks of South Carolina, teetering after a shaky home win against Louisiana Tech and an unsightly defeat to Texas A&M at Kyle Field, represented a potential pivot point for Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks on Saturday. Why, if he could just coax a methodical, consistent performance out of his maligned charges and get a road win to even the Hogs' SEC mark at 1-1 and his own five-year ledger at 28-28, the 2017 season might not be nearly as lost as once feared, and he might have a sporting chance to coach out the remaining seven games without hearing the word "buyout."

It was all proceeding decently enough for the Hogs after Austin Allen fired a short touchdown pass to knot the score at 10-10 midway through the second quarter. The Razorback defense had played a strong half generally, with one failed assignment leading to the Gamecocks' touchdown, and the offense started gaining its footing on that drive that Allen punctuated. But right before halftime, Carolina parlayed one questionable pass interference call into a Jake Bentley-to-Bryan Edwards touchdown pass with four seconds to play, and that sent the home team to the locker room ahead 17-10 and enthused.

And, of course, that one throw cemented the Razorbacks' fate. See, it has fast become gospel around here that if Bielema's staring at a smaller number on the scoreboard as he saunters into the locker room at the midway point of a game, there's no credible reason for Arkansas to take the field for the last 30 minutes of action. The status quo played out accordingly: South Carolina scored three defensive touchdowns en route to a 31-12 second half blowout that made the final score 48-22, and made me actually turn on a little Monday morning sports radio for a bit of jaundiced commentary.

One caller posited that Bielema has 15 million reasons to do nothing but fiddle while Fayetteville burns, and he is absolutely right. The head coach's absurdly exorbitant bye-bye package — orchestrated by Jeff Long after the Hogs' quasi-mythical 7-6, Texas Bowl-championship season of 2014 — easily outstrips the boneheaded golden parachute that former chancellor John White strapped onto Houston Nutt's waiting back as he coasted down to Oxford back in aught-seven.

Bielema had "earned" his security blanket by authoring a couple of nice wins over Ole Miss and LSU to get bowl-eligible, and then knocking off Charlie Strong's punchless Longhorns in Houston to end the bounce-back campaign. What may have been forgotten in that four-game stretch, however, is the contest that was a harbinger of Bielema's chronic failing.

Fresh off those shutouts of the Tigers and Rebel-Sharkbears, Arkansas traveled to Missouri for the first go-around of this foisted rivalry game, and threatened to completely unravel the Tigers' bid to win back-to-back East Division titles. Brandon Allen was a little gimpy after taking a hit to the shoulder in the Ole Miss victory, though, and the Hogs' 14-6 halftime lead disappeared in the fourth quarter.

Arkansas was shut out by Missouri in the second half at Faurot Field in a 21-14 loss. The same vanishing act in the same locale happened last November when the Hogs were angling for an 8-4 regular season and Missouri was floundering badly. It happened in the Belk Bowl about five weeks after that when the Razorbacks' 24-0 halftime lead over Virginia Tech turned into a 35-24 loss that brought about the first serious clarion call for Bielema to produce. It happens generally every September now against Texas A&M.

The epidemic was easier to ignore when the Hogs did manage, at times, to eke out some games they once controlled. They held off Ole Miss in that memorable 2015 showdown and fought back against TCU in 2016, though in both games they had also surrendered fourth-quarter leads and had to execute minor miracles to stay on the proper side of the decision column.

Take away Bielema's 0-16 mark in games where the Hogs have trailed at the half, and you still have 13 losses over less than five seasons where the Hogs have led or been tied at the break, too. The upshot? There has never been a worse second-half coach in the program's history, and this is not Pearls' way of saying Bielema's tenure has been worthy of complete dismissal. He endeared himself to a lot of skeptical fans by being self-effacing, deferential to his staff and endlessly complimentary of his players.

But the cracks in the façade are showing now. He's publicly aired disappointment toward at least a couple of players. He remains apparently committed to Kurt Anderson after an 18-game stretch of generally horrid offensive line performance and personnel shuffling. The postgame pontification no longer sounds sincere or insightful. He's going through the proverbial motions, and next week's motion will be the merciless foot of Nick Saban swinging dutifully into Bielema's backside, shipping it right back to Fayetteville.


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