Arkansas blew a 24-point halftime lead, and it somehow might not have been the strangest thing to happen to the Razorbacks during their 2016 Belk Bowl experience.
Thursday's game day began for Arkansas with an announcement that starting tight end Jeremy Sprinkle would be suspended for the game against Virginia Tech. Bowl suspensions happen all the time, but Sprinkle's managed to be unique: He had to sit out because he was accused of shoplifting from Belk, the title sponsor of the bowl game.
SEC Country reports that the players' bowl gifts included a $450 Belk gift card … and the police report says that Sprinkle shoplifted $260 of merchandise by attempting to conceal the eight extra items after the team's shopping spree was finished.
Two hours after the suspension was revealed, Arkansas took the field in Charlotte and appeared set to dominate the No. 22 Hokies. For a half, everything went right, and yet the result was still a devastating 35-24 loss.
Virginia Tech lost a fumble on its first play, leading to an Arkansas field goal. The rest of its first half included a turnover on downs, a punt, an interception, three more punts and a missed field goal, while Arkansas scored three touchdowns. The Razorbacks even came out on the right side of a bizarre officiating decision, when the game was delayed for several minutes as coach Bret Bielema argued -- successfully -- about the recovery of a muffed punt that Arkansas never actually controlled.
And then everything proceeded to go wrong for Arkansas, which has been an unfortunate trend. In the last game of the regular season, the Razorbacks led last-place Missouri 24-7 at halftime, then failed to score in the second half and lost 28-24. Entering the Belk Bowl, Arkansas had outscored opponents by 63 in 12 first halves and been outscored by 62 in 12 second halves. The trend managed to get much worse.
Arkansas' second half on Thursday featured four turnovers, four first downs and 56 total yards. Bud Foster's Hokies defense became dominant, and Virginia Tech's offense snapped out of its funk. The Hokies outscored the Razorbacks 35-0 in the second half, turning the four turnovers into four touchdowns and taking the lead for good on a six-yard Travon McMillian run early in the fourth quarter.
At one point, Virginia Tech scored two touchdowns in 18 seconds. Sam Rogers hauled in a three-yard touchdown catch, Arkansas QB Austin Allen threw an interception off his receiver on the next play and Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans threw a five-yard TD to Chris Cunningham on the next play.
It wasn't quite last year's Alamo Bowl, when TCU erased a 31-0 halftime deficit to beat Oregon 47-41 in overtime, but the result was the third-largest bowl comeback in the past 10 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Arkansas' 2nd-Half Drives- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 30, 2016
Virginia Tech makes 3rd-largest comeback in a bowl gm in last 10 seasons
The big comeback allowed Virginia Tech, which won the ACC Coastal, to finish the season 10-4 in the first year under Justin Fuente, a promising campaign that should lead to high expectations in 2017.
Arkansas, meanwhile, turned a dominant performance into a humiliating defeat that will amplify the negative narratives surrounding the Bielema era. Thanks in part to the disastrous second-half performances, Arkansas stumbled to 7-6, making Bielema 25-26 overall and 10-22 in the SEC in four seasons.
A day that started with a bizarre bowl sponsor shoplifting story somehow managed to get much worse.