Tennessee will not be able to fix the second half of its spiraling football season if the Volunteers can't fix the second half of games.
After its lone open date, Tennessee traveled to Arkansas as a slight favorite for Saturday night's game. The Vols looked the part in building a 13-0 halftime lead, but that advantage was abruptly wiped out by a 24-0 Razorbacks surge during the third quarter in an eventual 24-13 defeat.
It was the fourth consecutive loss for the Vols, who have been outscored 61-7 during the third quarter of these setbacks.
"We need to come out (in the second half) with more fire," Tennessee sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o said late Saturday night on a Zoom call. "You've got to be able to sustain it for four quarters. Football is not a half, and football is not three quarters. It's four quarters and 60 minutes, so we've got to be able to sustain for all 60 minutes - play football like we did in the first half and carry it on for the entire game."
Tennessee's third-quarter troubles began at Georgia on Oct. 10, when the Bulldogs erased a 21-17 halftime deficit and wound up demolishing the Vols 44-21. A disastrous first half against Kentucky was not a total loss when Tennessee pulled within 17-7 just before the break, but a 10-0 third quarter by the Wildcats enabled them to race away with a 34-7 surprise rout.
The third quarter in Fayetteville was the worst yet for Tennessee, as Arkansas racked up 10 first downs and an eye-popping 257 yards while holding the Vols without a first down and to only 16 yards.
"When you have an off week, obviously you go back and do a lot of quality control, and it seems to me that we've had more penalties in the third quarter and we've had more turnovers in the third quarter," Vols third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "Tonight, we got a penalty the first time we got the ball, which put us in a second-and-15, and then we punted on a fourth-and-5. We can't shoot ourselves in the foot there, and we've done that several times.
"Defensively, we gave up two explosive plays, and they did put together a really good drive to start the third quarter and got the tight end inside on our linebackers there."
Tennessee's third-quarter woes could be extended this week when the Vols (2-4) host No. 5 Texas A&M (5-1), which has outscored Mississippi State, Arkansas and South Carolina 41-10 during the third quarter of its past three games.
"That's one of our maxims - we've got to keep it there for 60 minutes and learn how to strain and play hard and ultimately play a whole game," Vols sophomore running back Eric Gray said. "We've definitely talked about it. We just have to keep working. That's all it is.
"The formula is in the hard work."
No tailback tandem
There were no evenly split carries Saturday night between Gray and Ty Chandler, who continues to struggle with an ankle injury from the Oct. 24 loss to Alabama.
Chandler got one carry for no yards in Fayetteville, while Gray rushed a career-high 31 times for 123 yards and Tennessee's only touchdown.
"I'm hoping Ty gets back next week, but I definitely feel good getting over 30," Gray said. "I feel good right now. Nothing's wrong. I feel good."
Gray had 19 rushes for 89 yards in the first half and 12 carries for 34 yards after halftime.
"At the end of the first half, we kind of had things figured out a little bit," Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. "We weren't stopping them quite yet, but we held them to a field goal. I knew at halftime that we would make some good adjustments and would bring a little more edge pressure and try and get to him that way before the cutback of the zone."
Freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey closed out the game for the Vols and was 6-of-9 passing for 65 yards with two interceptions.
"We're running four verticals and they're dropping eight," Pruitt said. "He didn't really try to force the ball. He took checkdowns. Based off the time that was left, he was probably going to have to force one in there, but it's something he can learn from."
Bailey's 24-yard connection with Brandon Johnson was Tennessee's longest gain of the evening. The Vols had just five offensive plays that netted 10 or more yards.
Odds and ends
Tennessee's all-time record dropped to 848-399-53, so the next loss will be the 400th in program history. ... Pruitt said junior Alontae Taylor continues to be bothered by a hamstring pull from the preseason and is frustrated trying to get to where he can play full speed. ... The Vols took three quarterbacks as part of their 70-player travel roster, with JT Shrout staying in Knoxville. ... Senior safety Theo Jackson had a career-high 10 tackles. ... Senior defensive lineman Savion Williams, who tallied seven tackles and eight appearances with the Vols but did not make the trip to Fayetteville, announced he's leaving the program.