It's easy to look back and say I saw this one coming, that it was going to be pure nastiness as far as style of play Saturday at Starkville. But I didn't. I thought Arkansas would handle State comfortably.
Arkansas won it, 38-31, in double overtime. They had to turn to Elton Ford at strong safety (after Rudell Crim didn't tackle well at the outset) and Darius Winston and Eric Bennett at cornerback. The Hogs needed help at will linebacker when Anthony Leon was ejected. The Hogs used Terrell Williams, Brett Harris and Freddy Burton there.
They needed standout play from a good offensive line, including some nice seals on the outside by center Travis Swanson.
It's never easy in Starkville. Repeat that 10 times, or at the end of every one of our items in the pre-game Top 10.
You think you've heard cowbells ring, then you go to the field for the final few minutes of the game and you really hear cowbells. Say that 10 times. The cowbells are loud at Mississippi State.
1) The running game
The Mississippi State running game was just as advertised. The Bulldogs ran it tough from start to finish. They made 262 yards and rushed for four touchdowns. Quarterback Chris Relf was solid in the way he read the inside phase of the option, reading the Arkansas tackles and putting middle linebacker Jerry Franklin in a bind. But the Hogs battled and battled and battled. Franklin made 20 tackles. Free safety Tramain Thomas made 14. The Hogs stayed in the fight despite having to see 100 total plays from the Bulldogs. It's never easy in Starkville.
2) The running game
This is the Arkansas version of the running game. Knile Davis made 187 on 30 tough runs. He battled all night. Yes, he lost two fumbles when he took solid hits. The Arkansas offensive line did its job. It blocked the running game at a decent level and Ryan Mallett was sacked only twice. The Hogs stood toe to toe and slugged it out. It wasn't always pretty. It never is when you go on the road to play a top 25 team in the SEC. And it's never easy in Starkville.
3) Ryan Mallett
The Arkansas quarterback was elated afterwards. The State fans rang their cowbells throughout the game making it tough for the Hogs to change plays at the line of scrimmage. The operation wasn't perfect, but Mallett threw only one interception and that lone pick has to be rated as a nice play by the Bulldogs on a leaping interception at the boundary. Mallett completed 17 of 26 for 305 yards, including the game winner when he solved a State blitz with a strike into the flats for a 7-yard pass to Knile Davis. Mallett enjoyed "ringing the bell" afterwards. The Hogs take their big bell on the road and popped the clapper many times afterwards, filling the stadium with their own noise. Mallett said, "Our one bell is louder than anything they had. You could hear ours all by itself." He said he was proud of the victory. Winning on the road is always sweet in the SEC. And it's never easy in Starkville.
I saw this one coming, although perhaps it could have been emphasized more by placing it at the top of the list. To a man, Arkansas players afterwards said they knew it was going to be a battle from start to finish. Jake Bequette said, "This was not a finesse team. They are always physical. We didn't match their intensity in the first half, but we did in the second." Bequette said it was about like he expected. He knew State's running game would be as good as any the Hogs had seen all year. Linebacker Jerry Franklin said he figured the State plan was built around what Auburn did to the Hogs in the inside option. Franklin measured up with 20 tackles on the game. The Bulldogs ran right at Franklin and he was still standing at the end of the game. He'd played in Starkville before, as an outside linebacker two years ago. And he knew what to expect. He said it, so we didn't have to. Franklin reminded, "It's never easy in Starkville."
5) The Edge
Both teams made plays on the edge. The collisions were mean and nasty on the perimeter. Neither team had players who wanted to go out of bounds. They fought for about every inch. MSU running back Vick Ballard made that mistake to start the first overtime when he tried to reach for the pylon just before Jerico Nelson arrived. It was the play of the game. Nelson made the hit, the ball squirted forward and through the end zone for a touchback. That was the only chance State had to take the lead at the end. The Hogs sealed everything in the second overtime, leaving Ryan Mallett a chance to pass the Hogs to a hard-fought victory. It's never easy in Starkville.
The Hogs lost this battle, but it wasn't decisive. They had eight penalties for 49 yards. The good news is that there weren't too many big ones. The costly penalty was a personal foul by Anthony Leon after the Hogs recovered a fumble. Leon was ejected for apparently throwing a punch after he was kicked in a pileup. If the league office thinks it was a punch (and not a push), Leon will probably miss the first half of the LSU game this week. State had three penalties for 29 yards. With the noise factor out of hand with the cowbells, it's not a surprise the Hogs lost this battle. It's never easy in Starkville.
Arkansas won some, lost some. I thought Jarius Wright and Joe Adams won their share of battles. Ryan Mallett and Chris Relf took turns winning battles for their respective teams, too. Bobby Petrino did a nice job of moving Adams around to get him some matchups against the State secondary. But there were some stalemates, too. It's never easy in Starkville.
8) Chad Bumphis
Like Joe Adams, State wide receiver Chad Bumphis can make plays for the Bulldogs. He had five catches for 45 yards, the same yardage total as Adams. But the Hogs kept Bumphis from the long gainer. His best play was a 21-yarder that did set up a touchdown. The Hogs had to match him with freshman Eric Bennett and sophomore Darius Winston, two inexperienced corners. For the most part, the Hogs held up under tough conditions. It's never easy at Starkville.
9) The Defensive Front
The Hogs won some and lost some here. They did better on the edge, but Chris Relf did work some magic inside with the dive option with Vick Ballard. The Hogs rotated six defensive tackles and four ends. They played enough bodies that they held up in the two overtime periods, not allowing any points. Ultimately, that was the difference in the game. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino thought the Hogs pounded on Relf enough that he was less effective in the overtime periods. The State offensive line was solid and kept coming at the Hogs. It's never easy in Starkville.
10) Finish What You Start
I saved it for last and it was the most important item in the Top 10 list. The Hogs had to withstand a strong State finish. The Hogs led, 31-21, when Knile Davis punched it in from the 1-yard line with 10:06 left. State then put together a 14-play, 75-yard drive that took 5:41 off the clock. Ultimately, that may have been what saved the Hogs, forcing the Bulldogs to grind for their points. The Bulldogs had only 1:52 for their final possession, although they did kick the tying field goal as time expired. The Hogs did finish well in the overtime. It was enough to earn them a 4-1 record outside the state of Arkansas this season. Like at Georgia, the Hogs made the big play at the end and finished what they started. It was the kind of tough, physical finish you expect on the road in the SEC. It's never easy in Starkville.
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