No. 6 Arkansas did its part Saturday afternoon to ensure what will be a top five showdown at No. 1 LSU the day after Thanksgiving by passing it's final tune-up in dominant fashion.
Junior quarterback Tyler Wilson completed a school-record 32 passes while throwing for 365 yards and three touchdowns and the defense had its best effort of the year as the Razorbacks hammered Mississippi State 44-17 before 55,761 fans at War Memorial Stadium.
The Razorbacks (10-1, 6-1) outgained the visitors by a whopping margin of 539-211 and scored a point more than Alabama and LSU combined against the Bulldogs (5-6, 1-6).
"I'm very proud of our team," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said. "We did well in our preparation and executed well in all three phases of the game tonight. Our defense played extremely well and on offense it was fun to drive the ball down the field. I'm happy with our performance and now it is time to get ready for Friday."
"We're excited about it," Petrino said. "This is why we are here. This is what we want to do – go play in huge games with a lot at stake. It will be a lot of fun and we have certainly improved a lot as a football team since the Alabama game. We are playing well right now."
It also meant the Razorbacks won all seven of their home games for the first time since 1999 and have outscored their last three foes by 137-52.
"I like how we are playing right now," Petrino said. "We're playing good football, Our defense is getting after the quarterback and we're running the ball well on offense. We have really played well the last three games."
LSU had played great all season and beat Alabama 9-6 – the same team that hammered Arkansas 38-14 in Tuscaloosa the fourth week of the season.
Petrino believes he will be taking a different team to Baton Rouge on Saturday that that one.
It is an offense that has scored 40 straight points in three straight games against a defense that is regarded as one of the best – if not the best – in the country.
"It is going to be fun to have our preparation for a nice big game coming up on Friday," Petrino said. "I like the way we are playing. We have a lot of guys back healthy, we are running the ball well, throwing it well and defensively we are doing a great job of stopping the run and getting after the quarterbacks.
"And what can you say about our special teams?" Petrino said. "They have been strong all year long. I really like the way we have played the last three games."
Arkansas has now won 10 straight games in Little Rock and the seniors never lost a game at War Memorial Stadium.
"It was another successful trip to Little Rock," Petrino said. "The game was about our 17 seniors, who were playing the last game in a home stadium and the 13 games we had from Little Rock. We wanted to win for them."
Wilson broke Joe Ferguson's mark of 31 set back in 1971 while also surpassing Ryan Mallett and moving into second place in single-season completions with 243.
"Other than that I thought he executed really well," Petrino said. "I thought his decision making was good and he missed a couple of throws, but he sure completed a lot of them."
The Arkansas defense forced six straight three-and-outs as Mississippi State failed to have a first down for 30 minutes of clock time.
"I was really happy with the way we played defensively," Petrino said. "We were fast, we were physical. At one time we had six three-and-outs, which gave us great field position."
The Razorbacks allowed the Bulldogs – whose six losses have all come to ranked teams - just 123 yards through the first three quarters.
"That's probably, collectively as bad as we have played since I've been the head coach and that falls on me," Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. "We need to make sure we have a better performance out there on the field."
Junior tight end Chris Gragg had career highs of eight catches and 119 yards (his previous bests were five receptions and 68 yards) while senior Jarius Wright added to his school record by hauling in eight passes for 96 yards.
Arkansas' game prep showed that the tight end could be a weapon against the Bulldogs according to Gragg.
"There were a couple of times in practice that they didn't cover the tight end on certain plays so I thought I would have a big game today," Gragg said. "It felt good catching some deep balls since tight ends don't usually get that chance. I was really focused on getting as many yards after the catch as I could."
Gragg broke a lot of tackles in the game.
"It showed early in the game that they were having trouble tackling him," Petrino said. "I just kept reminding him that make sure you tuck the ball away, keep it locked up because you are going to break a lot of tackles…He made some huge third down conversions for us."
Wright has now upped his school record for catches to 163 (fellow senior Joe Adams has 156) and moved into second on both single season catches (61) and yardage (1,002).
Dennis Johnson led the way on the ground with 14 carries for 98 yards on a day when the Razorbacks passed for 373 yards and rushed for 166.
"We wanted to run more tonight, but they just kept blitzing us," Petrino said. "I thought we did a nice job of mixing it up and Tyler was able to get into a rhythm. Our receivers were also able to make some big plays that helped keep our offense on the field."
Arkansas jumped out front on its first possession of the game when Wilson hit junior Cobi Hamilton on a 20-yard touchdown pass less than three minutes into the game.
It capped a six-play, 66-yard drive and was Hamilton's 12th career touchdown –with half of them coming in game at War Memorial Stadium.
Derek DePasquale's 35-yard field goal cut it to 7-3 with 3:26 left in the open quarter, but Arkansas was back into the end zone before quarter's end.
That occurred on junior fullback Keiro Small's first career carry – a 1-yard scoring plunge that combined with Zach Hocker's PAT for a 14-3 edge at the 1:43 mark.
"In our last three home games we have certainly been more physical and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball," Petrino said. "When you control the line of scrimmage a lot of good things happen for you."
The Razorbacks appeared on the verge of landing a knockout punch early when Mullen inexplicably went for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 29 with less than a minute left.
Vick Ballard was thrown for a four-yard loss, setting up Arkansas at the Mississippi State 25.
Wilson completed an 11-yard pass to Gragg on the last play of the quarter, but disaster struck three plays later.
Wilson was sacked by Jonathan Banks, fumbled and watched as Johnson chased down defensive tackle Fletcher Cox to keep him from scoring.
Cox' return was for 60 yards and Dylan Favre – the nephew of former MFL quarterback Brett Farve – scored on a 5-yard run.
DePasquale's PAT cut it to 14-10, but that was the last first down the Bulldogs would get for the next two quarters.
"We left some points out there early," Petrino said. "We had a blocked field goal and the fumble – two drives that ended up with no points. But other than that, I thought we executed well."
Cox was impressed with what he saw of Wilson, whom he only got his hands on once.
"He is an NFL guy and can get the ball out quick," Cox said. "When he feels pressure, he is going to get rid of the ball. I give him credit, he is a good quarterback and can make decisions quick."
Arkansas would go on to add 10 more points before intermission on Wilson's 32-yard TD pass to Joe Adams and Hocker's 44-yard field goal that made it 24-10 at intermission.
Wilson hit a wide open Gragg for a 2-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter and then Hocker connected on field goals of 48 late in the third and 27 early in the fourth quarter to make it 37-10 with 13:02 left.
Little Rock native Broderick Green got the final touchdown Razorback touchdown on a 2-yard run with 3:20 left.
Mississippi State got 66 of its yards on its final drive one that ended with Favre throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left in the game.
Favre was 8-of-16 for 72 yards coming off the bench while starter Tyler Russell was 7-of-15 for 55 yards.
Ballard had 13 carries for 55 yards.
"I thought we did really well defending the run with good gap responsibility," Petrino said. "Our safeties were fitting where they were suppose to be and I thought for the most part we tackled really well."
Arkansas has beaten LSU three of the past four games.
"It doesn't score any points for us, but it certainly gives us confidence," Petrino said. "We feel like we are a real good football team, they are a real good football team. Let's go play."
Bobby Petrino is smiling big about how his team has played down the stretch.
Dennis Johnson delivers the hit to Mississippi State defensive back Darius Slay.
Johnson leaves Slay on the ground and looks for more yards.
Joe Adams hauls in a 32-yard touchdown catch from Tyler Wilson.
Wilson was 32-of-43 passing for 365 yards and three touchdowns
Chris Gragg had a career day with 8 catches for 119 yards.
With his touchdown catch on Saturday, Cobi Hamilton now has 12 career touchdowns with six of them coming in Little Rock.
Jake Bequette and Jerico Nelson converge on Mississippi State quarterback Dylan Favre.
Bobby Petrino has now led his team to back-to-back 10-win seasons.
Broderick Green scored a touchdown in his last game in his hometown.
Ronnie Wingo had 10 carries for 44 yards.
Tenarius Wright and the other Arkansas defenders pressured Mississippi State's quarterbacks all game long.
After having his first field goal blocked, Zach Hocker was true on his last three from 44, 48 and 27 yards.
Photos by Marc F. Henning