STARKVILLE, Miss – The University of Arkansas football program grabbed ahold of several goals here on Saturday – not the least of which was winning an outright SEC Western Division Championship.
But it didn't come easy.
The No. 5 Razorbacks got big plays from its defense and special teams early and a struggling offense eventually joined in on the fun to down a game Mississippi State squad 28-14 Saturday afternoon and thus make certain they had the Western Division title all to themselves.
"We knew it was going to be tough," Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt said afterwards. "But I love the heart of our football team and I love our unselfishness and the togetherness. You have got to give Mississippi State a lot of credit. They played their hearts out, but the best team won in the end."
The win was the 10th in a row for Arkansas (10-1, 7-0) and landed it a berth in the SEC Championship game against Florida on Dec. 2, gave the Razorbacks their most wins ever in SEC play, set a record for the most wins at Arkansas under Nutt and is the UA's first 10-win season since 1988.
It was also the Razorbacks' first outright SEC Western Division title since 1995.
"I've never been in a game where I couldn't wait to see the clock say zero, zero, zero," Nutt said.
Chris Houston's 87-yard interception return, Darren McFadden's 92-yard kickoff return and Casey Dick's touchdown passes to freshman Damian Williams and junior Marcus Monk proved to be enough for the Razorbacks to get out of Starkville with a hard-fought win.
Heisman Trophy candidate McFadden had 26 carries for 89 rushing yards, the 92-yard kickoff return in the win and also hit Monk for a 15-yard gain in his only pass of the day on what turned out to be a scoring drive.
The Razorback offense – which had less than 100 yards late in the third quarter – finally asserted itself right before the quarter ended with a 6-play, 80-yard march that culminated with Monk hauling in a touchdown pass.
That scoring play started with a reverse from McFadden to Jones, who then pitched the ball back to Dick, who hit a wide open Monk in the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown pass with 2:24 left in the third quarter left to put Arkansas up 28-14.
"We feel like a of things can work in that (Wildcat) package, but they do such a great job coming off the edge and stopping D-Mac that we knew that they can't hold up stopping the run and the pass," Nutt said. "You were just hoping you would be able to get off the pass. Casey did a great job of taking the pitch from Felix and then getting rid of it with a sense of urgency."
That score looked like it was going to be the eventual game-winner when Mississippi State blocked a late field goal and drove down the field, but Houston's second interception – and nearly second return for a touchdown – ended the Bulldogs' hopes with 49 seconds left in the game.
That came after Arkansas had kept the ball for 9:12 in fourth quarter, a key even though they Razorbacks did not come away with points.
"That was a championship drive," Nutt said. "Even though we didn't come away with points, it was critical to knock those minutes off. Our defense was exhausted. I just can't say enough about our offensive line and how hard our backs run."
The Bulldogs had a 357-261 total offense advantage.
Dick was 8-of-17 for 108 yards with the two touchdowns and one interception with Monk hauling in 4 passes for 77 yards and Williams 2 for 36 yards.
Mississippi State had the answers for Arkansas' offense for most of the first half, but the Razorbacks' defense and special teams came up big.
That included Houston's first interception of the season, one he picked off Michael Henig and took back 88 yards for a score. Jeremy Davis' PAT made it 7-0 with 3:35 left in the opening quarter.
"They bascially have been doing the same type routes and I have been watching it on film," Houston said. "I knew it was coming and I just had to undercut it. He threw me the ball and it was to the house from there."
Mississippi State answered on its next possession with Tony Dixon's sprinting untouched 65 yards for a score, which combined with Adam Carlson's PAT tied it 7-7.
McFadden gave Arkansas the lead right back by taking the ensuing kickoff back 92 yards for a score with Davis's PAT putting the Razorbacks up 14-7 with 54 seconds left in the second quarter.
Dick's second interception of the season was hauled in by De'Mon Glanton, who returned the pick to the Arkansas 20 and allowed Mississippi State to tie the game quickly.
The Bulldogs did so with Henig hitting Tony Burks for 22-yard scoring strike that came on a 3rd-and-12 and Carlson's PAT deadlocked it at 14-14 with 8:41 left.
It stayed that way until right before halftime when another solid Fish punt return – this one of 11 yards – and al late hit on Fish got Arkansas set up at the Mississippi State 35 yard line.
Three plays later, Dick threw a pass into the end zone that Damian Williams leaped over Pegues and hauled in for a touchdown. Davis' PAT with 1:23 left meant the Razorbacks would take a 21-14 lead to the break.
The Razorbacks will now try to cap an unbeaten SEC season when they host LSU Friday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. in Little Rock.
Houston Nutt, Chris Houston
Matteral Richardson, Kevin Woods
Arkansas 28, MSU 14
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