"We just came out with the mindset to make history today," said DT P.J. Jones. "Which we did."
They also kept the post-season in play at 5-6, 2-5 SEC with one remaining game. Arkansas is 3-8, 0-7. Yet the home-away-from-home team either had a lead most of the afternoon in Little Rock, and were on State's 12-yard line with less than six minutes remaining. Their bid to get a first league victory was thwarted first as Alex Collins was stripped by FS Nickoe Whitley who recovered the turnover and kept it a 17-17 tie.
The deadlock held despite a Bulldog drive that stalled on 20 yards' worth of penalties, and ended on a 42-yard field goal try against and across a stiff stadium breeze. It missed at 0:18, leading to the extra period.
Worse for State, starter Tyler Russell was sacked on that series and re-injured the right (throwing) shoulder hurt a week ago. Williams did throw one pass before overtime. He never let the ball go during it. While the coin was being tossed a second time, and Arkansas choosing to play defense, offensive coordinator Les Koenning was on the phone with his rookie quarterback talking. Not just tactics, either.
"Just my reads and trying to calm me down for the situation," said Williams.
Arkansas almost certainly anticipated a handoff to RB Josh Robinson, who'd torn them up for 101 second-half rushing yards already. Yet, "That was a called quarterback run," Coach Dan Mullen said. "We had a couple of other things we were looking at doing off of it, or to set some things up. But sometimes the best decision is to let those guys go. He's here for that moment."
Williams made the most of it by bouncing through and off traffic, behind Robinson's critical block. A couple of Hogs got a hand on the Bulldog but nothing stopped him from diving across. "I thank Coach Mullen for putting me in that situation and preparing me all week, along with Coach Koenning," Williams said. "And the O-line and Josh Robinson got me through. I didn't do anything but run."
After Devon Bell's PAT, "I was like wow, did we really score on one play? Dang, it's up to us," said Jones. The Dog defense delivered, stuffing Jon Williams for one yard and covering Javontee Herndon in the end zone for an incompletion. At that point State could safely ignore Arkansas' core strength of interior running and play the pass. Brandon Allen missed his target on third down, and the last-chance was intercepted by CB Taveze Calhoun at the 12-yard line.
"The defensive mindset was keep playing, we're not going to lose the game," said Jones. "And we found a way to win."
The Bulldogs spent much of the afternoon finding ways to potentially lose, on both sides of the ball and on special teams to boot. The injury factor alone was an issue with starter Russell out at the end and starting RB LaDarius Perkins done after scoring a tough second-quarter touchdown run that left him with bruised ribs. That took two seniors captains out of overtime.
No wonder Mullen expressed pride in the club's resilience. "They had a lot working against them today with a beat-up team. A lot of things didn't go our way, talk about four red zone possessions with three points; turned the ball over, make mistakes, a lot of different things. But those guys kept battling, kept fighting, and found a way to win. We weren't great on third down defensively, but when it came down to it we made a play to win."
Initially Arkansas was making the plays, showing energy that belied their record and some fresh flair on offense. The Hogs did blast between tackles as expected but also ran for edges; even tried a wrinkle or two. Their first drive, of 56 yards after a kickoff return of 44 yards, ended with a wide receiver sweep to the left corner by Javontee Herndon at 11:02. Their second turn ended at State's 32-yard line as the host team snapped the ball 19 times to seven for the Bulldogs.
Changing ends for the second quarter made it practical for Arkansas to kick a 54-yard field goal from State's 37, and Zach Hocker lined it right through for the 10-0 lead. Mississippi State was in danger of letting this one get away before starting anything themselves.
Russell saved the day, and with his iffy right arm. It wasn't easy throwing into the wind, which kept him and WR Jameon Lewis from scoring a 75-yard touchdown as Lewis had to come back and stumble on a mere 35-yard connection. But TE Malcolm Johnson made 29 yards more off a catch-and-run, his fumble at the eleven overturned on fortunate review. Bell knocked a 24-yarder through at 5:08 to get the Bulldogs on the board at last.
A sure-to-be-critiqued Arkansas decision really changed the half, as despite having a big wind and less than three minutes left punter Sam Irwin-Hill chose to run on 4th-and-2 at his 44. DE Denico Autry picked it up immediately and dropped him at the 40. for a four-yard loss. Less than a minute later the game was tied. Perkins moved the chains on two carries, then Russell pulled off a beautiful double-play fake freezing coverage while Perkins slipped open over the middle.
He caught Russell's throw at the 15, leaped the line dragging a tackler and collided mid-air with safety Eric Bennett in the end zone. Perkins had to be helped off the field before Bell tied it up 10-10. It ought have been a Bulldog halftime lead too, because on the ensuing kickoff UA's Mitchell Lowen was stripped by CB Tolando Cleveland, the ball ending up in LB Beniquez Brown's hands at the Razorback 34. Russell found WR Robert Johnson for a 25-yard gainer to the five-yard line, but with Perkins out RB Derrick Milton took the handoff.
He was stripped and Rohan Gaines recovered to keep it a halftime tie. If this wasn't frustrating enough, the Bulldogs took the second-half possession and drove to Arkansas' ten. Lewis couldn't get a foot down inbounds on Russell's third down throw to the back of the end zone and Bell's 28-yard chippie was blocked by Dan Skipper.
"We had a chance to score at the end of the first half and score on our first possession of the second half," said Mullen. Instead Arkansas had stopped State's momentum, and when they intercepted Russell a series later they changed things there way with a pounding drive…right up to first down at the ten. This time it was Julian Horton taking the end round, from right to left again, and scoring at 3:28.
But the Bulldogs weren't rattled by now, and Russell led a fine drive with completions of 12, 20, and nine yards. Robinson ran ten more down to the five-yard line before the quarters turned, and on third down of the fourth period Russell's roll-out ended with a flip to Lewis for the five-yard tying touchdown.
Neither side scored the rest of the period but it didn't lack for drama by both Bulldog units. Arkansas went from their 16 to State's 10 in three snaps, 44 yards coming on a throw to somebody-missed-somebody Jeremy Sprinkle. Whitley chased him down to prevent the touchdown that snap; then knocked the ball free from Collins to prevent even a field goal try.
"You need your seniors at key moments to go make plays," Mullen said. Yet it was the true freshman making the last play of State's offensive day; and a sophomore sealing success with his interception.
The Bulldogs won the stat sheet with 488 yards to 339, and most amazingly given the disparity in styles actually had a slight edge in possession time of 60 whole seconds. Robinson got all his game-best 101 yards after halftime and Williams 40 more. Perkins left with 32 rushing yards and 38 receiving with the touchdown. Lewis caught six balls for 94 yards and a score.
Arkansas still pounded the ground better with 225 yards shared by a bunch of ‘Back backs. Jonathan Williams led with 59 yards but both touchdowns came by wideouts. In the air, the Bulldogs shone brighter as Russell was 18-of-28 for 263 yards, his 10th 200-yard effort at State. Williams was 3-of-4 for 34 yards, and Arkansas had one sack all day. Allen was 10-of-17 for 114 yards and the game-clinching interception.
Defensively, Whitley was everywhere with his 10 tackles and the crucial forced fumble while rookie B.Brown had nine stops credited. State had no sacks but wasn't looking for many against a Hog offense that led with the interior run.
Despite better stats, it was still a close-run thing for a Bulldog bunch with no margin left in bowling terms. The pressure didn't crack them. "That's the way game is played," Robinson said. "You've got to overcome adversity, if you don't you ain't going to win in this league."
But work remains and arch-rival Ole Miss stands between Mississippi State and a bid, most likely to the Liberty Bowl which had a representative not only at the game but in the post-game media meeting. So this coming Thursday's 6:30 game at Scott Field is even more all-or-nothing than usual for the Egg Bowl.
"Obviously we'll enjoy this for the next ten minutes," said Mullen. "Then we'll go get ready for Thursday night."