Playing their brand of ball gave just good enough of a showing to keep #1-ranked Mississippi State unblemished on the season, 8-0 overall and 5-0 SEC. But things were cut much closer than expected.
The Bulldogs needed an unlikely 69-yard touchdown pass play to break it with 13:21 left. That one-score lead had to be maintained on a classic goal-line stand with just over five minutes left, and an end zone interception with 0:15 remaining was necessary to seal the victory. Of such narrow margins did the SEC’s last unbeaten stay so.
”What a football game,” said Coach Dan Mullen, after securing his first winning SEC record here in his sixth Mississippi State season. “As coaches we all know how hard it is to win in this league. Fortunately we were able to make one more play there at the end of the game.”
Arkansas (4-5, 0-5 SEC) might seem an unlikely source of adversity. In fact that is something the Razorbacks have endured too much of with a SEC losing streak now at 17 games in three seasons. Yet the visitors had the right gameplans and more to the point the right matchups to give the league leader more than a game.
So not until Bulldog CB Will Redmond came down with Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen’s last pass at the left pylon could State’s share of the 62,307 relax. And celebrate.
Compared to last week when for the first time ever a State team played with a #1 ranking and were taken down to the final two minutes by Kentucky, Mullen said he thought the Bulldogs played looser. Rather, “Arkansas shows what the depth of the SEC West is right now. That’s a tough football team we played.”
Tough enough to deny the Bulldog’s core strength of productive ground-pounding. In fact for the first time this season State was out-gained rushing, 163 yards to 128. After gaining 599 rushing yards in four SEC wins, Robinson was held to 64 yards on 19 carries. He did extend his touchdown streak, with a typically-tough three-yard blast in the second quarter that finally got State on their own scoreboard.
QB Dak Prescott managed 61 yards on 13 runs, called or not. Still this was well-below each’s averages. Not that either was surprised to attract so much Arkansas attention.
”We realized that, with the success we’ve had in the run game,” said Prescott. “That’s a great defense, well-coached. They really didn’t do anything wrong, you can’t catch them in the wrong spot.”
So this time the Bulldog offense had to go airborne to beat somebody. Prescott delivered though he also had a most uncharacteristic two interceptions. The first “that’s as bad as it gets” he said of a first-quarter pick by safety Alan Turner. “The second I never saw the guy.” The guy being linebacker Brooks Ellis who jumped a curl route and only had to wait for the ball to arrive.
Neither turnover resulted in Razorback points. Another one did produce the only Arkansas touchdown, when KR Jamoral Graham let a punt get right through his hands. Recovery set Arkansas up on the Bulldog 25-yard line and six snaps later back Alex Collins cleared the goal at 11:01 of the second quarter.
Combined with a first-drive field goal, of 36 yards by Adam McFain, the Razorbacks got all their points by halftime. It was also the longest Bulldog deficit of the season at 10-0. They did not rattle.
“We knew it was going to be a good game,” Prescott said. “Even though we got down we weren’t worried about it. Don’t press and come out and play our offense.”
Prescott directed that offense immediately on an eleven-play drive to reinforce the faith, and take the edge off Arkansas momentum. A 31-yard pass play by WR Fred Brown kick-started the surge and Prescott converted 3rd-and-10 himself with a 12-yard keeper. Two Robinson runs later the Bulldogs had points at last, though for the first time all year they trailed at halftime.
Intermission was more helpful to the Dog defense, struggling to cope with Arkansas’s trademark attack of heavy running and play-action throws. The Razorbacks would get most of their yards after halftime but score no more.
“We had to fix some things on defense,” DT Chris Jones said. “Because they came out in some sets we hadn’t seen on film. So we had to get adjusted at halftime and play our football.”
Something else changed in the second half. The Bulldogs had awful field position in the first two quarters, starting on-average at their 14-yard line. The first turn of the third quarter failed when Prescott was stuffed on 4th-and-1 at the Arkansas 22, but field position was flipped the rest of the way. When State got the ball back the next time, the result was a 55-yard drive to the 20-yard line. There Mullen gave PK Evan Sobiesk responsibility to tie it up and his 37-yard field goal was good at 3:35.
Even better for the Bulldogs, after Arkansas drove to the State 25 their kick for the lead was pushed to the right. The special teams reprieve was all the home team needed.
Well, that and the one real Razorback defensive breakdown. With third down on the 31-yard line and looking at giving the ball back too soon, Prescott rolled right and saw WR Fred Ross had lost everyone.
“From the snap they went to man-coverage and the safety came down on Fred,” said Prescott. “And he beat him on the initial move. I had to get out of the pocket and buy a little bit more time so I could get the ball to him without getting hit from behind. But he did the rest and ran it in.”
It was cut a little closer than this. A defender was grabbing Prescott’s ankles from behind and the quarterback was falling forward. Pure arm strength got the ball to Ross, waiting all alone at the UA 35, and he had to turn and burn to outrun two potential tacklers for what proved the winning points.
But only after the Dog defense used what they’d learned on Arkansas’ first, successful trip to a goal line to stop the second. With three runs from the State three-yard line, Jonathan Williams gained and lost two before Alex Collins was gang-tackled at the line of scrimmage at 5:05.
Arkansas still had enough time, and timeouts, to get one more chance at 2:29. Using star tight end Hunter Henry to good effect Allen moved his team to the 16-yard line. His next throw, for Demetrius Wilson, was intercepted by Redmond.
“That kept everybody in their seats a little longer,” Mullen quipped. “Good for TV ratings!”
Though Arkansas did out-run the Dogs they still were held nearly 100 yards below average. Alex Collins netted 93 yards with his team’s only touchdown. Henry was just about unstoppable, catching seven of Allen’s 23 completions (44 attempts) for 110 yards.
But Prescott set aside his two turnovers and some uncharacteristic hesitation in run situations for a positive evening. He was 18-of-27 passing for 331 yards, a career-high, with the big-hit touchdown. That was to Ross with 91 yards on three balls, which wasn’t tops on the team. Robinson was; kept in-check running he turned receiver with six catches and 110 yards.
Razorback linebacker Martrell Spaight was outstanding with 15 tackles, and Ellis added 12 with his interception. Arkansas’ key player didn’t run or throw the ball. Punter Sam Irwin-Hill might only have averaged 36.2 yards but he kept State pinned deep while his team took that 10-0 lead. Once the field position changed, though, the Bulldogs took over.
The 1A/1B rotation assured no Dog had big tackle stats. LB Matt Wells led with nine and three teammates had six each. But this system also meant fresher second-half legs which certainly showed up in the goal-line stop and end-zone pick.
This victory extended a State success streak to 11 games, second-longest ever and a string begun last November with a win against…Arkansas. That one took overtime to settle; this triumph was not quite as traumatic but had more than enough drama anyway.
”Our guys are finding ways to win,” Mullen said. “That’s all that matters. I told everybody we’re going to have to do that one time this year, maybe multiple times. But our guys believe.”
State will host Tennessee-Martin in Homecoming this coming weekend, while Arkansas has a week off to plan how to finally snap their league losing streak against Louisiana State on November 8.