It was his 69-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter which provided #1-ranked Mississippi State the margin of 17-10 victory over the visiting Razorbacks. With the win the Bulldogs are 8-0, matching the best start ever at Mississippi State, and to the more immediate point 5-0 and still first in the Southeastern Conference standings.
But going into the fourth quarter first places and win streaks—and for that matter Arkansas’ three-season league losing streak--were very much in question. The unranked Razorbacks had led 10-0 early and were still tied. In fact it was only missing a field goal to open the period that left the scoreboard balanced when the Bulldogs took the ball back.
And with 3rd-and-4 on their own 31, well, it seemed State was going to quickly give the ball back at 10-10. Ross and QB Dak Prescott spared the near-record home crowd such stress.
It wasn’t exactly by design though. Nor was it exactly a pocket sort of pass since Prescott had only the down-linemen blocking. After his first or second look downfield time had run out. “The line held up, I kind of got out of the pocket,” Prescott said. “Fred Ross did a great job getting open.
Great? There wasn’t a Razorback within a dozen yards in any direction. Obviously some one had blown his assignment but there was no support either as Ross drifted out to the Arkansas 35. And waited. And waited some more for Prescott to see and to shoot.
“He rolled out and the defender lost me,” Ross said. “I was like man I’m wide-open! He threw it to me and we scored so it was a good play.”
Hold on, it was more interesting than this. Rolling to his left Prescott could feel heat from behind, in the form of 270-pound lineman Trey Flowers. Not only was the quarterback going against his arm-side, as he loaded-up to throw Flowers got hands on ankles…the left one being gimpy already after the Kentucky trip.
Still Prescott had enough mustard to muscle the ball nearly forty yards where Ross fielded it, body facing the passer. He’d been in a similar situation before, in the Texas A&M game when a throw took so long to arrive Ross just dropped it. Yeah, he remembered.
And learned from it. “Last time I was a little bit too relaxed on it. So this time I was focused all the way in.” Then it was Ross’ turn to show instant acceleration and out-run a couple of converging Arkansans to the goal line.
The irony to his big moment was in the opposition. Last November, in Little Rock, Ross went down and out with a shoulder injury during the fourth quarter. He thus had to miss the overtime win, as well as another extra-period victory in the Egg Bowl and then a Liberty Bowl rout of Rice. For the shortened season Ross had 12 catches, only one in a SEC game (Kentucky) and nothing in November.
Now he has become an unexpected go-to Dog. After a five-catch, 51-yard afternoon at Kentucky, Ross had three balls and 91 yards against Arkansas. And, his first SEC touchdown. That it came against the defense which stopped his ’13 season didn’t mean too much, though.
“Oh, I was happy. I tried not to think too much about last year, it didn’t end so good for me. So I’m just happy this is happening.”
Ross had another reason for home-game joy. He took over punt return duty in the second quarter after rookie Jamoral Graham’s latest fumble set up the only Arkansas touchdown.
”It’s just working hard, man, going hard every play at practice to gain (Coach Dan Mullen’s) trust like that,” Ross said. “After Jamoral dropped that first punt he came to me and told me to stay ready. So I knew I had to step up.” Ross returned none of the three kicks he caught; he just fair-caught them cleanly which for State was a marked improvement.
Now with 14 receptions and 147 yards, and that first touchdown of course, Ross has established his place in the regular receiver rotation. Just one place, though. What he did emphasized how this season different Dogs have risen to occasion and opportunity alike so that nobody is running away with the stat-sheet.
“We’re really deep. And we push each other at practice every day. So you never know who is going to be the guy to have the receiving yards every game.”
What Ross knows now at least is how to get to the post-game press conference. The way he's producing that knowledge could prove useful again.