Because, Mississippi State’s defense was able to take some unexpected tips provided by the Razorbacks and turn it to fourth-quarter advantage. With a one-touchdown lead on the line, at that.
The painful lesson was provided in the second quarter when Arkansas punched the football across the goal line from a yard away. To be fair, the Dog defense had not been put in the strongest situation. Having made three-snap stop at the other end of the field to begin the period, they watched KR Jamoral Graham fumble away the Razorback punt.
Suddenly the Dog D is running back on-field but now at their own 25-yard line. Soon enough it was the one after a 14-yard slant pass. Arkansas had to snap it twice to score, only one of which counted since DE Preston Smith was off-sides on the first. DT Chris Jones said they thought the best defensive set was called, only…
“They kind of double-teamed tackles and squeezed the nose. That’s what their first score was.” Specifically, a crash of the interior line by Alex Collins for a surprising 10-0 lead over the nation’s #1-ranked team.
Fast-forward, literally given how quickly the clock ran this evening, to the fourth quarter. Thanks to a huge and creative passing play the Bulldogs were ahead at last, 17-10. But Arkansas responded with a trademark drive of 17 plays and over eight minutes taking them to the MSU one on third down.
Fortunately, there’d been some on-the-fly adjustments. “After the touchdown Coach (Geoff) Collins called us over,” Jones said. “Because we weren’t expecting what they brought on, they changed schemes and we weren’t used to that. So we played it like we thought we should. Coach Collins put is in a better position to make a stop.”
Near-perfect positions in fact. On third-and-goal Jonathan Williams started towards his right guard only to be forced outside by S Kendrick Market and finished-off by S Justin Cox for a two-yard loss. There was no question inside six minutes the Razorbacks would try again. This time it was LB Beniquez Brown getting penetration of the right side to catch Alex Collins at the ankles, and DE A.J. Jefferson leading the rest of the MSU mob for a no-gain, no score-stop.
The fourth-down stand was exceptionally similar to previous such stops in SEC play, at Louisiana State and at home against Texas A&M. Each time it was a Brown linebacker, MLB Richie or Beniquez, making the decisive contact after a Dog defensive lineman blew-up the blocking.
State’s stopper-squad still had work left. CB Will Redmond had to intercept a Brandon Allen throw into the end zone from 16 yards out to seal the victory. It came about because Bulldog linemen finally got some sort of pressure on passer Allen through outstanding Arkansas protection. Actually it should have surprised none that State came away with just one sack despite 44 Razorback passes and several more scrambles.
Because the Dog defense was out-numbered. “They brought the tight end in to max protection and we were only rushing three or four guys,” said Jones who accounted for that lone sack. “So everybody was double-teamed. But our D-line fought to get pressure to him and make him move out of the pocket.”
LOOK SHARP: Speaking of fast-study, Jones’ fourth-quarter sack came about partly because the sophomore has a good eye for detail. “I realized his foot had tape on it on the outside,” Jones said. So on 3rd-and-10 at the UA 18 Jones intentionally flushed Allen so that the quarterback had to plant on the wrapped foot. “When I did I beat him on the outside and got to him.”
Back in the second quarter State got a much more obvious clue how to attack the passer. With their lead cut to 10-7 Arkansas got a drive going to mid-field, only to have left tackle Dan Skipper limp off. Smelling blood, or something, the Bulldogs instantly tested the replacement.
And coincidentally Arkansas ran two pass plays. Each time a defensive lineman came through or around that left end for sufficient pressure to force incompletions and a punt.
“We try to attack every weak spot, when we see weakness we try to attack it,” Jones said. “We saw that was a weak spot so we felt that was an advantage.”
TEACHABLE MOMENTS: It became the defining offensive play; the sort regarded by analysts and commentators as a ‘Heisman moment’ when a Trophy candidate makes something special happen to change a game his team’s way. Just don’t suggest to Dak Prescott his fourth-quarter, tie-breaking, 69-yard touchdown play fit such descriptions. In fact…
“I didn’t think of that as that type of moment,” Prescott said. “We just had to make a play. Fred Ross did a great job getting open, maybe it’s a Heisman moment for Fred Ross! But I didn’t do too much there.”
Oh yes the quarterback definitely did. With third-and-four, facing the prospect of punting the ball back to Arkansas with score tied 10-10, this was exactly the sort of moment which defines a great college quarterback’s career. All the more so because Prescott had been way off his game in the first half with two completely uncharacteristic interceptions and hints of hesitation in the run game.
So when his intended targets didn’t develop downfield Prescott rolled out of the collapsed pocket to his left, two Razorback linemen in close pursuit. For his part Ross had escaped Arkansas coverage and notice of everyone except fortunately his quarterback. Prescott bought a bit more time before and adjusted his stance enough to muscle the throw Ross caught at the other 35-yard line and took to the end zone.
All due respect to Ross but he won’t be on any Heisman projections this week. Prescott is, has been for weeks and even months. A two-pick half on the home field won’t help, and he doesn’t care about anything but fixing issues.
“The first one that’s as bad as it gets,” Prescott said of the first-period turnover. “I was just trying to place the ball and be too perfect and put it high to Bear (WR De’Runnya Wilson). It came out wrong and sailed over his head. The second one I never saw the guy. He got underneath the curl-route and I just threw it right to him. It doesn’t get any easier than that.”
Coach Dan Mullen was equally objective, calling both “poor decisions” though he did think Prescott’s plant foot slipped a bit on the second. And Prescott was playing on a bad wheel, as he had a left ankle condition from September aggravated at Kentucky. He was openly limping around between snaps during the first half.
And there was never any question from coach nor club that the second half would be better. It was, Prescott was 8-of-11 in the winning quarters for 179 yards, the winning touchdown, and no turnovers. “I just thought he was a little more relaxed in the second half, said Mullen. What worried the coach just a little in the first half was the again-uncharacteristic nature of his interceptions. They weren’t calculated risk sorts of shots downfield, or throws under duress as happened last week.
They were simply incorrect decisions. “But here’s the thing,” said Mullen. “He knows we have great confidence in him. That doesn’t shake him, we know we’re not going to shy away from anything. We’re going to come right back and expect him to continue to make plays, and he expects to make plays.”
And anyway, evaluation and correction is infinitely easier after another victory. Which is Prescott’s true trademark. He is now 12-3 as a starting college quarterback, so everything else is just…momentary.
STUNNED SILENCE: Josh Robinson is never, ever at a loss for words, which is always welcome with media and fans if sometimes a concern to his handlers. Around camera or microphone there is no telling what will result from the irrepressible Bowling Ball. In fact, arriving while teammate Ross was at the interview table, Robinson worked through the crowd, placed his phone (with a screen showing one of his defender-jumping runs no less) in front of the receiver and started asking questions.
But, when asked about his simply amazing first-quarter catch for 47 yards, there was a long silence. A lot of mugging for the camera, sure, but no words. Finally, “Speechless!” Robinson said. Nobody else was, because the 5-9 back had to jump and stab to bring down Dak Prescott’s bullet with just one hand. And stay in-stride and keep running on the longest pass-play of his college career.
“It just came to me. I just tried to run under it and catch it,” Robinson said with somewhat-unlikely modesty. “It’s just a catch, you know, it ain’t nothing big to me. Just a catch.”
Yeah, and Robinson is ‘just’ another SEC back. On an evening when Arkansas’ obsessed defense held the junior to a season-low 64 rushing yards on 19 carries, Robinson showed his whole repertoire. By turning receiver. The back came out with the most MSU catches, six of them for 110 yards. Arkansas’ all-star tight end Hunter Henry had the same yardage on seven catches for comparison.
So Robinson went from a career-high ground game last week with 198 yards and two touchdowns rushing at Kentucky, to the go-to receiver against Arkansas. “Hey, Bowling Ball!” he grinned. “Nah, I told Dak the check-downs were there. He went through is progressions and he just happened to see me more often than usual.”
The larger point is that opponents can and will focus on making Mississippi State one-dimensional if possible. Beginning, said Robinson, with the running game. But the Bulldogs have the answer in the air if necessary.
“Everybody in the country is going to try to take away the run first. But we have to stay balanced and focused and do what we do.”
Now, somebody has to get Robinson a press pass before the next home game…
SEALING DEALS: For a non-starter, CB Will Redmond sure has the sort of impact expected of guys in the first-play lineup. The junior’s end zone interception at 0:15 assured Mississippi State of another SEC victory, just as he did on a last-chance pass play at Louisiana State. Both picks came at the goal line, too.“Will is playing well,” Mullen said. “I think he plays aggressive, he’s a very, very intelligent young man. I think he really studies the game and wants to be a great player, has a good work ethic. You see that out there on the field, his number is called, he has an opportunity and goes and makes a play.”
Great big ones at that. Redmond also is now tied for the team’s interceptions lead with three. The other Dog with a trio? LB Richie Brown who also is not a starter. In fact seven of the team’s 12 interceptions come from Bulldog defenders who don’t take the first snap.People wonder why we rotate defense so much. But one, there’s good players out there. Two, Will might not be a starter but his number is called he’s ready to go make plays. And guys are ready to go make plays because they’ve played a lot of football.”
MSU-ELLANEOUS: WR Jameon Lewis continues to battle back from the leg injury suffered at LSU. Having played briefly last week, the senior got a few more snaps in the Arkansas game and made his first catch (two yards) since September. “He’s still not 100%,” Mullen said. “He desperately wants to play and hopefully now he’ll get healed 100% and get him back. He just didn’t look like Jameon out on the field.”…WR Gabe Myles got another start in Lewis’ slot receiver position but did not make a catch, though he was wide-open on the opening Bulldog drive for a potential touchdown only to have Prescott over-throw him…It isn’t common to activate a true freshman in November, but rookie LB J.T. Gray got just that call. He saw duty on State special teams, likely a result of the October injury that has LB Dezmond Harris sidelined the rest of the season. Gray was not credited with any tackles in his college debut. He is the third true scholarship 2014 freshman to play this season along with K Logan Cooke and WR Jamoral Graham…Speaking of Graham, the freshman had his fourth fumbled punt of the season, and this one led to the only Arkansas touchdown. Graham was replaced after that one by WR Fred Ross who fair-caught three more punts cleanly. “Fred did a nice job catching the punts,” Mullen said, though he added “In practice everybody does a good job catching punts.”…Mississippi State’s 8-0 record is only the second such start in the program’s 115 seasons. The 1999 team also began 8-0 before losing at Alabama…This team also matched that club’s 5-0 SEC start…Going back to last year’s (irony alert) Arkansas game, the Bulldogs have now won 11-straight games. This is the second-longest victory streak ever, behind only the 13 wins compiled in 1942-44 (there was no ’43 season). And the seven-straight SEC wins trails only the eight regular-season league wins in 1998-99…The 37-yard field goal by PK Evan Sobiesk to tie the game 10-10 was the longest make at State since last year at South Carolina (38), a 13-game stretch. Sobiesk made that one too.