Technically, of course there were the usual seven fellow wearing striped shirts roaming the field. And they often were busy boys, observing some intense action of Bulldogs and Razorbacks. What had Croom fuming were the decisions these SEC officials made, and others not made, and the ultimate impact on the game.
"I'm looking forward to watching this film and seeing," Croom said in the post-game press conference. "And I don't want to hear explanations next about well, that's a bad call, because it doesn't make any difference. And I know I'll probably get fined. I'll pay it, whatever it is. Because our kids are fighting hard and this is not the first time it's happened."
Explanations and fines won't change the outcome, either. The record will always show a narrow victory for the visiting Razorbacks, who left Starkville 5-5, 3-4 SEC, and still in the hunt for a bowl bid. Arkansas also extended a winning streak over State to six years. The Bulldogs are 3-7, 2-5 SEC, and lost their 2004 home finale.
"It's a tough way to go," said senior running back Fred Reid after losing his last game at Scott Field. Defeat was all the tougher to take because of the perceived influence officials had on the outcome in MSU minds. As Reid said, "We had to fight two teams."
The team wearing cardinal-and-white was enough of a challenge for State. Arkansas demonstrated plenty fight of their own, shrugging off an early 14-0 Bulldog lead to take a 17-14 halftime lead and stretching their advantage decisively with a blocked field goal and touchdown in the third period. Mississippi State chopped a touchdown off the deficit in the fourth quarter, but touched the ball just once again with nothing to show for it.
In fact, the real key to this game might have been how effectively Arkansas hogged the football. The difference in total possession time, 35:17 for Arkansas to 24:43 for State, did not even reflect the degree of clock domination. Trailing 14-3 after one quarter the Razorbacks took 26 snaps in the second, consuming over 11 combined minutes. They ran 18 and 19 plays in the third and fourth periods, eating up ground and minutes alike.
"We were one play away from getting off the field each time," said safety Darren Williams. "We kept ourselves on the field too much I think. It's just wearing on the defense."
What wore the Dogs down was Arkansas' frustrating ability to move the chains. The Razorbacks were 10-of-19 on third downs and 3-of-6 on fourth downs, repeatedly making some sort of play to earn another set of snaps. And there was no surprise at how—or who—kept the Hogs moving.
"It's not to take anything away from their (entire) team," Croom said, "but Matt Jones converted a lot of third downs." The senior quarterback certainly did that, most impressively in that game-changing second quarter. En route to Arkansas' first touchdown he threw for 20 yards on 3rd-and-15. Driving for the go-ahead score he passed for a 18-yard gain on 3rd-and-12, and on 4th-and-3 his ‘hot' receiver made eight yards to keep the drive going. Fittingly the touchdown came on a third down as Jones snuck in behind center from a yard out at 2:02 before halftime, giving the Razorbacks the 17-14 lead.
Arkansas got no more offensive points, and Jones—the SEC's all-time leader in quarterback rushing yardage—only ran four times, for seven yards, limited by a hamstring problem. But he picked State's coverage apart as needed, completing 18-of-27 passes for 215 yards. He was intercepted in the fourth period by Williams, on a fourth down, but that was as good as a downed punt in the situation.
"I'm glad I didn't see him full-speed," Croom said. "He was hampered today by that hamstring. He's a winner."
Bulldog triggerman Omarr Conner played well enough to be a winner this day. The sophomore was near-brilliant passing, hitting 20-of-27 throws for 214 yards. He was never close to an interception, and tossed a pair of touchdowns.
"When he's on no telling what will happen with Omarr," said receiver Tee Milons, who had one of those scoring grabs on a marvelous 26-yard strike thrown with both Dogs on a dead run. That was State's second touchdown. The third came on a two-yard flip to tight end Eric Butler at 10:44 of the fourth period. The opening Bulldog score was by running back Jerious Norwood as he squirted four yards for an opening 7-0 lead.
But it was the touchdown Norwood officially did not score that outraged home crowd and head coach. After Arkansas took the lead the Bulldogs had two minutes to do something about it. They used up half that time getting two running first downs without stopping the clock. When Butler snared a ten-yard grab at midfield he was ruled down inbounds, to Croom's disbelief, forcing State to burn the last timeout of the half.
This proved costly as on the next snap Conner found McKinley Scott streaking the right sideline and hit him in stride. Scott got to the pylon but was ruled out of bounds, a very close call with no clear replay available at the non-televised game. There were still 25 seconds left but the play clock was started abruptly, and at least one Dog—center Chris McNeil—had thought Scott scored, making him late to the huddle. A delay penalty resulted.
Conner flipped the ball to Norwood and the back appeared to make the corner inside the pylon, but he was ruled out at the one-foot line. On second down a counter-run lost a yard, and before the next hike the clock expired. "We just messed up," Conner said, reporting that in the crowd noise McNeil couldn't hear the ‘hut.' "I was slow," the quarterback said, "Little things like that can lose a game."
Ten minutes after kickoff the Bulldogs seemed on their way to winning this game, as for the first time this year they scored two touchdowns in a first quarter. Conner was sharp on the 80-yard opening drive, throwing for 17, 13, and 30 yards to set up Norwood's scoring scamper at 11:52. The second series also took eight plays, covering 76 yards. On 2nd-and-6 at the Arkansas 26-yard line Conner scrambled right, saw Milons a half-step in front of Chris Houston, and hit him in the hands with a stride to spare for the 14-0 lead. "We connected on everything we did the first two drives," Milons said. "Then Arkansas got the momentum."
Arkansas did, starting with a ten-play drive to produce a 42-yard field goal by Chris Balseiro 61 seconds before changing ends. Then Jones really went to work, mixing timely throws with tough inside running by De'Arrius Howard. The big back collected 125 yards on his 29 carries, and scored UA's first touchdown on a two-yard dive at 11:07 of the second period.
The go-ahead drive was a grinder, taking 18 plays to go 66 yards and consuming 7:20. Arkansas/Jones came through three times on third downs and three more on fourth downs, wearing State's bodies and souls down.
But the real back-breaker came in the kicking game. Facing fourth-and-very short at the Razorback 20-yard line, the offensive staff played for a tie and Keith Andrews attempted a 37-yard field goal. But everything went wrong, Elliot Harris blocked the kick, and Pierre Brown snared the carom. He ran 76 yards the other way for a touchdown and 24-14 lead at 4:25.
"Anytime you get a kick blocked for a touchdown you almost don't deserve to win," said Croom. The Bulldogs still tried and got those seven points back on Conner's short lob to Butler on 3rd-and-goal. But the Razorbacks burned almost five minutes on their turn with the ball, forced a three-and-punt on State's, then ran out the final 4:32.
"When all that's said and done, we still had our chance," Croom said. Certainly a two-touchdown lead was as good a start as any Dog could ask for. But State failed to build on the lead and let Arkansas keep the ball far too long, too often. Thus a great chance to close out the home season successfully was lost, along with a SEC game.
"We missed some opportunities," Croom said. "But I'm proud of our players because we fought against almost insurmountable odds." That being a not-so-veiled citique of the men in striped shirts, of course.
The Bulldogs hope for their last game the playing field will be at least officially balanced, because it will be entirely unfriendly in Oxford as Mississippi State meets Mississippi in the 101st ‘Battle for the Golden Egg'. Neither team is going bowling this winter, but motivation won't be an issue.
"It's Ole Miss, our in-state rival," said Norwood. "They've got a great team, we just have to go play ball."