What mattered more to the Bulldogs and their coach wasn't so much the final 44-10 score but how completely the host Razorbacks dominated the first two quarters and thus the entire afternoon in Little Rock. "I told them I was amazed," Coach Sylvester Croom related of his halftime address to the team.
"The bottom line, we just didn't compete the first 30 minutes. At all."
Arkansas, playing at their homefield-away-from-home before an announced crowd of 55,712, improved to 4-6 overall and 2-5 SEC. The Bulldogs fell to 2-8 overall with a seventh-straight defeat and remained winless in league play at 0-7.
It didn't require the entire first half to know which team was going to leave Little Rock happy. But the Razorbacks made the most of those two opening quarters anyway, scoring six times…the last with 11 seconds left before intermission. As lopsided as the scoreboard was, the statistics were even more tilted towards the red sideline. Yardage was 244 to 44; first downs 16 to 2; possession time 19:31 to 10:29. Punts? State had to kick the ball away four times, while Arkansas punter Jacob Skinner was as bored as a sleeping boar Hog. He only got to exercise his leg twice in the last half.
Simply, the Dogs were fully-dominated for a half-game. "Once they got started it seemed they never could stop," said Norwood, "they were always getting a first down or scoring." Or usually both. "They just whipped our tails up front and everywhere," said cornerback Kevin Dockery.
Except much of the tail-whipping was done on the run as Arkansas blazed by or around State on both sides of the ball. It was as if the host team played at one speed and the Dogs were stuck in a lower gear. Certainly the defense had trouble catching up with UA's fabulous freshman Darren McFadden, who came in as the SEC game-rushing leader and did nothing to hurt his average with 165 yards on 21 carries. The rookie scored Arkansas' first two touchdowns, and before the day was done had broken the 1,000-yard mark for the season in just ten games.
State was looking for McFadden, but still surprised by what they saw in-person. "They didn't do anything we weren't ready for," defensive end Willie Evans said. "We may have underestimated the speed of the running back."
"There were times he just out-ran our guys," Croom said. "He just flat out-ran us. He has very rare speed."
Razorback Quarterback Casey Dick did 124 more yards' worth of damage in the air on 12-of-23 throwing. The other UA freshman backfield starter had touchdown strikes of 15 yards each in the second quarter that, coming around a pair of Chris Balseiro field goals, effectively clinched the contest. And as if Arkansas needed any other help, immediately after the Bulldogs got their only first-half points on a 39-yard field goal by Adam Carlson, return man Felix Jones took the ensuing kickoff end-to-end for the other Razorback touchdown.
"There's not a whole lot to say but we got our rear ends handed to us today," Croom said.
There certainly wasn't much to say for State's offense, which managed only the second-quarter field goal and a third-period touchdown by backup halfback Demarcus Johnson. The Bulldogs finished with 183 total yards on 60 plays. "Their defense was better than I thought they were going to be," said Norwood. "They ran to the ball and were real quick off the ball, they kind of disrupted our offense."
Norwood had one of the few plays worth cheering for State, on a 53-yard burst through the middle in the second quarter that set up Carlson's three-pointer. In the third period he became the first Bulldog ever to run for 3,000 career yards on a four-yard effort. "I didn't know I'd reached that," he shrugged afterwards. "I guess it's a good thing." He finished with 91 of State's 106 net rushing yards. But that was more than the offense managed in the air as quarterback Mike Henig was 11-of-27 for 77 yards with one interception, four official sacks and a whole lot more hard hits.
"We just had a lot of pressure, I'm really not sure exactly what happened," the second-year freshman said. "I don't know where it was coming from." Arkansas was credited with three more sacks, two of reserve QB Brett Morgan, giving them seven for the day and knocking some 35 yards off State's rushing net.
"I still haven't figured out exactly what happened out there, as far as our part," said Croom. "I know Arkansas played well."
The Razorbacks certainly began well, shaking off a seven-yard sack on their first snap to drive for the opening touchdown in nine plays. Dick, playing in just his fourth college game, threw for 13 yards and McFadden ran for 35 more to show how the day would go. A short flip to Peyton Hillis produced 22 yards and McFadden finished the drive with a one-yard waltz through left guard at 11:16.
State, too, had early indications of this game's plan when, after a 35-yard kickoff return by Derek Pegues, three Razorbacks swarmed Henig for his first sacking. But the Dog defense made a break as linebacker Quinton Culberson came on a delayed rush and caught Dick as he released a pass. Tackle Andrew Powell caught the duck for possession at the Razorback 17-yard line.
Handed a gilded opportunity to get on the board, State literally fumbled it away as Henig was rushed hard on second down and the pocket collapsed. "Omarr (Conner) was wide-open in the end zone," Henig said, "and I was going to throw it. Jerious was on protection and his shoulder hit me. If I could have got that one out I think it was a touchdown." Instead the ball came loose and UA's Marcus Harrison recovered, with Norwood having to tackle the tackle at the UA 44 to save a touchdown return.
"That was a real heartbreaker," said Dockery. "We gave them (the offense) the ball and thought we'd at least get three out of it." Worse, Arkansas got seven out of the turnover. On 3rd-and-1 at State's 21 McFadden took a counter-pitch around left end, outran linebacker Gabe O'Neal at the line of scrimmage and bowled over safety Demario Bobo at the goal line for his second score, at 4:35.
"It's a total lack of execution," Croom said, "we turn a guy free."
The second quarter began with Arkansas driving again, this time to the Bulldog six-yard line. Dick overthrew Marcus Monk in the end zone so Balseiro chipped in the first of his three field goals, from 23 yards out. Three minutes later he had another chance as Henig was brutally sacked by Jamaal Anderson into another fumble at State's 12. An 11-yard sack of Dick by Evans let Balseiro try his leg successfully from 36 yards at 11:48.
A 12-play drive expanded the lead to 27-0 as at the MSU 15 Hillis was left open in the flat for a swing pass. He got to the corner and stuck the ball across the pylon at 5:15. And after Norwood's big run set up Carlson for State's only points of the first half, Jones more than offset it with the 100-yard return. Only Jamaal Johnson got a finger on the Razorback, at the MSU 30-yard line.
Just for good measure Arkansas, getting the ball back a yard inside midfield with 70 seconds left in the half, hurried to tack on more points and did. The big play was a third-down direct snap to Hillis that caught State flat-cleated for nine yards, with 15 more tacked on as tackle Antonio Johnson was flagged and ejected. "He made a comment to the referee that was totally inappropriate," Croom said. That left 27 seconds to halftime. On second down Dick lobbed into the end zone where the 6-6 Monk outjumped the 5-10 Pegues for the 41-3 margin.
Rules mandated the second half be played, and Arkansas was throwing for the end zone again after a short State punt. But receiver Cedric Washington turned in while Dick threw out, with Dockery catching the ball and returning well across midfield. Much of that effort was wasted by an illegal block back at the MSU 42, spotting the ball on the 27. State had to punt soon enough, but so did the Razorbacks for the first time all day.
And finally the offense manufactured a drive, as Henig threw to Conner for nine and 31 yards. Norwood gained 18 yards around left end and on fourth down Johnson turned a swing pass into first-and-goal at the four. Two plays later he vaulted right guard for his first college points and State's only TD of the day, at 1:36.
Henig had another drive going in the final period, to the UA 49, when a throw for a double-covered Conner was picked off by Michael Grant at the 29. Six plays later Balseiro got his last field goal at 6:40, but the big moment was a 64-yard burst by McFadden to break the 1,000-yard mark. That was when the freshman was allowed to take a bow and a seat.
"I thought we were going to come out and play hard," Henig said. "I just felt we were dead out there."
State lost the game and potentially some more personnel. End Titus Brown, starting in place of injured Michael Heard, went down in the second quarter with a hurt ankle. Backup safety De'Mon Glanton was knocked out in the fourth quarter, and special teams regular Brandon Hart cracked an ankle in the first half. It was adding injury to insult, though Croom was far more offended by the way the Bulldogs just failed to show up for kickoff, commenting on lack of intensity and mistakes on both sides of the ball. "Things we've practiced and done all year we didn't execute when we got out there. Why that is, I'll have to figure it out."
There isn't much time left to figure anything else out as the Bulldogs close out their campaign Saturday in the annual Battle for the Golden Egg. The season is too far gone to salvage of course, but State players would like to walk off the home field with a measure of earned pride. "I only think about Ole miss now," said Norwood. "It's the last game of the season and my last game at Mississippi State.
"I haven't never beat Ole Miss, but hopefully this year we'll put something together and come out on top."