This setback was more frustrating than most as State's offense matched the Razorbacks touchdown(s) for touchdown(s), and finished with 99 more total yards for the afternoon. For their part the Dog defense held the SEC's second-best offense far under their 400-yard average, with just 256 on 56 snaps. All the same State left the home field on the wrong end of the final score again.
"There's no getting around the fact we gave them a touchdown in the return game and an interception," Croom said. "They didn't have to work to get those 14 points, we were very charitable."
The Razorbacks were willing and very able to take advantage of such charity. The interception touchdown came first and provided the first points for either team as UA cornerback Chris Houston picked a Mike Henig pass at the Razorback 13-yard line and ran unchallenged into the other end zone at 2:44 of the opening quarter. The return touchdown might have been the bigger blow, coming immediately after the Bulldogs had tied it up 7-7. Hog halfback Darren McFadden fielded Adam Carlson's kickoff at his eight-yard line and scampered down the left sideline to score with 54 ticks left in the same quarter. While the Razorback offense did put up a pair of their own touchdowns, those two Bulldog breakdowns made the difference this day.
"This was one that slipped away," said MLB Quinton Culberson. "It should have been 14-0 going into halftime, us winning."
Ironically McFadden, the SEC's leading rusher, gained more ground on that one kickoff runback than he did running from the UA backfield. His 26 attempts netted 84 yards, 38 under his season average, and the Razorback ground game ended up with just 128 yards and no rushing touchdowns. State made no secret that shackling McFadden was the defensive priority.
"He doesn't like running between the tackles, he tries to get everything outside," DE Michael Heard said. "So we tried to keep him inside the tackles. I think we did, I don't know if he got 100 yards." He didn't. What Arkansas did get were some timely tosses from Casey Dick to make up the difference. The sophomore only threw 17 balls, completing eight for 112 yards with one intercepted. But two of those throws produced points. A 29-yard strike to Damian Williams 41 seconds before halftime gave the Razorbacks a 21-14 lead at intermission; and a 35-yard throw from Dick on a double-reverse to Marcus Monk at 2:13 of the third period accounted for the last points of the day.
State QB Mike Henig wasn't as efficient, on 9-of-25 passing for 123 yards. He did hook up with WR Tony Burks for a 22-yard touchdown in the second period, but also threw the ball that became Arkansas' first points. And Henig didn't complete the game, going down at 13:35 of the fourth quarter as his heave was intercepted. He left the field left arm in a sling, and the team orthopedist said it felt like Henig had broken the same left collarbone that was broken in the season-opener against South Carolina in a different place.
Asked Henig's status Croom could only say "We've got to evaluate that." And then asked if backup Omarr Conner would start next week at Mississippi, Croom added "We've got to evaluate that!"
Senior Conner, who had not played since a serious groin injury October 7, finished out the quarter. He was 6-of-9 for 78 yards, almost all of it coming on State's final possession as he drove the Dogs as far as the Razorback three-yard line. But he also threw an interception in the end zone to end the last-chance surge, and clearly was not comfortable scrambling.
Still, he said, "It felt good being back out there after five weeks, for the last game at Mississippi State."
Freshman HB Anthony Dixon ended his first home-season at State with a 89-yard day, on 17 carries. Most of the ground was gained on one big burst, a 65-yard touchdown in the opening quarter. The Bulldogs managed 154 total ground yards and 355 in all, getting 5.4 each time the hogskin was hiked. It should have been a sound enough statistical effort to win, only it wasn't.
"It was unfortunate for us," said Dixon. "For the most part our defense did a real good job, I think we just fell off a little on special teams. We let some real big plays go. Take out the specials teams play and the interception and the game is tied up."
It ought to have been a scoreless deadlock after one period. Neither side moved the chains in two chances each, though the Razorbacks were in much better field-position shape. A short Blake McAdams punt and 16-yard return had Arkansas on State's 24-yard line; on 4th-and-2 McFadden was stopped by safeties Jeramie Johnson and Keith Fitzhugh for the turnover. The Bulldog offense responded to the defense's break by driving 66 yards, though two first downs came on pass interference calls.
But on 3rd-and-5 at the UA19 Henig forced a throw for Burks coming left-to-right. Houston was also coming at the same angle and with inside position. He picked the pass and momentum took him right to the side of the field with nobody between him and the end zone 87 yards away. He crossed the goal at 2:44.
That was just the start of a frenetic sequence of scoring events for each side. Starting at their 20 the Bulldogs scored in three snaps. WR Jamayel Smith pulled down a strike for 15 yards, then on first down Dixon got the handoff. "The ‘A' gap was open and I took it. When I came through I saw the two cornerbacks coming hard and I just cut off the back side." No Hog laid a hand on him after breaking the line of scrimmage as Dixon was gone all 65 yards for the score at 1:11.The tie lasted only the handful of seconds it took for McFadden to return the ensuing kickoff 92 yards.
"Bottom line is we missed tackles and got blocked," Croom said.
The quarter changed with State just across midfield and Justin Williams pounding out five-straight carries before an overthrow by Henig and punt downed at the Razorback 4-yard line. Dick got one first down with a connection to Ben Cleveland at the 17-yard line, then it was his turn to throw the ball to the wrong team. An attempt to reach Damien Williams was intercepted by SS De'Mon Glanton at the 30-yard line. His ten-yard return put State at the Arkansas red zone and on third down Henig threaded his throw between two defenders to Burks.
The receiver caught and held on despite double-licks and stepped into the end zone for the tying touchdown at 8:41. In the space of barely nine clock-minutes the teams had combined for 28 points, though only State had done so via the offensive squad.
But superior special-teams work, with a 51-yard kickoff return from Felix Jones, meant better Arkansas field position the rest of the half. "That put us in a lot of bad field position," said Culberson. "We had our backs against the wall." One opportunity came up short, or rather wide, as a 46-yard field goal attempt by Jeremy Davis went left at 2:52.
The Razorbacks were soon in the same vicinity after another short McAdams punt and a late helmet-hit by Casey Rogers on the return. "Ridiculous," Croom called the act, not the correct penalty. The 15 free yards (more charity) put Arkansas on State's 33 yard line with 1:43 left to hafltime. Only 62 of those seconds were required to break the deadlock. On 3rd-and-5 Williams got behind Derek Pegues in the end zone. The throw was high and into the sun; Pegues lost track and Williams didn't for the touchdown catch at 0:41.
McAdams hit balls better in the second half and one punt was downed at Arkansas' one-yard line. The Razorbacks were able to avoid any field-position trouble though, and a carom-interception by LB Gabe O'Neal was negated because SS Keith Fitzhugh hit the intended receiver too early. Those 15 yards and a McFadden run at least let UA have more room to punt the ball away, and State's next punt just did get to the goal line before downing.
Arkansas drove 80 yards in just six plays for the decisive score, with Dick hitting Monk on an out-route for 12 yards and somehow slipping a throw through a crowd to Monk for another 15. McFadden bolted for a dozen, then on 2nd-and 7 the Razorbacks dipped into the trick bag for the first time. A double-reverse put the ball back in Dick's hands as Monk raced down the left-numbers, a step in front of Fitzhugh and SS Jeramie Johnson. Monk made the easy 32-yard touchdown catch in the end zone for all the points Arkansas would need.
State wasn't entirely done as a third-down dump to Dixon netted 20 yards and a catch-and-run by WR Lance Long 12 more. Henig himself scrambled to the UA 30 on the first play of the last quarter, but on 3rd-and-10 was rushed and hurled the ball downfield as he fell back. The landing cracked the collarbone. Arkansas intercepted the heave but a holding call negated it. State still couldn't use the second chance , getting to the 14-yard line before Conner missed on 4th-and-4 for Smith.
The Razorbacks were able to burn 11 minutes off the clock and go 80 yards, with three third-downs converted, and try a field goal that DT Andrew Powell blocked. Still there was barely two minutes left to make anything happen. Conner nearly did as UA dropped into an uncharacteristic zone defense and got picked apart. Conner completed balls for 14, 18, 11, and 22 yards to get to the Hog six-yard line. A motion penalty on Burks cost five yards and on 3rd-and-goal Conner was hurried into a toss that Houston caught in the end zone.
With a mostly-solid defensive day and an offense that posted the second-best output of the season, Mississippi State played the #5-ranked squad in the land on even terms or better…in those two aspects of the game. It was on special teams where the Dogs bombed. Arkansas punting averaged 43.0, State 33.9; the Razorbacks ran back kicks of all sorts for 177 yards, the Dogs just 75. Even then State could have handled the ‘hidden' yardage differential if not for the unintended charity on the home field.
"We're talking about four plays," said Croom. "But that's what big games come down to."