Which was something State went to Little Rock hoping to settle. And had Croom known his team would score 31 points, the most ever by MSU in this series, pile up 501 total yards, throw four touchdown passes, and get more first downs, he'd have been justifiably confident of success. In fact the coach felt that way already about this SEC West matchup, regardless of series history.
"I thought we would have a chance to win the game and we did," said Croom. But, "Too many missed assignments and too many turnovers to beat a good football team on the road. That's what it really came down to, too many missed assignments and too many turnovers."
The twist was that Arkansas only scored after one such turnover, and that directly off an interception in the fourth quarter for the last Razorback points. Still the coach's analysis held overall, as the Bulldogs did just enough self-destructing and distracting in the middle-quarters to hand control of the afternoon over. Or, to throw it away, as quarterback Wesley Carroll had four passes picked; this after just one interception in his first ten college games.
It took those picked balls to offset an otherwise remarkable day for Carroll and his favored target, Jamayel Smith. The freshman quarterback also threw four passes for MSU touchdowns, of four, 35, 80, and 19 yards. He was 29-of-51 for 421 yards, more than doubling his previous best of 203 in the Tennessee game. Carroll tied the school record of four TD tosses, his 51 attempts were second-most in MSU history, and he had the first 400-yard passing day by a Dog since 1996.
Wideout Smith had a maroon-letter outing himself, catching ten balls for 208 yards and tying for second-most by a Bulldog. He hauled in touchdowns of four and 80 yards…and didn't care too much. "We still lost the game. I'd trade all these catches for a win. We're trying to go to a bowl game."
The fact that Carroll had to put the ball in the air 51 times, not to mention called passing plays that became runs, was the un-Stated issue of the day. Arkansas did a credible job containing Bulldog back Anthony Dixon in the first half while building their own lead and forcing State to spend the second half flinging the football around. Dixon had 31 yards on nine runs in the first quarter; he finished with 40 yards on 17 carries and State netted just 80 running yards total.
Arkansas' commitment to a five-man front and stacked linebackers made State get out of the two-back sets and away from Dixon, Croom agreed. "We didn't want to get in a situation where we had to throw every down but it didn't take long to realize they were going to over-play our base sets. Particularly in the second half, we went all one-back sets so we could see what they were doing and make adjustments."
The Razorback offense proved able to adjust, too, as State also game-planned against the run. In this case, all-world tailback Darren McFadden. It worked to a point as the junior had to work hard for his 88 net yards on 28 carries and only broke a couple of double-digit yard gains. But as defensive end Titus Brown said, "You have ten other guys on the field. We didn't stop the other guys that made plays today."
Such as fullback Peyton Hillis with 65 yards on 11 runs, including two momentum-turning gains in the second quarter when the game truly changed. And flanker London Crawford was twice given the ball on reverses, producing 31 and 21 yards respectively. Arkansas had clearly studied the West Virginia tape and planned a package around it "The read-option and reverses, those hurt us bad," said Croom.
So did UA quarterback Casey Dick with an amazingly efficient day. The junior was 14-of-17 passing for 199 yards and four touchdowns of his own. And McFadden could not be kept off the scoreboard entirely. He turned a short sideline throw into a 57-yard touchdown in the third period, and threw a 24-yard option touchdown in the fourth when State was making a bid to get back into contention.
"They've got a lot of weapons," said O'Neal. "They just threw a lot of trick plays and we didn't read some things or play sound defense. We didn't read our keys, I guess guys just tried to come up and make big plays."
State should have made a big play on the first possession, after picking up a pair of first downs. Carroll had tight end Eric Butler wide-open with lots of room to run, but the soft throw was dropped. "From where I was I thought it was going to be a touchdown," Croom said. "Make that play and you don't have the fumble on the next play." Because on the next snap Christian Ducre was hit in the backfield by Earnest Mitchell for a forced fumble and Arkansas possession.
The Razorbacks couldn't use the turnover and punted into the end zone. This time the Dogs went the full distance with some nice-sized bursts; of 13 yards by Ducre off the option-pitch, and a third-down throw for 14 to Lance Long after Carroll evaded two rushers. The critical call came with State facing 4th-and-5 on Arkansas' 30-yard line. Instead of risking the long field goal, Croom went for it.
Carroll got the snap off just ahead of the play clock and found Smith at the 11-yard line. Three plays later it was Smith cutting inside for the three-yard touchdown grab at 3:58. Not only had State scored seven, but burned over six minutes in the process. The Dogs also got into the second quarter with a lead as Arkansas did not try a 4th-and-1 at the 21-yard line, settling for Alex Tejada's field goal at 14:55.
The second period altered everything, as with State focused on McFadden fullback Hillis surprised the defense with bursts of 11 and 13 yards. Croom called a timeout when Arkansas reached the 38-yard line but on 3rd-and-short end Farod Jackson got free on the left flank for a short catch and touchdown run of 30 yards, giving UA the 10-7 lead at 10:44. Then Carroll was intercepted by Kevin Woods. Arkansas did not produce points off the mistake but a good angled punt left the Dogs on their four-yard line, and soon Blake McAdams was punting from the goal line.
"We lost the field position in the second quarter, we didn't kick the ball as well," Croom said. "The second quarter was the turning point of the game." All the more so as on the first chance Dick went to wideout Robert Johnson, open after cornerback Anthony Johnson stumbled, got for a 35-yard touchdown catch at 5:01. Then when State chose not to take a 4th-and-1 chance McAdams' punt bounced back to the UA 45-yard line. Six plays later, even after an offensive facemask call made it 3rd-and-16, Dick delivered a throw to the left pylon where Marcus Monk muscled in front of both safety Zach Smith and cornerback Jasper O'Quinn for a touchdown catch.
"You've got to make a play," said Croom. "A definite passing situation, you know where they're going to go, and he made the play and we didn't." The play withstood review for a 24-7 Razorback lead. State nearly made something out of the remaining 44 seconds as throws of 11 yards each to Ducre and Lance Long had the Dogs on Arkansas' 35-yard line with 0:08.1 on the clock.
Carroll found Smith at the 15-yard line but the wideout's motion carried him back into the middle of the field and he was tackled on the eight-yard line and the half expired. Or so the officials signaled. "I still thought I should have got a timeout," Croom said. "I told the guy before the snap I was going to call it as soon as the guys was down. But, Jamayel should have gone down."
If the Dogs were shaken by the second period it didn't show in the third, or not at first as the defense got a stop and Carroll moved the ball close enough for a 25-yard field goal by Adam Carlson. It took less than a minute for Arkansas' answer as Dick stayed in the pocket and found McFadden off to the right. "He had man-to-man and we bit on another route," O'Neal said. "He just out-flanked and out-ran everybody." For the 57-yard score and 31-10 lead.
Carroll tried to respond, with a nine-play drive that ended on a fluke interception as a screen throw ended up in linebacker Matt Hewitt's hands while he lay on the ground. And two Dog blockers were already downfield illegally anyway. Arkansas had to punt and a 37-yard Derek Pegues return let State start over on the 35-yard line. This time Carroll went long with a perfect in-stride strike to Tony Burks for the touchdown at 3:17.
"Playing from behind you have to get the ball down the field quick," Carroll said. But the Dogs couldn't get anything more done the next series, giving UA the ball on their 21-yard line. Another Crawford reverse got the drive going, aided by a late-hit on rookie linebacker K.J. Wright, and on 3rd-and-9 at the MSU 25-yard line McFadden took the direct snap. He didn't run but threw to a wide-open Johnson for the 38-17 lead.
"We leave our man and he throws the touchdown," Croom said. "Who cares if he runs the ball on 3rd-and-9? Come up and tackle him. That's not playing smart."
Yet State wasn't done as on second down Carroll threw long for Smith on the left sideline, another in-stride catch that became the 80-yard touchdown; the day's longest play for either side. And by 7:09 the Dogs had the ball back near midfield. But a holding call moved MSU back to the 36-yard line, and with 2nd-and-21 a screen was called. Carroll threw quickly to his left but defensive end Antwain Robinson had held his ground.
"He made a tremendous play, he was on the ground and up faster than I could imagine," Carroll said. Robinson batted, caught and ran for the 45-24 lead at 6:48. The Bulldogs salved some pride by driving 60 yards, and overcoming a sack at the 10-yard line, for Carroll to throw to tight end Jason Husband for a 19-yard touchdown at 5:00. Husband, who had four of his six catches in that series alone, was open because Arkansas was over-playing on Smith.
Yet that last score only made the final margin more respectable, as well as push State over 500 yards. Carroll had a throw tipped for his fourth interception. "We never could get it less than 14," Croom said. "Get it to seven and we have a chance to win the game."
"I thought we executed pretty well, we just put ourselves in a couple of bad situations that didn't lead to what we wanted," Carroll said. "Any time you turned the ball over they feed off it and they capitalized off our mistakes."
Now the Bulldogs hope to cash in on the things they did right in this loss, as well as previous wins over Kentucky and Alabama, in the season-finale next Friday. The Rebels (3-8, 0-7 SEC) are the only league team eliminated from bowl contention but bringing the Bulldogs back into the pack would soothe some wounded spirits in Oxford this winter.
For State, it is again a case of staying focused on the immediate task and letting the post-season picture fix itself. "We have to focus on Ole Miss, we can't get caught up in the bowl thing," said senior O'Neal. "We have to finish the season out right."
Because the game is Friday, Croom will have the Bulldogs go through a short Sunday evening practice after an even shorter scanning of today's game film. Arkansas is over, the coach said. "It's Ole Miss. We need to win to guarantee ourselves a bowl game, we're playing at our place, and it's going to be a battle. We've got to play our best game we've played all year."
"And hey, bowl game aside, it's Ole Miss. Nothing else matters."