Or hopefully not in such a way again anytime soon, if ever. Mississippi State might have found ways to play worse in most areas Saturday afternoon, but their shortcomings were bad enough in a 44-17 loss to Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium.
“That’s probably, collectively, as bad as we’ve played since I’ve been the head coach,” said Dan Mullen. “And that falls on my shoulders making sure we have a better performance.”
Mullen was not exaggerating. His Bulldogs (5-6, 1-6 SEC) didn’t do much to obstruct Arkansas. To the contrary they gave the 6th-ranked Razorbacks some assistance in the form of offensive frustration and defensive breakdowns. Where to begin was tough to say, and meaningless besides.
“As a team we have to play at a high level,” said DT Fletcher Cox. “And we fell off.”
Not so Arkansas. The SEC’s leading offense put on an exhibition to match that status, with 539 total yards gained at a rate of 6.4 each snap. By contrast the Bulldogs netted only 3.3 yards per offensive attempt and 211 total. And, just two touchdowns, the second coming on with only 15 remaining seconds and reserves filling most of the lineups.
Two touchdowns was nothing near what Mississippi State needed, as starting QB Tyler Russell said. “We knew it was going to be a shootout, we knew we were going to have to put points on the board. And we didn’t do that.”
The Razorbacks did, and at double-digit tallies all four quarters. Headlining the show of course was quarterback Tyler Wilson with not just a career day. He posted the most passing yards in program history with 365, completing 32 of 43 throws for three scores and without an interception. Though, he did have a turnover, getting stripped for a second quarter fumble and return to set up State’s best opportunity to make it a contest.
Otherwise, Wilson was simply superb. “He’s a NFL guy,” said Cox. “He reads his coverages, he gets rid of the ball quick if he feels pressure.” And there was some of that applied by State, but like all other items never enough with a single sack registered. As Cox said, “By the time I got to him the ball was gone.”
Gone to any of eight targets, led by tight end Chris Gragg with eight catches for 119 yards and a back-breaking touchdown in the third quarter. Leading recever Jarius Wright had eight balls too and 96 yards. Facing a hot arm was tough enough; all those Razorbacks running routes merely magnified MSU troubles.
“We just weren’t very good at all in pass defense,” said Mullen. “They (UA) did make some good catches today, but they had some guys open and that’s a coaching issue.”
Generally true, but Wilson’s first touchdown showed the level of talent and execution Arkansas applied all afternoon. Having converted a 3rd-and-long throw to the Bulldog 20-yard line, Wilson got just enough protection time before blitzing CB Johnthan Banks arrived to unload. Cobi Hamilton made the goal-line catch, took the in-air hit from S Wade Bonner and tumbled in at 12:42.
After State put a field goal on the board at 4:49 the Razorbacks had the rapid response with a 68-yard drive, four of the seven plays going for double-digit gains. In fact Arkansas would have 20 plays producing ten or more yards in the contest, 16 in the first half alone. The 14-3 lead was earned on a half-foot dive by big back Kiero Small though. Which emphasized that Arkansas could run a bit, too, with Dennis Johnson netting 98 yards on 14 rushes and 68 more yards provided by Broderick Green and Ronnie Wingo.
“We bent, and we bent a lot giving up way, way too many yards,” Mullen said.
State’s preferred ground-pounding approach wasn’t nearly so productive with just 84 net yards. It was the fourth time in SEC play this season the Bulldog rushing game was held under 100 yards. Vick Ballard had 54 yards on 13 rushes, and worked hard for every foot of it.
Yet there was the second-quarter point Mullen and MSU were in striking distance. It was Wilson’s fumble, forced by a successful Banks this time, and returned 52 yards by Cox which set up a 28-yard touchdown drive. Russell began it with a 13-yard completion, then new alternate QB Dylan Favre took over. Playing the role of Chris Relf, who was sidelined by a concussion, Favre ran three-straight times and dragged a Hog across the goal at 12:06 for a 14-10 scoreboard.
A Razorback punt had State where Mullen had hoped. Even after they failed to move on a series, Cox was able to block a field goal try to keep the four-point difference. The next three-and-out though left 3:57 for Arkansas to do something more. They did, not scoring just once but twice.
“That was a real turning point with our guys,” Mullen said. A six-snap series ended with wideout Joe Adams working through coverage for a 32-yard touchdown at 2:04. The Razorbacks still had all three timeouts left, and needed just two of them to go 38 yards and get in position for a 44-ayrd field goal by Zach Hooker at 0:05.
Turning point, indeed. “If we drive down the field and score right here, that’s 17-14 with the ball to start the second half…we’re going to own the rest of this game,” said Mullen. And we don’t, all of a sudden it’s 24-10.”
With worse to come as a half-opening possession was, again, three-and-through. Arkansas made it really hurt with a dozen-play drive for the 31-10 lead, as Wilson bootlegged-right at the two-yard line with Gragg entirely alone in the end zone at. Hocker added field goals in the third and fourth quarters, and backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell directed a 51-yard touchdown drive so Green could get on the scoreboard with his two-yard dive.
Mullen gave Favre the rest of the State snaps, and he made most of opportunity by either rushing or throwing all 12 plays in the other Dog touchdown drive. On fourth down at the 13-yard line he found TE Malcolm Johnson just in fair ground. Favre was 8-of-16 for 72 yards and both State scores, rushing and throwing. Russell was 7-of-15 for 55 yards. Neither was intercepted.
And neither were happy. “We just couldn’t get anything going,” said Russell. “You play an offense like that, you’ve got to score and we just couldn’t get anything going. We were off on some throws here and there, just by inches. That’s what is so frustrating, to know that you’re so close and should have been in that game. The score didn’t determine how we were in the game.”
Maybe not in player minds, but their coach was less sparing critiquing the execution on both sides…and not at all sparing of himself and staff for, well, everything else. “When you play as bad as we have since we’ve been here, that’s all on me not having this team ready the way they needed to be.”
There is one more regular-season game to get the Bulldogs ready for, especially so if Mullen is to meet his annual goal of playing a post-season game too. State will end the schedule Saturday evening against archrival Ole Miss, needing a victory to both retain possession of the Golden Egg but to earn bowl eligibility. Liberty and Gator representatives were watching this game and scouts will be in Starkville next weekend as well.
“Playing the school up north, it’s the biggest game of the year for us,” said Cox. “We’re going to gameplan and next weekend execute at the highest level.”