Perkins turned a pair of Tyler Russell passes into touchdowns, of 13 and 24 yards, which keyed Mississippi State’s 45-14 victory over the visiting Razorbacks. He didn’t have the most catches, or yards; and for that matter his two scores were matched by a teammate. Still it was the unexpected option Perkins provided via the passing game that made sure the Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3 SEC) could celebrate their 2012 Scott Field finale in style.
“I was just going with the flow,” Perkins said. “I knew coming in we were going to pass the ball a good bit. I didn’t mind running or throwing the ball.” The junior got to do a good bit of both, with a team- and game-high 91 rushing yards on 17 carries. He even returned a kickoff 16 yards, giving him 147 total-offense yards. This, a week after Perkins sat out the LSU game with a quadriceps pull; really a slight tear.
“It’s fine, it’s 100%,” he said. “It wasn’t no question, I knew I was going to be ready. I knew Sunday I could be ready.”
Coach and quarterback both counted on Perkins’ presence and it showed, early and often. His first touchdown, at 9:32 of The Opening quarter, staked State to an initial lead. The second, at 1:31 of the third period, made for a 31-14 margin which clinched the outcome. Each play was the same call, too, with Russell recognizing Razorback coverage and sending Perkins down the right sideline, into the end zone.
“It was just my read,” Russell said. “If the ‘backer came underneath the dragger then I go to Perk; if he comes over the top I go back-side. Both times he came underneath so I gave Perk a chance.”
Just as Coach Dan Mullen and staff had counted on in scouting an Arkansas defense that ranked at the bottom against SEC passing. “We saw on film we had an opportunity to get him in some man coverage. And Perk made two spectacular catches and Tyler made two great throws.”
Russell made a lot of other good throws Saturday afternoon, with a 19-of-32 line for 274 yards and four touchdowns. The other two scores were caught by the usual top target WR Chad Bumphis, who celebrated Senior Day with six grabs and 82 yards. His six-yard snare at 4:48 of the second quarter put the Bulldogs back on top 17-14 for halftime. Ten seconds into the fourth quarter he got between two defenders and Russell threaded that needle for a 22-yard score and 38-14 margin.
“Both (were) option routes,” Bumphis said. “Take whatever they give us. Tyler was reading it and we were on the same page.” The two touchdowns gave senior Bumphis the State season record of ten, while he extended his career record to 22.
State’s other touchdowns came from backups. QB Dak Prescott took over for a called-keeper on a bold fourth-and-short at the Razorback four-yard line, and got it all in one hard dash up the middle at 5:51 of the third quarter. RB Nick Griffin provided some sweet icing in the last period by taking Russell’s option-pitch, picking his way through traffic and racing sixty yards.
The Bulldogs also got a 39-yard field goal from Devon Bell in the second quarter. This was after Arkansas had asserted its offensive strengths to score consecutive touchdowns for a 14-7 lead that had the home crowd of 54,838 wondering if that three-game losing streak might be extended. The first two Razorback drives were masterful, of 11 and 10 snaps each and with almost no missteps en route. After how the Bulldog defense had been battered for three Western Division weekends the concern was palpable in the stands.
Not so much on the sideline and in the halftime locker room. “I think it took us a couple of series to get settled-in,” LB Cameron Lawrence said. “The coaches made good adjustments, I tip my hat to them. They got us in the right place and once we settled in we executed. We kind of got our mojo back and got the win.”
“We kept our composure, encouraged each other, so we just played through it,” said LB Benardrick McKinney, whose eight tackles trailed only Lawrence’s 11. The Bulldogs knew Arkansas would score; the key was not getting rattled or too far behind. And as for those adjustments, Mullen said coordinator Chris Wilson’s calls did not change many things by very much.
“They got them coached-up, made some slight adjustments. And when I say slight adjustments, they stuck a lot with our game plan and didn’t panic and just kept coaching them up and made the adjustments we needed to make. The slight ones to make the stops that we got.”
The first priority wasn’t attacking big-armed Tyler Wilson though; it was controlling backs Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis. That the Dogs did as other than a few big second-quarter carries Arkansas was ground to a halt. Johnson ended up with 88 of the 126 Razorback rushing yards, while State had 203 on the ground. While Wilson’s accuracy was typically-remarkable, 23-of-29 for 225 yards and both touchdowns, he didn’t take over entirely.
Nor did spectacular Cobi Hamilton, the SEC’s statistical receiving leader. He did get seven balls and 84 yards with a touchdown (Johnson caught the other on a short dump-off). But on two grabs and 20 yards came after halftime as State gambled on more man coverage with aggressive contact at the line of scrimmage. Also, Mullen said, “I think we were able to get a little more pressure in the second half with our d-line, which was going to be huge. It’s hard to blitz (Wilson) a lot because if he gets you he’s going to get you big.”
The glaring difference though came right where another SEC stat chart indicated. Despite a recent drought the Bulldogs have been far better in turnover ratio and that proved too true. Arkansas fumbled the ball away three times, once on a punt; and Wilson was picked off twice. “Coach Wilson made a big emphasis we needed to make more plays, create more turnovers,” said Lawrence, who came up with one of those fumbles. “We were hunting the ball the whole time and we were able to come up with it a couple of times.”
The first was on the mishandled punt at Arkansas’ 28, setting up Bell’s field goal. The next didn’t come until after halftime when CB Jamerson Love stepped in front of the intended target to intercept Wilson. No points came of this but the unforced, not even really pressured pick seemed to shake Wilson up the rest of the day.
Trailing 24-14 it was another Wilson failure that might have changed the game. With 4th-and-8 at the Bulldog 39, Arkansas talked it over before going for the first down. Wilson scrambled, spun off contact by S Jay Hughes, and fell a half-yard short. A series later disaster really struck when Jonathan Williams just lost the handle at his team’s 37-yard line with Lawrence recovering.
Russell went for the throat, finding WR Arceto Clark for 13 yards and then using the same wheel-route with Perkins for the touchdown. Everything snowballed against Arkansas from there as a caught pass was stripped by LB Christian Holmes and recovered by DE Preston Smith. Four plays later Bumphis was in the end zone.
Wilson was intercepted again, by CB Darius Slay, and while a Bulldog personal foul pushed the ball back to State’s 40 that just gave Griffin more room to run on an option play Emory Bellard would have admired. The Bulldogs scored 24 points after Arkansas turnovers.
“And once we got rolling we couldn’t be stopped,” said Lawrence. State only sacked Wilson twice but got sufficient other pressure and some steady containment beginning midway of the second quarter. Arkansas finished with 359 yards, well-under their average 422. By contrast the Bulldogs put 505 yards on the sheet, 302 of it in the air, as Russell surpassed season records for completions, yards, and 200-yard games.
And did it without being all that sharp, by his own admission. “I wasn’t really on the whole day. The offensive line did a good job and the running backs bailed me out a ton. The receivers caught the ball. When you have people that can make plays for you, you can be OK and still execute and move the ball.”
“The first half we were chipping away at them,” Perkins said. “But the second half we turned it up a notch and made a lot of plays. And the defense was doing a great job of stopping them and creating turnovers. They set us up in good field position, and we executed on most of them.”
Mullen was prouder perhaps of how his downtrodden defense roused itself under big-play pressure. “After the poor start with our defense I thought we made a lot of plays,” he said, most obviously to Mullen the fourth-down stop that led to a series of turnovers. “From that point on we played well on every side of the ball. We kept battling for four quarters and I’m proud of our guys for doing that.”
Arkansas left 4-7, 2-5 SEC and eliminated from bowl eligibility, a sad ending to a season that bore such promise back when the Razorbacks were top-ten ranked. For their part the Bulldogs are solidly in the middle-tier of postseason possibilities, but need one more victory to seal a berth on either New Years Eve or Day. Of course the upcoming trip to Oxford is the real bowl of any State season to club and coach alike.
Now that the losing streak is snapped, Perkins is confident everything is back on the 2012 track. “I hate losing, it feels good to win and we’re going to put this victory behind us and come out next week with a different attitude and different mindset. I know we’re wanting to get back in and watch film tomorrow.”
“I’m so fired-up about it,” said Lawrence after his own successful Senior Day. “We’re going to enjoy this tonight but tomorrow I’ll be in the film room getting ready to go battle them and get my fourth win against them. And to be undefeated against the school up north for the rest of my life.”