This was the one. Alabama? Meh. The Tide had just lost to Ole Miss. Georgia? Nope. Texas A&M? Well, it would’ve been a big one then, but it ended up being even more of a travesty of a loss thanks to the Aggies’ pitiful four-game stretch that followed.
No, Arkansas needed to beat Mississippi State. The Hogs absolutely had to conduct a massive book burning at Davis-Wade Stadium on Saturday night, specifically torching the fairy tale that Dak Prescott & Co. had been assiduously scripting from week to week. Sixteen-game conference losing streak dating back to Obama’s first term versus sudden ordained Rock of Gibraltar in a swirling sea of inexplicable laydowns and whiffs by others.
This was it. The moment for Arkansas to flip college football on its noggin, get loads of escalating frustration and concern pushed aside, and maybe even move into the by-God polls with a modest 5-4, 1-4 record.
The Hogs were ball-hawking on defense and ball-deflating on offense, just like Bret Bielema wants it to be. The execution in the first half wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be, because the Bulldogs were just ugly. Arkansas smacked home an early field goal and then got a touchdown run from Alex Collins a few plays after Jamoral Graham botched a punt return. The Hogs were composed, and the Bulldogs were rattled.
That was, however, followed by a quickly efficient return to normalcy for Mississippi State, a scoring drive that made it 10-7, and the Hogs twice failed to take advantage of excellent field position. Brooks Ellis’ interception on third down in the waning minute of the first half may have ended up being the decisive play, because the Hogs had little time to engineer any kind of quick-strike offense with only 34 seconds left in the half. Three incompletions and a punt made the enormous turnover amount to nothing, and more or less stemmed all momentum.
After halftime, the old self-inflicted wounds started piling up. A huge unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Drew Morgan took the thrust away from a developing drive. Once the Bulldogs tied it on a field goal afterward, the Razorbacks got a huge burst from Collins to stake themselves in the red zone … and they backpedaled again thanks to a false-start penalty. That led to a missed field goal, and Mississippi State wasted no time taking the ultimate lead with a 69-yard chuck to Fred Ross for the easiest touchdown in Starkville this year.
Brandon Allen did what he could from there, inasmuch as Arkansas fans will be reticent to give him credit. In the Hogs’ final two drives, he was a combined 7 for 15 and a couple of the incompletions were attributable to the receivers. Here again, a team terribly ill-equipped to either protect for more than mere moments or utilize receivers with separation ability or requisite speed did all it could in the face of those limitations. Allen reasonably and properly relied upon Hunter Henry for five big grabs on those last two marches, but ultimately a bewildering fourth-and-goal run by Alex Collins was predictably stuffed and Allen’s last toss for Demetrius Wilson in the end zone was underthrown, but also Wilson failed to turn defensive on it, so it was a game-killing pick.
So there it was. Arkansas 10 (the same 10 points it had two hours prior) to Mississippi State’s 17. No. 1 stayed that way. The cellar-dwelling Hogs stayed there, too. Ho-hum.
The bulk of this column is a recapitulation of events because at this point it almost belies much more commentary. You have to watch and sadly relive a Hog game now to truly appreciate the sheer amalgam of rotten luck, shabby execution and cruel teasing that goes down from week to week. If you like the films of Darren Aronofsky, oh man, is Arkansas football right in your wheelhouse. Just watch, rejoice in the occasional beauty, and then sit there numbed beyond movement as the credits roll.
I’ve got a friend who remarked repeatedly early in the season that Arkansas had a chance to be the best 5-7 college football team in history, and hell, at this point he’s possibly on target, assuming Arkansas scares up a single SEC victory to hit that mark. The Hogs have suffered mightily for the few really awful episodes, and that serves to mask how by-god determined this bunch is. They’ve advanced well toward respectability and done and said so many things right.
But it leaves Bielema facing inordinate pressure for the last three games and for the season after, and the Hogs’ nagging offensive inconsistencies beg for a reevaluation of Jim Chaney’s worth come December. There’s too much abundant talent on that side of the ball for a team to get stonewalled after 10 points, or for the offense to sputter like it did in the first half against Georgia after a terrific opening drive.