By MATTHEW STEVENS
Just let Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino’s one-word description for his team’s heart-stopping double-overtime win in Starkville Saturday night.
After his team fumbled on its final drive of regulation when Arkansas was trying to secure a road victory at Mississippi State in its last six tries, and miss a 39-yard game-ending field goal in the first overtime, the Razorbacks third-year head coach knew how fortunate his squad was to escape with a 38-31 win.
“Our defense held them to a field goal and thought we were going to win it at the end of the first overtime,” Petrino said. “Then we went to the second overtime where we scored and they didn't so it was a great win.”
In the other locker room, Mississippi State (7-4, 3-4 in the Southeastern Conference) knew they were 2 yards in the first overtime and 17 yards away in the second overtime from putting the ball in the end zone.
“I put this one on our coaches,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “We got to do a much better job of making sure we were focused and making the plays we need to make.”
Arkansas took the lead in the second overtime on a 7-yard dump-off pass to tailback Knile Davis and the sophomore nearly walked into the end zone. The Razorbacks defense held MSU out of the end zone and sacked Bulldogs quarterback Chris Relf on a fourth-down miscommunication on the sack to end a wild contest at Davis-Wade Stadium.
It took for Arkansas’ quick-strike offense just 49 combined seconds to put two touchdowns on the scoreboard and silence the announced attendance of 56,406 at Davis-Wade Stadium getting the Razorbacks (9-2, 5-3) back in the game in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
The first of those plays came in the form of a 62-yard run by Davis that tied the game early in the first quarter at seven.
After a State, who had a 21-17 advantage at the time, committed a third-quarter fumble in the red zone, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett found a wide open Jarius Wright down the middle of the field to give the visitors a lead they would never lose. The long touchdown pass that turned a hostile environment into what would resemble a church scene was the second-longest in school history.
“Tonight we had missed assignments,” MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “We gifted them too many points. A missed assignment comes back on coaching (and) I got to take the responsibility for that.”
In a game that State dominated in terms of possession (37:24 to 22:36), plays (100 to 61) and on third-down (State made 9-of-20; Arkansas made 4-of-11), the Bulldogs were unable to shed the turnover bug at critical times for the second straight week.
“We turned the ball over twice in the red zone, that’s coaching and we’ve got to get that fixed,” Mullen said.
One of those critical turnovers deep in Arkansas territory was a fumble by State junior tailback Vick Ballard near the goal line. The Bulldogs workhorse back was stretching to reach the goalline on a run in the first overtime when the football popped out and bounced out of the back of the end zone. After a booth review, Southeastern Conference officials determined Ballard lost control of the ball before his knee was down at the two yard-line and possession was awarded to Arkansas.
“I was trying to catch my balance and when I did, I saw the goal line so I stretched out for it,” Ballard said. “I made the effort to get there but the guy made a great tackle.”
Ballard’s team-high 150 yards rushing on a career-high 33 carries helped State control the tempo of the game just like Mullen and the offensive coaches stressed would be so crucial all week. The transfer from Gulf Coast Community College finished with three rushing touchdowns leaving him one shy of the school’s record in that category set by Jackie Parker in 1952.
“He’s a workhorse, he carried it 33 times tonight,” Mullen said. “That’s a pretty good night’s work and he’ll probably be pretty sore tomorrow.”
The reason State even had a chance to tie or win the game late was after the Bulldogs defense, which was in complete desperation mode, forced a fumble by Davis that gave MSU life with less than two minutes left in the game.
With receivers Chad Bumphis and Chris Smith unable to return to the field due to in-game injuries, State took the ground and a scramble by Relf led to the game-tying field goal by Derek DePasquale at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
“Of course you want to win and not have to go into overtime but that is how it happened,” Bumphis said. “We had the will but it just did not happen.”
Relf led the offense with both his legs and arm again by totaling 327 total yards but on this night would do more of his damage through air (224 passing, 103 rushing). Late in the game, Relf was wearing down due to a constant pass rush from Arkansas that got pressure and hits on the 6-foot-4, 240-pound signal caller.
“I thought (Relf) did a nice job of when we had to pressure him to stop the run, he made some good throws and got after some man coverage and executed their passing game well,” Petrino said. “I thought in the second half, we hit him a bunch whether it was blitz or four-man rush. Even when he completed the pass, we hit him and I thought that became the difference in the game."
Arkansas showed up Saturday night in Starkville with the league’s best passing attack by nearly 30 yards per game but it was the ground game that gobbled up the early numbers for Razorbacks head coach Bobby Petrino.
Davis would finish with a game-high 187 yards on 30 carries putting him over 1,000 yards for the season and adding a much-needed second demension to the Arkansas offense late in the season.
“It's a blessing because I haven't done (get 1,000 yards in a season) before in my life, not even in high school because injuries held me back,” Davis said. “I just took care of my opportunities when I had it and it feels great."
State will try to make it two straight in the traditional Egg Bowl matchup when they travel to Oxford to face an Ole Miss squad that lost all hope at bowl eligibility after losing late at LSU Saturday afternoon.