Mississippi State defeated Arkansas 51-50 on Saturday night in a back-and-forth shootout that came down to the final minute.
Here are the grades the Bulldogs deserve based on that performance.
There isn’t a grade high enough for how Mississippi State played in the first, second and fourth quarters. In those three quarters alone, the Bulldogs racked up 547 yards of offense and 51 points — the team’s most since dropping 62 on Northwestern State in mid-September.
At halftime, the Bulldogs led 31-21 and looked ready to run away with the game. But the third quarter was one of the worst Mississippi State has played all season. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s first pass of the half was tipped by wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson and intercepted. The next drive, Prescott was sacked and stripped of the ball. The team’s third drive was a three-and-out. Mississippi State racked up 84 yards in the quarter, turned the ball over three times (including a fumbled kickoff return) and didn’t score.
Had it not been for a monstrous fourth quarter, that would have spelled disaster. Overall, though, Prescott threw for 508 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for two more scores.
Arkansas’ offense has been very, very good. The Razorbacks averaged 50.3 points in their previous four games, so it isn’t as though the Mississippi State defense did unreasonably poorly. But it’s never acceptable to give up 479 yards of offense, seven passing touchdowns and 50 points without forcing a single turnover.
The Bulldogs only forced four punts and allowed Arkansas to go 6-of-6 on red-zone chances before blocking a field goal with 46 seconds left. That field goal attempt, of course, was set up by a 77-yard drive in which Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen threw five straight completions for 70 yards in less than three minutes. It should have been enough to secure a win.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
This is a tricky one. There’s no question the play of the game was made on special teams: Junior linebacker Beniquez Brown blocked Arkansas’ potential game-winning kick with 46 seconds left (even though he was supposed to cover the tight end on the play). Without the special teams stepping up with the game on the line, Mississippi State would have dropped its second straight matchup and its first to Arkansas in four years.
But the Bulldogs might not have been in that position were it not for the performance of the special teams on the first play of the second half. Brandon Holloway returned the kickoff 22 yards before being hit hard and fumbling; the Razorbacks recovered and scored on the ensuing drive. That set in motion 21 consecutive points by Arkansas and gave the Razorbacks momentum they would carry until that doomed field goal attempt. The Bulldogs also missed an extra point when the score was 44-42.
Again, it’s hard to be happy when your team allows 50 points. But there’s not much to complain about here. There were very few slipups — as opposed to last week against Alabama, when Mississippi State’s defense might as well have been a Craigslist section entitled “Missed Assignments” — but the defense just kept getting beat.
Last week, against the No. 2 rush defense in the country, Mullen had Prescott rush 26 times (including sacks); this week, Prescott only took off 15 times. The lower workload allowed for a remarkable 508-yard, five-touchdown passing game.
There were also two great calls by the coaching staff. In the fourth quarter, wide receiver Gabe Myles took the ball on a pitch and looked to throw to a wide-open Prescott in the end zone. But Myles hesitated, and by the time he released the ball, Prescott was covered. (This play was called on third-and-1, which allowed for some wiggle room if it failed. Prescott converted the first down with his legs the next play, then threw for a touchdown two plays later to take the lead). The second, of course, was a special teams coach who, when Brown asked if he could switch assignments, made the best call any Mississippi State coach made all game.
Before Saturday night, Mississippi State had not won a game this season when its opponent scored more than 20 points. It seemed like that would be tricky when playing a team that was averaging more than 50 points per game during the past month. And it was tricky. But Prescott played his best game of the season, the special teams showed up at exactly the right time and the Bulldogs somehow left Fayetteville with a one-point win.