Football games are mostly lost. Every now and then, one team is so much better than its opponent that it doesn’t matter. It’s easy.
Mississippi State is ranked No. 16 and took No. 1 Alabama to the wire in its last game. But the Bulldogs tried to help an Arkansas team that had set a school record for lopsided losses this season on a cold, rainy, dark Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
In a year when no one seemed to help the Hogs, they were gifted a 14-0 lead. A muffed punt left them just 36 yards for their first touchdown. The Bulldogs fumbled into their end zone for the second score.
It seemed like the Bulldogs were helping again when they knocked the ball loose from Arkansas running back David Williams, then kicked it 20 yards down the field where Brandon Martin covered it for the Hogs at the 1-yard line. Two plays later, the Hogs took a 21-14 lead and carried it deep into the fourth quarter.
But in the end, Arkansas did more to lose than did the Bulldogs. The Razorbacks finished the job. They gave up two touchdowns in the final four minutes.
Mississippi State escaped with a 28-21 victory when a hurry-up, fourth-and-2 gamble by the Hogs failed at their own 44-yard line with 3:01 left.
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen faked a handoff, then ducked low just briefly to allow La’Michael Pettway to break free from the safety. He never did.
With Pettway in a tangled mess, Allen’s throw sailed about 10 yards long, perhaps because of the wind, an Arctic stream out of the north. None of the three deep officials came close to flinching or moving for the flag in their back pocket.
The rest was too easy for Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State’s magnificent run-pass quarterback with a stack of gaudy stats. On a day when he was frustrated by an inspired Arkansas defense, Fitzgerald took the Bulldogs home in nine plays.
There were four straight runs to open the drive with Fitzgerald converting a fourth-and-1 with a 2-yard plunge out of the shotgun. He got the touchdown on a roll out pass to Deddrick Thomas for the final six yards with 17 seconds left.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said the decision to gamble at the end of the game was made earlier in the week, then revisited again Friday night. Maybe it was the events of the week that led to the decision to roll the dice.
Maybe it’s everything that’s happened over the last 12 months dating back to the blown leads at Missouri and in the bowl game against Virginia Tech? Maybe Bielema knows his back is against the wall, signaled by the firing of athletics director Jeff Long earlier in the week?
“We talked about it last night, if we had a chance late in the game,” Bielema said. “We had practiced the play with Jonathan Nance, then he got hurt on the play before. So it was Pettway.”
Bielema said later, “We were hoping to get the official’s call.”
Allen took the blame.
“I thought Pettway was going to break free from the guy,” he said. “That’s what it looked like was about to happen. But it didn’t. I threw it too far. I should have just thrown it straight to him. That’s on me. I have to give him a chance. I didn’t.”
There was a nod of the head when it was suggested a catchable pass would have gotten a pass interference call.
The boos came down of the sparse crowd. Some were probably upset with the lack of a penalty. Others might have questioned the call, favoring a punt.
But punts have not been a great friend of late. Sophomore Blake Johnson had been tackled for a 10-yard loss when he tried to run after a bad snap from Robert Decker. That left Mississippi State only 17 yards to tie the game with 2:18 left in the first half.
Johnson had the big wind at his back in the fourth quarter when he botched another punt, just 31 yards. The Bulldogs cashed that one with a 55-yard scoring drive to pull even again with 3:57 left in the fourth quarter.
“We got some bounces today, we did,” Bielema said. “There were some turnovers we got that had a huge impact and if you make plays, good things happen. On the flip side, we had the punt (for lost yardage).”
Defensive end McTelvin Agim was superb. He caused the fumble that went for a defensive touchdown and one other. He finished with nine tackles, one behind linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
“He played a heckuva game,” Allen said. “Every time I looked out there, he seemed to make a play. He was everywhere.”
Agim said there were no doubts about winning “until the clock hit (zero). The ball was finally rolling our way today. We just couldn’t get (the win). We tried. We gave it our all.”
Perhaps it was the thought that a 6-6 finish and a bowl trip was out of reach. Maybe it was just the thought of Bielema’s future hitting home. He’s likely to go the same route of Long.
“We know, we hear it,” Allen said. “Everywhere we go, we hear it. It’s horrible. It’s on Twitter.
“I thought we did a really good job of shutting it out this week. We focused on the game.
“We want to play so hard for (Bielema). It’s so tough. We see what people say. We wanted to win the game for him.”
Bielema said there were emotional thoughts expressed in the locker room. Redshirt freshman Briston Guidry told his coach, “Get this one, coach,” then hugged Bielema. Guidry had five tackles and scored the touchdown with the fumble recovery.
Allen said it came down to just not doing enough.
“We didn’t win it,” he said. “It starts with me. Congrats to Mississippi State.”
When he saw the fourth-down call come in from the sideline, what did he think?
“I thought we were about to win the game,” he said. “It was a quick power play fake. If it worked, it was going to be a great call. We just weren’t very good on fourth down.”
To Allen’s point, Fitzgerald converted two of three fourth downs. Both set up touchdown drives. The Hogs missed on both their fourth down calls.
They also had some strange calls that came up empty on third down. They were as big as the fourth-down struggles.
Backup quarterback Ty Storey lost five yards on a third-and-2 in the first half, trying his hand at the Steamboat package set up for Cole Kelley earlier in the year. Kelley was in the student section after getting arrested last weekend after returning from the trip from LSU. Nance was spun down for no gain, ultimately fumbling out of bounds on the third down ahead of the last Arkansas snap, the Allen pass.
The Hogs played hard. Defensively, there was a lot of good throughout the game. Offensively, there was fight, especially with a beat-up offensive line that lost Hjalte Froholt and Zach Rogers to injuries and finished with Dylan Hays and Jake Raulerson at guard and center, respectively.
Fitzgerald did get his numbers, but was often frustrated. He finished with the game’s only decent numbers: 22 rushes for 101 yards, 12 of 23 passing for 153 yards and 3 total touchdowns.
The Bulldogs led in total yards, 348 to 221. Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat combined for 3.5 sacks to lead MSU’s salty defense that produced nine lost yardage plays.
The Razorbacks played solid defense, too. The Bulldogs have 20 games of more than 500 yards in the last three years, but backup linebacker Grant Morgan said it was just a matter of bringing intensity.
“We attacked the week,” Morgan said. “It was one of our best weeks of preparations.
“I guess that’s why the locker room is so down. It was one of our most emotional games so afterwards there were a lot of sad looks.”
Allen knows where the Hogs sit. No one had to tell him.
“We are 4-7,” he said. “If you told me that in August, I’d laugh in your face. I didn’t think this would happen.”
Bielema was asked how the Hogs got there.
“I don’t want to poor boy you and talk about injuries,” he said.
Then, he did.
To lose key players — and leaders — such as Rawleigh Williams, Frank Ragnow, Jared Cornelius and Ryan Pulley is no doubt part of the story.
“It wasn’t just on the field, but off the field,” Bielema said. “Those were our best voices (in the locker room).”
There was some talk on how to circle the wagons for the finale on Friday against Missouri. There was mention that it is a rivalry game, but that’s probably not what it will be about. Everyone knows Long is not the only one on the way out.
There was a strange atmosphere in the press box before the game, lots of friendly talk from staffers who used to work from Long. It’s a good bunch, just like Bielema and his staff.
Bielema’s final remarks to the media were directed at the mental goal for the week, to make it “about the seniors.” Then, he looked at everyone in the media room with his usual conclusion, “Woo pig.”
It won’t be just about the seniors. There may be only one more “Woo pig” left and everyone knows it.
Clay Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .