BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Mississippi State University’s 7-3 road win over Arkansas Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville will certainly go down as one of the classic matchups in college football history, but it will be one that Bulldogs head coach Zach Arnett will forever remember.
Despite committing a turnover deep in its own territory on the game’s first possession, scoring only one touchdown, having just 205 yards total offense and going just 1 for 10 on third down conversions, Mississippi State (4-3, 1-3) left Fayetteville with Arnett’s first SEC victory ever and the Bulldogs first this season.
That’s because his defense – which has been ranked either near or over 100 in several categories, limited the punchless Razorbacks (2-6, 0-5) to 200 yards total offense and kept them out of the end zone all day.
It was the ninth win for the Bulldogs in the last 12 games in the series against the Razorbacks, who have six straight games.
“Both teams were fighting hard for their first conference victory,” Arnett said. “We were fortunate to make enough plays today. Really proud of our guys.
“We played five games in the month of September. Our record – our results (2-3) – were not where we wanted them to be. Not what our expectations are.
“October has to be a big month for our program. We have three games in the month. We’re 2-0 right now and have set ourselves up to go 3-0. We have every opportunity ahead of us as a program.”
Arnett credited his team’s resolve for changing its defensive fortunes around.
“We really didn’t do anything preparation wise,” Arnett said. “We’ve got a lot of competitors on that side of the ball, in our program. We’ve seen the stats, the results, they’re not up to our satisfaction.
“They went to work in the bye week. That’s what you do. There’s no magic formula. You put in the work and take a critical eye in areas where you failed to perform, and you go about correcting them. I give all the credit to those guys for being man enough to be coached in the bye week. Now, they see the fruits of their labor.”
Both teams had a touchdown called back with Mississippi State quarterback Mike Wright’s 63 yard dash wiped out because of a penalty and then an apparent Arkansas defensive score negated by a false start on the Bulldogs.
“ We had a long touchdown run of his taken off the board because of an illegal blindside block,” Arnett said. “They had a touchdown taken off for a penalty as well.”
Wright, who had started 11 SEC games while at Vanderbilt, opened against Arkansas because record-setting QB Will Rogers could not make a 39th consecutive start due too a shoulder injury suffered two weeks ago.
Wright’s first pass was picked off by Alfahiym Walcott at the Bulldogs’ 35, but the Razorbacks were limited to Cam Little’s 24-yard field goal.
“He managed the game well enough,” Arnett said. “We have to find a way to create some more plays in the pass game, converts some third downs, and keep the ball going down the field.
This game is decided on points. It’s why you don’t see many 7-3 games any more. We know we’ll have to play better than this to continue to win games. But winning is always good.”
“He’s played enough football that he knows he double-clutched on that one,” Arnett said. “ You’ve got to trust your first instinct and rip it in there. He knows he was a little late on it. Every quarterback has thrown an interception. You have to move on and play the next play.”
Wright, who was 8 of 12 passing for 85 yards with a touchdown and the interception and also rushed 11 times f for 60 yards, said that is exactly what he did.
“When I threw that interception, there was no blinking,” Wright said. “I was going to come right back to it. It happens.”
Wright gave a passionate speech before the game according to his teammates.
“Focus on your jobs, your assignment and go out there and get a win,” Wright said. “There were some cuss words here-and-there.
“…I told the guys before the game that I am going to give them a chance. I’m not going to get back on that bus without giving our SEC receivers a chance.”
Wright showed up with a game ball when he met the media after the win.
“I wanted to keep it,” Wright said. “First start here (at Mississippi State)…Whenever you go into somebody’s house and steal a win. That is a big step for our program.”
Wright’s biggest pass of the day was a 30-yarder to Justin Robinson on a 3rd and 11 from the MSU 2 yard line. It came after three offensive penalties.
“They were stemming down there on the goal line and we were getting different looks,” Arnett said. “Those require a move call. We just failed to execute. When you’re playing on the road in a noisy stadium, and you’re depending on your calls.
“We had the least penalties in the league, but playing on the road in front of hostile environment. And you’re backed up. Obviously, we’ve got something to work on at practice. We’ll see that the rest of the season.”
Arkansas is now 6-12 since starting last season 3-0 and just 2-10 in its last 12 SEC games.
“Arkansas is very physical and play hard,” Arnett said. “Coach Pittman has done a phenomenal job here. We knew we’d have to be ready for a physical game, stop the run.”
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson was 19 of 31 passing for 97 yards and rushed 16 times for 38 yards.
“We missed him a few times,” Arnett said. “We did a good job of limiting his yards in scramble situations. He’s gonna get his. He’s a special player. To slow them down, you have to slow the quarterback down first.”
“It’s like a big bus back there,” noted Mississippi State linebacker Nate Watson.
Arkansas was not very effective on first downs, gaining just 2.9 yards per snap.
“Any defensive coach will tell you it’s easier to call defense when they are in second and long,” Arnett said.
Photo by John D. James