The last time that then Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino walked out of Reynolds Razorback Stadium with a win was after a 49-7 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 12, 2011.
It looked through three quarters Saturday night the answer to that trivia question was about to change.
But No. 10 Arkansas, which trailed 17-0 in the second quarter and 27-17 with 12:04 left, rallied for the final 21 points to down Petrino’s Missouri State squad 38-27 before an announced crowd of 74,133.
“I am really proud of our team and our assistant coaches,” Petrino said. “They did a really nice job of preparing. We had good practices, we came in and competed extremely hard, had a good plan and were able to jump up and get a lead.
“I knew it was going to be hard to hold onto it. They have got really good players, really good coaches so we knew they were going to make a run back.”
That’s exactly what happened in a game in which the Football Bowl Subdivision Razorbacks scored the 38 of the final 48 points against the No.. 5 team in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The final 21-0 blitz in the fourth quarter started with Rocket Sanders (22 carries, 167 yard and 2 catches for 75 yards) taking a shovel pass 73 yards for a score.
That was followed just over two minutes later by Bryce Stephens’ electrifying 82-yard touchdown run that gave Arkansas a 31-27 lead.
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (19 of 31 passing for 385 yards) then sealed the deal with a 1-yard run with 1:39 left.
Missouri State trailed 31-27 after Stephens’ punt return, but Petrino still thought his team would win.
Arkansas had eight sacks and got a pair by Drew Sanders (12 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Jordan Domineck before Stephens’ go-ahead punt return.
“I thought we would have a chance to go drive and score,” Petrino said. “We got a little bit overwhelmed with their pass rush at that time. That was it. I wished we could have finished the fourth quarter better offensively, but we were not able to do it.”
Petrino, whose program got a $450,000 payment for playing at Arkansas, wanted his team to play with fearlessness and believe it could win.
“I think they did a good job,” Petrino said. “The thing that you always worry about when there is a little bit of a mismatch in personnel is you would get a little wide-eyed and don’t really believe that we can play with them and don’t believe we can win.
“Because then things happen that don’t normally happen happen. They didn’t do that. They believed that we would go find a way to win the game and played extremely hard. They made a lot of plays.
“It was a good night for most of it with our team. We do want to win the game. That’s the reason we came here. But Arkansas is a really good football team. You can’t say enough about how well-coached they are how many really good players they have.”
Petrino, who was 34-17 when coached at Arkansas from 2008-2011 and went 21-5 in his last two seasons, said he thought he did a good job of not letting himself get emotional.
“Yeah, I was really good at blocking everything out until probably after the game,” Petrino said.
That was when he saw some of his old Razorback players like tight end DJ Williams.
“That was fun,” Petrino said. “It was fun. Those were guys that I battled with before and won a lot of games with and they put a lot of sweat and blood and tears on the field so it was great to see them.”
The Razorbacks had 596 yards total offense while the Bears ended up with 409 with quarterback Jason Shelly throwing for 357 of those.
The Razorbacks were without Jalen Catalon (out for the season), Myles Slusher (missed the last two games) and cornerback LaDarrious Bishop, who missed Saturday’s game after getting injured in last week’s 42-30 win over South Carolina.
“We knew they had a couple of injuries in the secondary and I think our receivers are some of the best in the country,” Shelley said. “That was something we strived for and to try to take advantage of their hurt backfield. That’s what we tried to do. We didn’t make enough plays out there but that was the goal.”
After scoring 17 straight points and tying the game 17-17 on Cam Little’s 27-yard field goal, it looked like Arkansas had grabbed the momentum.
But Missouri State took a 24-17 lead with 3:28 left in the third quarter when it went for it on a 4th and 1.
Shelley hit a wide open Ty Scott with a 47-yard touchdown pass after faking a running play.
“We worked on it (in practice) for awhile, yeah,” noted Petrino, who used it several times while coaching the Razorbacks.
“I was encouraged when we answered it and went back and got another touchdown. But eventually they wore us down, made a lot of plays and ended up beating us.”
Scott believes his team can play with anybody.
“I think we closed up all the doubters,” Scott said. “It will give our team a spark that we can play with anybody in any college league. It doesn’t matter if it’s FCS or FBS. It’s 11 vs. 11 and I think our guys showed the world that we could play with anybody.”
Missouri State will face another FCS elite school next week when it hosts No. 2 South Dakota State.
Iowa edged South Dakota State 7-3 in its opener.
“I was really proud of them,” Petrino said. “I think we have really good leadership. We wanted to be tough and try to match their speed and their physicalness. And for most of the night we did a pretty good job of that.
“But nobody blinked. Our guys played extremely hard and we have got to try and build on that. We have a really tough game next week as well. So it just keeps getting better.”
“…I think we will have confidence. “It is also a real tough opponent that we play that are really good. So we have got to get healed up, do a good job of hydrating and getting in the training room and getting our bodies right and then get out on the practice field and get ready for South Dakota State and learn from this.
“That is always what you want to do when you get beat is learn from it, make sure that we get better from it and then we have to put it behind us and go forward and get ready for South Dakota State.”
Missouri State took a 17-0 lead with 14 of those two Arkansas turnovers – a fumble near the goal line by Sanders and Jefferson’s first interception of the season – one that bounce off the hands of tight end Trey Knox.
“I am proud of them,” Petrino said. “I think we had to hit hard and try to strip. We have been talking for two weeks about creating turnovers and getting fumbles. I keep telling them that they will come in bunches when they come. We just didn’t get a big enough bunch.”
Petrino said his team focused on its toughness.
“We just wanted to focus on being tough and being physical,” Petrino said. “I think the number one lesson that football teaches players is how to be tough, how to overcome obstacles, how to overcome setbacks, how to take a hit and not blink and come back. It is going to pay off for them when they have to drive 12 hours with no sleep to take care of their sister, who just went into hospital. So that’s what we were talking about. I thought they did a good job.”
Petrino has always been known as a creative play caller and it showed again on Saturday night.
“We just tried to execute our offense, mix in the run, mix in some quick passes, take some shots down the field, try to get in some favorable third-down situations,” Petrino said. “I thought we executed pretty well in third down situations and our guys made plays. They made catches and runs after catches and that was really good to see.”
Shelly, who previously played at both Utah and Utah State, was outstanding as Petrino expected him to be.
“Jason is the ultimate competitor,” Petrino said. “His ability to run out there and get first downs and run in the end zone. He is just a great, great competitor and everybody rallies around him.”
Petrino said his team can look in the mirror and be proud.
“The only thing that I was thinking about was how proud I was of our players,” Petrino said. “They came in and did the best they could possibly do, competed as hard as they possibly could compete, put it all out there on the field.
“We talked about being able to look in the mirror and like what we saw, how our effort was as we looked in the mirror and I think they can all look in the mirror and really be proud of how hard they played and how hard they competed.”
Petrino has used the NCAA transfer portal to resurrect a Missouri State program that was 1-10 the year before he arrived and has made two straight FCS playoff appearances.
“You know, it’s been fun,” Petrino said. “It has been fun to watch the players’ beliefs change and how much more they believe in themselves now and how much their expectations have changed and how they expect to go through practice and how they expect they teammate to practice hard. So that has been the greatest part of it is to watch the players expectations change and them grow and come together as a family.
“We are all from everywhere. Our team is from all across the country. If you look at our roster, where are we recruiting at? Where is our recruiting base? America. That is our recruiting base because we are from everywhere. To be able to come together says a lot about the assistant coaches and says a lot about the leaders on the team.”
Photo by John D. James