Mississippi State's fourth-down stand proves timely

By: Dudley E. Dawson
Published: Saturday, November 18, 2017
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen watches warmups prior to a game against Arkansas on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen watches warmups prior to a game against Arkansas on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Fayetteville.

— When Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and star defender Jeffery Simmons saw Arkansas lining up to go for it on 4th-and-2 at its own 44 with 3:01 left and the game tied 21-21 on Saturday, they knew it was likely a game-deciding play.

Get a first down and the Razorbacks (4-7, 1-6) would at least have a shot to get into field goal range for a game-winner.

Get a stop and the Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3) would have the chance to do the same.

Mississippi State watched senior quarterback Austin Allen’s deep pass go incomplete and then scored on the ensuing possession to sneak out of Fayetteville with a 28-21 victory.

“Coach (Defensive coordinator Todd) Grantham told us that we had to go out right here and get a stop and everybody bought into it,” Simmons said. “That’s what we did.

“I really wasn’t surprised they went for it. The game was on the line and they are trying to get a first down and keep the game going.”

Simmons also pointed to the chain Mississippi State keeps on the sideline to symbolize their bond of togetherness and toughness.

“When you see that chain, you don’t want to be the weak link,” Simmons said. “That chain is strong. That chain won’t be broken. Every time we see it, it’s like we are going to come together as a team and make a play.”

Mullen, whose team was coming off a heart-breaking 31-24 home loss to No. 1 Alabama, was not surprised that Arkansas chose to go for it either.

“One of the easiest things in the world for people to do is second guess what we should do,” Mullen said. “You’ve got about a five-second window. You know your team, you know the situation you are in and you try to make a decision for what you think is best.

“Mine is they are going for it, let’s make a stop. Not should they be going, should I be happy at this. It’s they are going for it, let’s make a stop.

“Someone was telling me last week on my twitter page that we should have gone for it (against Alabama). Guess what? They are going to be yelling ‘hell, why did you go for it in that situation.’ It is real easy to do after the fact.

“What I am proud of is they went for it. If they get that first down, they are another first down or two away from probably kicking a game-winning field goal.

“They went for it, our defense buckled down, guys flying to the football (on third down), made the stop. We’re disciplined. They took a shot, we did a great job in coverage, our guys are disciplined, forced them to eventually get rid of the ball with max protect and made the stop.

“That gave our guys the opportunity to go on the field and go win the game.”

Mississippi State had two turnovers that Arkansas turned into touchdowns and a 14-0 lead with 7:26 left in the first quarter.

The Bulldogs rallied to for a 14-14 tie by halftime only to see Devwah Whaley’s 1-yard run get Arkansas ahead 21-14 with 4:35 left in the third quarter.

Nick Fitzgerald’s 37-touchdown pass to Reggie Todd with 3:57 left tied the game up and then his 6-yard scoring toss to Deddrick Thomas proved to be the game-winner with 17 seconds left.

Fitzgerald, who passed for 153 yards and rushed for 101, said Mississippi State always believed it would rally to win in the end.

“There was never any panic, there was never any doubt that we were going to win,” Fitzgerald said. “It was just finally calming down, putting a drive together without somebody screwing it up somehow and finally putting some points on the board.

“We did it enough times to win. It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win so we will take it.”

Mullen echoed that sentiment.

“I tell you that was a hard-fought win by our guys,” Mullen said. “I am proud of how they continued to battle, continue to play hard after facing adversity earlier.

“That is a very excellent team. Anytime you go against (Arkansas head coach) Bret (Bielema), you know his guys are going to play hard, they are going to be physical. I give them a lot of credit. They come in and their guys - like both teams - they have had a lot injuries like us, but they keep battling through and battling through and played right down to the wire.”

It would have been real easy while fumbling four times and losing two of them to think a win might not be in the cards, but the Bulldogs fought through.

“I am proud of the guys for coming through and making the plays that we needed to make in all three phases in the fourth quarter right there to find a way to win the game at the end,” Mullen said. “It’s a big win. That was a big win for us. Anytime you come on the road in the SEC and you get a win like that and it’s a big win. We’ll take it.”

Mullen was asked if there was an Alabama hangover, referring to the emotional loss last weekend.

“No, I mean I didn’t drink since last Saturday night after the game, I don’t think,” Mullen joked. “Probably not suppose to say those things on camera, am I? But no, I didn’t have an hangover. I was fine.

“But no I don’t think so. I think we had a great week of preparation. I think you get into late in the season when you are coming into a tough environment and I think come out on a windy, blustery, cold day against a team with their back to the wall that you know is going to battle and play hard and the ball bounces funny.

“The ball didn’t bounce our way all day long. Could we have played better? I’m sure that when we evaluate this coach, every coach, every player, everybody involved - I am sure this could have been better, that could have been better. That is why we do what we do. Nobody has ever played a perfect game.”

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