SEC FOOTBALL ARKANSAS AT NO. 21 MISSISSIPPI STATE:

Hogs enjoyed years of whipping Bulldogs, who are now biting back

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald slips past the Arkansas defense to score a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald slips past the Arkansas defense to score a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State was the University of Arkansas’ whipping boy in football for many years.

The Bulldogs didn’t win a game in the state of Arkansas for the first 97 years after the teams’ first meeting in 1916.

The Razorbacks won 12 of 13 games in the series shortly after joining the SEC in 1992, including nine in a row under coach Houston Nutt starting in 1999.

The Bulldogs are Razorbacks fodder no longer.

No. 21 Mississippi State (6-4, 2-4 SEC) is a 20 1/2-point favorite for today’s 11 a.m. game against the struggling Razorbacks (2-8, 0-6) at Davis Wade Stadium. The Bulldogs will look to extend their run against the Razorbacks to six victories in seven years.

The Bulldogs are fighting for a more favorable bowl position, while the Razorbacks are trying to win their second SEC game in 16 outings since leaving Starkville with a 58-42 victory on Nov. 18, 2016.

First-year Arkansas Coach Chad Morris is new to the rivalry, but his eyes told him the story of the 2018 Bulldogs in video study this week.

“We’ve got a tough, tough road test,” Morris said. “The defense is as good as advertised, No. 1 in the SEC. It’s the fastest overall defense that we’ve seen.”

Mississippi State Coach Joe Moorhead, also in his first SEC season, lavished about as much praise as possible on a 2-8 team.

“You look at the LSU game, it came down to LSU needing a four-minute drive there at 24-17,” said Moorhead, referencing the Hogs’ loss to No. 7 LSU last week. “The Texas A&M game, a top 25 team, it’s 24-17.

“I got a chance to watch the Ole Miss game [a 37-33 Arkansas loss], and that came down to the last drive, too. They’re continuing to play hard week after week after week.”

Arkansas players said as much at Tuesday’s media session.

“We’re fighting really about pride,” sophomore safety Kamren Curl said. “We’re not about to lay down for nobody to run us over like that. We’ll keep fighting.”

Junior linebacker De’Jon Harris said keeping a positive attitude for the younger players has been a priority.

“We’ve still got the chance to beat a ranked team on the road and a trophy game at the end of the season, and there are still a lot of things to play for,” Harris said.

Morris and Moorhead will match up for the first time as two of the SEC’s five first-year head coaches, joining Florida’s Dan Mullen, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher.

Morris and his staff are recruiting like crazy, trying to recalibrate a roster that was tailored for the previous Pro-style attack of Bret Bielema into a Spread, hurry-up approach.

Moorhead is building upon the Spread attack with heavy run-pass options instituted during Mullen’s successful nine-year run with the Bulldogs.

“When you take over a program, it’s for one of two reasons,” Moorhead said. “Because the coach prior to you wasn’t doing a good enough job or he was doing a very good job. I think Coach Mullen and his staff in the nine years they were here built a very solid foundation.

“Obviously they made a bunch of bowl appearances. Coming in, we were looking to build off that success.”

Mullen’s Gators won 13-6 in his first trip back to Starkville this season. Prior to that game, he explained the culture he left behind.

“We’re playing a team where the whole program was built on being a tough, physical team,” Mullen said.

The Razorbacks fall on the other side of Moorhead’s coaching change explanation. Arkansas had three losing seasons in the six years prior to Morris’ arrival, including a 4-8 record in Bielema’s final year of 2017. The Hogs are trying to avoid their first 10-loss season in school history.

The recent record has been reflective of Arkansas’ fall below the Bulldogs in the SEC West.

Nutt has seen both programs in this rivalry up close. The Little Rock native led Arkansas to a 75-48 record and two SEC West titles in 10 seasons (1998-2007), then battled the Bulldogs on an in-state basis while compiling a 24-26 record at Ole Miss (2008-2011).

Nutt lost his first game in 1998 to the Bulldogs, 22-21, in what amounted to a showdown for the SEC West crown.

“That first year we were really better, but we didn’t have our kicker with us or we would’ve won that game,” Nutt said. “We played them towards the end in November, and we always knew that usually when we won that game it helped us to either get to Atlanta [to the SEC Championship Game] or helped us get to a better bowl. We just felt like it was always a critical point in the season. It was a must win.”

The Razorbacks did win it from 1999 through 2007 by an average score of 30-16. Sylvester Croom’s Bulldogs broke that streak in 2008 with a 31-28 victory in Starkville, but Croom was headed out the door and Mullen was coming in.

The Razorbacks won the first three games against Mullen, but with a series of strong quarterbacks such as Dak Prescott, Tyler Russell and Nick Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs turned the series around.

They outlasted Arkansas in Little Rock in 2013 by a 20-13 score in overtime to win inside the borders of the state for the first time in 11 tries. The Bulldogs repeated that trick in 2015 in a 51-50 shootout in which Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen passed for 406 yards and 7 touchdowns. Prescott passed for 508 yards and 5 touchdowns and ran for 2 more scores. The Bulldogs won it when Beniquez Brown blocked Cole Hedlund’s 29-yard field goal attempt with 39 seconds remaining after the Razorbacks played for a field goal after driving to the Bulldogs’ 19.

The Bulldogs made it three victories in a row in Arkansas with last year’s 28-21 victory on a last-minute touchdown drive after falling behind 14-0.

Arkansas’ only victory in the series since the 2012 Bulldogs destroyed the Hogs under John L. Smith 45-14 came in the 16-point victory in Starkville two years ago.

“I don’t think we punted the ball at all, did we?” said Arkansas quarterback Ty Storey, who was Austin Allen’s backup in that game. “Our offense was on fire that night.”

Indeed, the Razorbacks did not punt. Allen passed for 303 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the big story was told by Rawleigh Williams, who capped a comeback season with 205 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns and threw a critical 1-yard, left-handed jump pass touchdown to Austin Cantrell.

“Going down there and doing what we did offensively was kind of unheard of,” said Arkansas tight end Grayson Gunter, a Madison, Miss., native who caught his first collegiate pass in that game, a 23-yard grab that set up Williams’ 42-yard touchdown run on the next play. “I think four tight ends caught a ball … and Rawleigh had an amazing game.”

Mullen wound up with a 5-4 record against the Hogs despite starting 0-3.

“I tell you what, you’ve got to give it to him,” said Nutt, whose Rebels crushed Mississippi State 45-0 in his first season before losing three in a row to Mullen and the Bulldogs. “He did a really good job.”

Hogs-Dogs series

Arkansas leads the series against Mississippi State 16-11-1. The series has had major swings since the Bulldogs won the first meeting 20-7 in 1916:

ERA OUTCOME

Pre-SEC (1916-1991) Miss. State 2-0 1992-1994 Miss. State 2-0-1 1995-2011 Arkansas 15-2 2012-2017 Miss. State 5-1

TOTAL Arkansas 16-11-1

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