FAYETTEVILLE – Successively drubbed 51-10 and 48-7 by prohibitively favored national SEC West powerhouses Auburn and Alabama, it was perceived the Arkansas Razorbacks awaited a winnable SEC West game against Mississippi State. It wasn’t. Coach Joe Moorhead’s Bulldogs, now improved to just 4-5 overall, 2-5, in the SEC, bludgeoned the Razorbacks, 54-24 Saturday in Arkansas’ homecoming at Reynolds Razorback Stadium mostly as handily as last year’s 8-5 Bulldogs bludgeoned Arkansas, 52-6 in Starkville, Miss.
“Very disappointing from the get-go,” Arkansas coach Chad Morris said on postgame radio then in essence repeated to media. “ We had a great week of preparation. No part of the week demonstrated any of that.”
The Bulldogs spurted to a 17-0 lead and 38-10 at half. Now 0-14 in the SEC and 4-17 overall during Morris’ tenure that began in 2018, these Razorbacks drop to a bowl ineligible 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the SEC going into next Saturday’s 11 a.m. nonconference game against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Given Saturday’s second half with redshirt freshman quarterback John Stephens Jones quarterbacking a scoring drive he capped with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Mike Woods, and true freshman KJ Jefferson quarterback debuting with a 21-yard run his first carry, plus a 32-yard pass to Treylon Burks and then keeping for a 5-yard touchdown run, the Razorbacks likely will have a different starting quarterback against WKU.
Graduate transfer quarterbacks, Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel have divvied this season’s nine starts. Hicks started against Mississippi State. Completing only 4 of 13 for 44 yards, Hicks was replaced by Jones after Hicks threw a pick-six 32-yard touchdown interception to Mississippi State’s Marcus Murphy with 1:59 before intermission. The pick-six accounted for Mississippi State’s final first-half points. Starkel, throwing three interceptions last week at Alabama, was not used Saturday against Mississippi State.
The Jones and Jefferson second-half TD drives somewhat heartened the homecoming crowd craving something positive but couldn’t alter that Mississippi State ran over the Razorbacks like armadillos crossing a busy interstate. The Bulldogs rushed for 460 yards among 640 yards total offense.
“Just totally disappointed in the fact that they were able to run the ball,” Morris said. “We knew they were a heavy run team. That’s what they did. We had to make them one-dimensional and we couldn’t stop the run. We knew they were a running football team and it was evident we couldn’t stop them.”
MSU running back Kylin Hill, 21 carries for 234 yards, amassed three touchdowns and 198 yards on 13 carries just in the first half. Running back Nick Gibson, also effective in the first half with 54 yards on nine carries before intermission, finished netting 129 yards including a 47-yard touchdown on 12 carries. Tommy Stevens, the Penn State graduate transfer quarterback where Moorhead two years ago had been offensive coordinator, was MSU’s surprise starter Saturday. Stevens was the early season starter but after an injury was replaced the last three games by true freshman Garrett Shrader. Shrader did not play against Arkansas.
“I thought he (Stevens) obviously did what they asked him to do,” Morris said. “He ran the ball well and operated their offense extremely well.” With the Bulldogs thoroughly dominating the line of scrimmage, Stevens netted 74 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries and completed 12 of 18 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns.Stevens directed an offense that promptly answered Arkansas’ every score, a 52-yard touchdown run by Razorbacks running back Rakeem Boyd, 11 carries for 114 yards, Connor Limpert’s 40-yard field goal, set up Razorbacks deep snapper Jordan Silver hustling downfield to recover a Mississippi State fumbled, punt, and the Jones touchdown pass and Jefferson touchdown run. “Any momentum that you could capture and tried to grab, especially when it was 17-7 ….” Morris said. “Five plays later they go down and score. We just never could keep the momentum.”
Without first quarter points since its season second game, Mississippi State led 14-0 after the first quarter and 38-10 at half. At intermission Hill logged three touchdowns and 198 of the Bulldogs’ 312 first-half rushing yards. Quarterback Stevens, 60 first-half rushing yards added a first-half 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Osirus Mitchell.Running back Gibson, 54 yards on nine first carries, did the groundwork with Stevens’ 17-yard pass to Isaiah Zuber setting up Jace Christman’s 26-yard field goal at 14:04 of the second quarter. Hill scored two second-quarter touchdowns. MSU’s defense scored the last tally. Mississippi State’s defense scored the half’s last touchdown.
Hicks, initially ruled throwing an interception until replay review disclosed the pass not caught on Arkansas’ first-half field goal drive, threw a no-doubt pick that Bulldogs safety Murphy not only picked off but returned for a 33-yard touchdown with 1:59 left in the half as some in the crowd booed.
Redshirt freshman Jones, become a fan favorite completing 6 of 7, including the pass for Arkansas’ lone touchdown coming off the bench for struggling starter Starkel last week against Alabama, replaced Hicks after the pick. Jones quarterbacked until true freshman Jefferson, cheered even more lustily heading for the huddle, spectacularly debuted.
Jefferson opened with his 21-yard with 11:32 left in the game, dished to Boyd for a 17-yard run, completed a 32-yard pass to freshman receiver Treylon Burks and then ran his his 5-yard touchdown.For the game, Jefferson finished 1 of 2 passing with the 32-yarder and 2 carries for 26 yards while Jones completed 4 of 9 for 25 yards and a touchdown and netted three yards on two carries.
Asked to comment postgame about Jefferson, Morris said, “Well I thought he did a really good job. He obviously got us a drive and scored a touchdown. I was pleased with both he and John Stephen and the the way they kept the fight and kept us moving the football.”
Senior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady of Fayetteville, Arkansas’ leading receiver for the season, 33 catches for 372 yards and three touchdowns, was suspended and did not play Saturday. “He was suspended today and we’ll meet tomorrow,” Morris said. On Twitter, O’Grady posted, “Beyond blessed to say I had the privilege and opportunity to be a Razorback. I was actually given the chance to live my dream and I will forever be thankful for it.”
photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3 Sports Action