For the Arkansas Razorbacks and their interim coach, the season of discontent continues. Arkansas dropped its third consecutive SEC game Saturday, losing to Mississippi State 45-14 on the road.
With only LSU remaining on its schedule, coach John L. Smith said it's been tough to navigate this team through a season's worth of lost expectations.
"You want to keep it as simple as you can keep it, but yet you still want to have some bullets in your gun," Smith said. "Or else you will get stomped on. So how many bullets do you use? We are asking guys to do things that maybe they can't do. It's hard for veteran guys, let alone young guys."
Arkansas (4-7, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) turned the ball over five times Saturday, failing to capitalize on its 359 yards of total offense.
"I wish I had the answer for you," center Travis Swanson said. "You can't really explain it. Situations happen, and you just have to be ready to overcome it."
Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3) finished with 505 yards of total offense, 302 through the air and snapped a three-game losing streak against the Razorbacks.
"Sometimes it's a test of your character, who you are deep down inside, and how long you can stay positive," Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said.
Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw for 274 yards and four touchdowns, setting school records for most completions and yards in a season. Russell completed 19 of 32 passes, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to LaDarius Perkins on the game's opening drive. Perkins finished with 131 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
"We made some big plays, created some turnovers, and took advantage of those turnovers," Mullen said. "We had a great streak of defensive turnovers early in the season until we recently hit a bit of a slump. I think once we created that first turnover today, the guys decided to switch back into that play-making mentality."
It wasn't all pretty for the Bulldogs early, though. Wilson and the Arkansas offense moved the ball with ease on their first two possessions, and after back-to-back touchdown passes to Cobi Hamilton and Dennis Johnson, the Razorbacks led 14-7.
"We had a really good first half, and we were in the game," Wilson said. "I thought a number of those guys in the locker room thought we had a chance at winning."
Wilson finished the game 23 of 29 for 225 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Johnson finished with 88 yards rushing. Hamilton finished with 7 catches, also for 88 yards. Javontee Herndon caught 6 passes for 84 yards.
Arkansas held the momentum until a botched punt reception with 10 minutes left in the first half led to a Mississippi State field goal. After a defensive stop, the Bulldogs drove 78 yards in five plays and Russell hit Chad Bumphis for his SEC-leading ninth touchdown, giving Mississippi State a 17-14 lead at the half.
"With a quarterback like Tyler Wilson, it's hard to blitz a lot," Mullen said. "If he gets you, he's going to get you big. Being able to stop the run helped out our pass defense tremendously. Even though we weren't getting the pressure we would have liked, I think being able to stop the run allowed us to improve our coverage."
Bumphis finished with 6 catches, two for touchdowns, setting a single-season school record. Arceto Clark and Perkins caught 3 passes each. Bumphis said the team was disappointed in its first-half play.
"We were frustrated because we didn't play our best first half," Bumphis said. "Coach Mullen made adjustments and we executed better."
In the third quarter, Mullen gambled on a fourth-and-one inside the Arkansas 5-yard line, and backup quarterback Dak Prescott ran it in for a touchdown to put the Bulldogs up 24-14.
"I want to go for it every time," Mullen said. "The thought was to get the first down. The players said that's the call they wanted, and they were ready to get after it."
Arkansas's offense continued to struggle in the second half. The Hogs failed on a fourth down conversion in Bulldog territory late in the third quarter and then, after forcing a three-and-out, fumbled their first play from scrimmage. Two plays later, Russell hit Perkins again for a 24-yard score.
"We wore down defensively and Mississippi State was able to throw the ball on us and run the ball on us," Smith said.
After another Arkansas turnover, Russell hit Bumphis for another score to start the fourth quarter. Three minutes later, after a Darius Slay interception, Nick Griffin broke a 60-yard touchdown run to give the Bulldogs their final margin of victory.