Jim Harris’ First Take: Arkansas Gets Kick in the Pants in Heartbreaking Loss


The bugaboo of a suspect kicking game that has plagued Arkansas for two seasons came back to haunt the Razorbacks at the worst possible time on Saturday night. Redshirt freshman Cole Hedlund was set to deliver a 29-yard field goal that would have put Arkansas up 53-51 over Mississippi State with 39 seconds to play. However, backup tight end Alex Voelzke, on the right side of the offensive line, allowed MSU’s Beniquez Brown to slide in up the middle and meet Hedlund’s kick head-on before it ever even reached the line of scrimmage.

And, that blocked field goal allowed Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3 in the SEC) to escape with a 51-50 win at Razorback Stadium, the first time the Bulldogs have beaten the Hogs in Fayetteville since Arkansas joined the Southeastern Conference for football in 1992.

Arkansas flat-out lost two games last year on the foot of placekickers — a field goal late against Texas A&M that would have given the Hogs a two-score lead sailed way wide and Arkansas gave up a tying touchdown moments later, then lost in overtime; a missed PAT and field goal were crucial in a 14-13 loss at home to Alabama. Also, missed field goals were pivotal in losses at Mississippi State and Missouri last season, when the Hogs finished 7-6. Arkansas nearly stole a game from Ole Miss at the end of regulation two weeks ago, but Hedlund hit a 45-yard field goal low and saw it blocked; the Razorbacks still won in overtime 53-52.

Maybe Saturday night vs. Mississippi State was the football gods’ payback for all the luck required in overtime at Oxford for one of Bret Bielema’s biggest wins as Razorback coach. On the verge of an impressive 6-2 record and a six-game win streak to end the regular season, the Hogs instead probably assured themselves of a minor bowl bid (Liberty or Belk, perhaps) and definitely assured themselves of 7 wins at most for the regular season.

All the momentum of the past four weeks was washed away under the deluge of a Mississippi State offense, led by quarterback Dak Prescott, that piled up 631 yards on 86 plays. With Arkansas and quarterback Brandon Allen trying to keep pace, the Hogs totaled 479 yards and the teams combined for an incredible 1,110 yards.

Prescott probably sewed up the nod as the best quarterback in the SEC this season, with Allen a close second. Prescott at one point in the game was 20-for-23 for nearly 300 yards and MSU appeared to be on the way to a rout, leading 31-14. Allen, meanwhile, broke his mark for Arkansas’s most touchdown passes in a game, throwing seven and rallied his team in the second half.

The difference was up front, as Mississippi State appeared to control both lines of scrimmage. The Bulldogs, even with a limited running threat this season outside of leading-rusher Prescott, gained 123 yards on 35 carries, while the Hogs gained just 73 yards on 29 snaps.

Two decisions by the Arkansas sideline were crucial to the outcome. After a rash of MSU turnovers let Arkansas turn a 31-21 halftime deficit into a 42-31 lead, the Hogs faced a fourth-and-1 at the MSU 26 and rolled the dice. The call was a play-action fake and throw to the end zone for Hunter Henry (7 catches for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns), but two Bulldog defenders bracketed the tight end. Allen has a safety-valve option open on the left sideline but tried to get the ball to Henry anyway. It was a couple of yards out of his reach.

The momentum changed at that point. MSU, who would punt once in the game, couldn’t be stopped in regaining the lead, 44-42. Arkansas woke back up with a go-ahead score when Allen found tight end Jeremy Sprinkle with a 10-yard touchdown pass with 5:33 play  (and the Hogs pulled off a wild, reverse pass by Jared Cornelius to Allen for two points), but Prescott only needed six plays to cover 82 yards to regain the lead for MSU, throwing 14 yards to Fred Scott with 3:05 to go.

By this point, Arkansas’s beleaguered pass defense could no longer tackle, must less defend, the Bulldogs, and especially Ross and De’Runnya Wilson, who had 10 receptions apiece.

So, it was with some concern that Arkansas might be taking a big gamble in more ways than one when it played for a field goal inside the final minute and would still have to defend a last-ditch Prescott-led drive. MSU burned timeouts on three runs inside the 20 to the 12, the last at :46, setting up Hedlund for the go-ahead field goal.

Arkansas’s mistake, it seemed, was taking the ball out of Allen’s hands, as he was 6 for 6 in the red zone to that point. Ostensibly, it was Arkansas that stopped Allen, not MSU.

Henry, Drew Morgan, Sprinkle and Jared Cornelius had outstanding receiving games, combining for 25 catches. On the other hand, Allen only found Dominique Reed twice, but once went for 52 yards late to set up the Hogs’ last score.

Alex Collins’ run of 100-plus-yard rushing games came to an end, as he gained just 53 yards on 19 carries. Backup Kody Walker appeared to be walking in mud in gaining 7 yards on 7 tries.

Walk-on Kevin Richardson, second on the team with 10 tackles, behind Brooks Ellis’ 15, was a hero at times for the woeful Razorback defense with a couple of pass breakups and an interception early in the second half. He also dropped a sure interception in the second quarter and MSU went on to score a touchdown on the drive. But it was a far better performance than what the majority of other Hog defenders delivered. Arkansas’s pass rush only got to Prescott twice. Running backs slashed through the front for 8-10 yards a pop at times.

Walk-on linebacker Josh Harris forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half to start the Hogs’ rousing comeback, Richardson intercepted Prescott, end Deatrich Wise showed up finally to separate Prescott from the ball on the next MSU possession, and barely 8 minutes had elapsed with the Razorbacks scoring 21 points to seemingly take control.

All that momentum would vanish on the very next possession on the fourth-and-1 gamble, and the Hogs ultimately ended up kicking themselves.

Arkansas loses heartbreaker to Mississippi State.


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