LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Add the Mississippi State football team to the list of squads that couldn’t slow down the University of Arkansas’ offense this season.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson had 267 passing yards before halftime, and No. 6 Arkansas had 20 plays of 10 yards or more in a dominating 44-17 victory Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.
The Razorbacks had 539 yards of offense, while Wilson had 365 passing yards and completing a school-record 32-of-43 passes for three touchdowns. The junior from Greenwood, Ark., exploited a defense that came into the game allowing quarterbacks to complete 65 percent of their throws.
“We weren’t very good at all in pass defense and that’s a coaching issue, (and) we’ll get that fixed,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “As much as it was anything, we need to make sure we have guys in position to make plays. It’s one thing if they’re leaping all over to make spectacular catches, but they had guys wide open.”
The most prolific offense in the Southeastern Conference walked the football 66 yards down the field on its first drive. Wilson capped the march when he found junior receiver Cobi Hamilton on a 20-yard post route for a score before two and a half minutes had come off the clock.
Wilson found 6-foot-1 receiver Javontee Herndon on a third-and-9 situation to set Arkansas (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) up for its first score on the next play.
“Tyler got in a rhythm (and) our receivers were also able to make some big plays that helped keep our offense on the field,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said.
On MSU’s second drive, Mullen continued with his plan of switching quarterbacks when his offense entered the red zone by inserting Dylan Favre. On his first play, the freshman quarterback ran an unsuccessful rollout pass on third down that ended the Bulldogs’ most successful drive of the day to that point. Senior kicker Derek DePasquale got MSU on the scoreboard with a 35-yard field goal. The kick was his second in his last seven attempts.
“It was just here and there on little stuff, and that’s what’s frustrating because we should have been in this game,” MSU quarterback Tyler Russell said. “We knew it would be a shootout, and we just couldn’t answer.”
Russell had his worst yardage output in any of his starts this season, finishing 7 of 15 for 55 yards.
Arkansas answered with four straight plays that resulted in a first down. Fullback Kiero Small capitalized on a 1-yard dive to give Arkansas its second touchdown less than 14 minutes into the game. The Razorbacks’ 14-3 lead after the first quarter was the first time since a 24-10 loss at Georgia on Oct. 1 that MSU (5-6, 1-6) was behind after the first 15 minutes.
“I’m also disappointed any time we don’t come out and play to our standard regardless of who the opponent is,” MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. “We have to tackle better because we knew they’d catch some balls, but we weren’t physical enough to get them on the ground.”
MSU tried to reverse the momentum by going for it on fourth-and inches inside its 30-yard-line. The crowd of 55,761 was thrilled to see Arkansas stuff running back Vick Ballard on a shotgun handoff for a 2-yard loss.
“We’re an aggressive team, and I want to have an aggressive mind-set, and you think you ought to get a foot,” Mullen said. “I don’t like my play call there looking back at it. We’re always in the shotgun (and) if I’d gone with a different play we’d still be in the gun.”
MSU junior cornerback Johnthan Banks saved the game from turning into an early rout when he corralled Wilson for his third sack. The junior quarterback dropped the ball and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox collected the turnover and returned it 52 yards.
Cox had four tackles, a tackle for a loss, a fumble return, and a blocked field goal attempt in the second quarter.
Mullen again used a different quarterback in the red zone. This time, Favre converted as he scored on a 5-yard direct snap draw play that saw him drag defenders into the end zone.
Wilson answered with two scoring drives in the final two minutes of the first half. MSU’s multiple defensive fronts failed to get to Wilson, who was able to survey the field and find open receivers on every passing play.
Wilson completed his third touchdown pass to a different receiver on the Razorbacks’ longest drive to open the third quarter. After 12 plays and more than five minutes with the ball, Wilson executed a perfect bootleg pass to Chris Gragg for a 2-yard score. Gragg, a 236-yard tight end, had a career high eight catches and 119 yards receiving.
“There were a couple of times in practice we noticed they didn’t cover the tight end on certain plays, so I thought I would have a big game today,” Gragg said.
Arkansas has won 10 straight games in Little Rock, while MSU is winless in seven games at War Memorial Stadium.
“We executed in all three phases of the game tonight,” Petrino said. “Our offense was fun to drive the ball down the field. It’s another successful trip to Little Rock.”
MSU’s offense failed to earn a first down in the third quarter.
MSU will need to win the annual rivalry game against the University of Mississippi (2-9, 0-9) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) in Starkville to qualify for a bowl game.