No. 16 Mississippi St. beats Arkansas on late TD pass
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — This time, Mississippi State was on the winning side of a fourth-quarter comeback.
Nick Fitzgerald threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Deddrick Thomas with 17 seconds left, lifting the No. 16 Bulldogs to a 28-21 victory over Arkansas on Saturday.
The Mississippi State victory came one week after Alabama scored twice in the fourth quarter to ruin an upset bid by the Bulldogs in Starkville, Miss.
“It’s a big win,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “That’s a big win for us.”
The Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3 SEC) started their game-winning drive at the Arkansas 44 after Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen threw incomplete on fourth-and-2 with 3:01 left to play. The Razorbacks opted to go for the first down despite being on their own side of the field.
“We had run two plays out of that same look, and we wanted to throw it,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “You call those plays with the idea that they’re going to have success.”
After the Bulldogs took possession, Fitzgerald ran for 2 yards on fourth-and-1 from the 35, then broke free three plays later for a 13-yard run to the 6. After Fitzgerald was stopped for no gain on first down, he threw a low pass to Thomas in the right corner of the end zone for the game-winning score.
Arkansas (4-7, 1-6) led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter and held a 21-14 lead for most of the fourth quarter. But Fitzgerald found freshman wide receiver Reginald Todd for a 37-yard touchdown on a third-down play with 3:57 left in the game. Jace Christmann’s extra point tied the score at 21.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Mullen said. “They handled some adversity.”
Fitzgerald completed 12 of 23 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns, and he ran for 101 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries as Mississippi State beat Arkansas for the fifth time in the past six meetings.
Arkansas took advantage of a pair of early turnovers.
The Razorbacks failed to generate a first down on the game’s opening possession, but the ensuing punt hit a Mississippi State player in the back and was recovered by Arkansas’ Reid Miller at the Mississippi State 36. Three plays later, David Williams scored on a 3-yard run for a 7-0 lead.
Later in the first quarter, Mississippi State’s Nick Gibson fumbled on a hit by Arkansas defensive end McTelvin Agim, with defensive lineman Briston Guidry recovering the ball in the end zone to make it 14-0.
“I tried to count to 10,” Mullen said. “Tried to take a deep breath and think, what are we doing?”
Mississippi State answered with two second-quarter touchdowns. Fitzgerald ran 18 yards for a TD with 5:17 left in the first half to cap a 50-yard drive. Then, after Arkansas punter Blake Johnson was tackled at the Razorbacks’ 17 on a poor snap, Aeris Williams scored on a 8-yard run to tie the score with 2:18 remaining in the half.
An unusual play helped Arkansas regain the lead late in the third quarter.
On a second-down play from the Mississippi State 34, David Williams fumbled the ball. The loose ball was kicked by a Mississippi State defender and bounced to the 1-yard line, where Arkansas recovered. Devwah Whaley scored two plays later to put the Razorbacks ahead 21-14 with 4:35 remaining in the third quarter.
“We’ve got to fall on the ball,” Mullen said of the fumble. “Fall. On. The. Ball.”
Allen completed 12 of 18 passes for 124 yards for Arkansas, which finished with 221 yards of offense. David Williams had 75 yards on eight carries.
Aeris Williams finished with 71 yards on 19 carries for Mississippi State.
While Mississippi State prepares to close the season with the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving Day against rival Ole Miss and then will play in a bowl game for the eighth consecutive year, Bielema’s future at Arkansas seems to be in jeopardy.
Arkansas fired athletic director Jeff Long on Wednesday, and Bielema — who has a record of 29-33 at Arkansas, including 11-28 in SEC games — is not expected to be back next season.
“I knew they were going to do their very best all week,” Bielema said of his players. “Obviously, they did that with a lot of noise going on. We have a very upset locker room, very emotional.”
NOTES: Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald has accounted for nine touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ past two games against Arkansas — four touchdown passes and five TD runs. Fitzgerald ran for three touchdowns and passed for two in a 58-42 loss to Arkansas in 2016. ... Arkansas sophomore RB Devwah Whaley scored a touchdown for the fifth consecutive game — four rushing touchdowns and one TD reception. ... Arkansas senior QB Austin Allen, who led the SEC with 3,430 passing yards and threw for 25 touchdowns as a junior in 2016, has thrown for 1,114 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He missed four games with an injured throwing shoulder.