By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State’s fans spent most of the night feverishly clanging their trademark cowbells, inspiring a much-improved Bulldogs’ team playing in front of the home crowd for the final time this season.
But in the end 13th-ranked Arkansas walked off the field ringing its own bell, the one that travels with the team each week, signaling yet another road victory.
Arkansas — which came excruciatingly close to another cruel defeat — gritted its teeth, dug in deep and found a way to beat No. 22 Mississippi State 38-31 in double overtime Saturday night. Quarterback Ryan Mallett threw a touchdown pass to running back Knile Davis to begin the second overtime, then the defense stopped MSU to finally silence the loud crowd of 56,406 in Davis Wade Stadium.
It helped Arkansas finish 3-1 in SEC road games for just the fourth time since joining the conference in 1992.
"Wow, great win on the road," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "I’m real proud of our football team and real proud of our assistant coaches. This was hard.
"We had to work extremely hard at the end."
The wild game saw Arkansas (9-2, 5-2 in SEC) trail most of the first half before settling in to seemingly take control early in the fourth quarter. But the Razorbacks squandered a 10-point lead in the final 4:24 and missed an opportunity to win in the first overtime when freshman Zach Hocker pulled a 39-yard field goal wide left.
It didn’t matter.
The Razorbacks still celebrated at midfield and kept its season-long goal of landing in a Bowl Championship Series game alive.
"It’s a great win," Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright said. "It just feels good that you can come in and have a hard-fought battle and win an away game."
Once again, Davis led the charge by running for 187 yards and two touchdowns to go along with his touchdown catch in the second overtime. But unlike the previous five weeks, Davis made two costly fumbles Saturday.
The first came in the first half with Arkansas driving with a 14-7. The Bulldogs took the miscue, moved downfield and scored to tie the game. Mississippi State scored again a few minutes later to make it 21-14.
Davis’ second came in the final minutes of regulation, with Arkansas poised to run out the clock. The ball popped out of his arms and into Mississippi State’s possession, leading to a game-tying field goal as the final seconds ticked off the clock in regulation.
They were Davis’ first two fumbles of the season.
"Knile had a great game," Petrino said. "We gave him the ball a bunch. He just happened to fumble it there."
Arkansas, which finished with three turnovers, was fortunate it wasn’t alone in making mistakes.
Relf fumbled after a promising drive in the third quarter, wiping away a scoring chance with the Bulldogs leading 21-17. One play later, quarterback Ryan Mallett found Wright all alone for an 89-yard touchdown to give the Razorbacks a 24-21 lead.
Another mistake came in overtime, when running back Vick Ballard fumbled as he approached the goal line on MSU’s first possession. The ball slipped into the end zone and out of bounds, ending a possession that would’ve given MSU the lead and put pressure on the Razorbacks.
"You can’t do those things and win championship-level games," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "We go in and turn the ball over twice in the redzone in the fourth quarer and beyond. ... That’s not winning football."
It was hard for Mississippi State to swallow. The Bulldogs plan was to keep Arkansas’ offense off the field as much as possible and it worked to perfection early.
The Bulldogs finished with 39 more plays than Arkansas (100 to 61) and dominated the time of possession game (37:24 to 22:36). MSU put together impressive 15-, 14- and 11-play scoring drives Saturday as well, keeping Mallett and the Arkansas offense on the sideline much more than it had expected on the road.
Ballard had 150 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries. Relf completed 20 of 30 passes for 224 yards and ran for 103 yards and a touchdown, but Petrino said Arkansas’ defense charged the game with its pressure.
"In the second half, we hit him a bunch," Petrino said of the defense, which collected five sacks.
"That became the key in the game. We got pressure on then quarterback when they threw the ball."
Mallett survived some first half pressure to complete 17 of 26 passes for 305 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He didn’t have many chances against MSU’s ball-control offense, but Petrino said the Razorbacks remained calm and made the most of them Saturday.
Arkansas outgained MSU 488 to 486 despite running 39 fewer plays Saturday. And the Hogs survived when Tenarius Wright dropped Relf on the game’s final play.
Now, Arkansas will close the regular season against fifth-ranked LSU (10-1) in Little Rock on Saturday in a game that could have a big impact on a BCS bowl spot.
"It’s a huge game for our program," Petrino said. "It will be fun to go to Little Rock with a lot at stake."