By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas coaches and players avoided the topic for several weeks, biting their tongue as they marched through the second half of the season.
Week after week the Razorbacks won games, raising the stakes. Some were accomplished with dramatic — and, at times, unbelievable — comebacks. Others came as a result of some overwhelming performances.
But after BCS No. 6 Arkansas rolled to a 44-17 win against Mississippi State in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium on Friday, the Razorbacks finally opened up about its final opponent — No. 1 LSU.
"There’s no beating around the bush anymore," Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said minutes after the win. "We have a huge game on Friday. We’ve got the whole country watching. We’re playing well right now so it should be a battle."
Arkansas (10-1, 6-1 in SEC) ran over its final hurdle to reach the showdown with the Tigers, blowing out Mississippi State (5-6, 1-6) in front of an announced crowd of 55,761 in War Memorial Stadium.
Tyler Wilson completed a school-record 32 of 43 passes for 365 yards with three touchdowns, tight end Chris Gragg caught a career-high eight passes for 119 yards and a touchdown, and Arkansas’ improving defense overwhelmed the run-oriented Bulldogs.
So it sets the stage for what should be a top-five clash after Oklahoma State’s stunning loss at Iowa State on Friday night. One loaded with Southeastern Conference and national championship game implications in Baton Rouge, La., next Friday.
"We’re real excited about it," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "This is why we’re here. This is what we want to do. This is what it’s all about, going and playing huge games with a lot at stake."
The Razorbacks reached the 10-win mark for the second consecutive season, something that has been accomplished only two other times in school history (1964-65, 1988-89). Arkansas also ran its win streak in Little Rock to 10 games and capped its first undefeated season at home since 1999 on Saturday.
Offensively, Wilson made one big mistake Saturday in leading the Razorbacks to their third straight 40-point performance, fumbling the ball as he tried to elude blitzing cornerback Johnthan Banks inside the MSU redzone. Lineman Fletcher Cox scooped up the football and returned it to the Arkansas 28 and MSU punched the ball into the end zone to make it 14-10.
"I thought I had a little bit more time, but I guess everybody in the stadium knew he was a little closer to me than I did because I heard them kind of yelling," Wilson said. "You’ve got to take care of the football in that situation."
But the junior atoned for the error, spreading the ball around to eight receivers en route to one of the best performances of his career. Gragg was his favorite target, finding holes in MSU’s secondary and breaking tackles en route to a outstanding day.
"It showed early in the game that they were having a hard time of tackling him," Petrino said. "I just kept reminding him, make sure you tuck the ball away. Make sure you keep it locked up because you’re going to break a bunch of tackles. He did a really nice job catching the ball, running after the catch and made some huge third-down conversions for us."
Arkansas’ defense was even more impressive, clamping down on the Bulldogs when it mattered most. MSU pulled to within 14-10 on quarterback Dylan Favre’s 5-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, but the Bulldogs went three-plays-and-out on their next six possessions as Arkansas opened up a 37-10 lead.
Starting quarterback Tyler Russell and Favre combined to complete 15 of 31 passes for 127 yards with a touchdown. MSU, which was averaging 169.5 rushing yards a game, was limited to 84 rushing.
"This game was all about stopping the run," Bequette said. "We did that, forced them to throw the ball, which they’re not comfortable doing."
Arkansas outgained the Bulldogs 539-211.
"That’s probably collectively as bad as we’ve played I think since I’ve been the head coach and that falls on my shoulders," said MSU coach Dan Mullen, whose team must beat Ole Miss next week to become bowl eligible. "We need to make sure we have a better performance out there on the field."
Arkansas, meanwhile, continued to gain momentum, picking up its seventh straight win. It’s the longest streak under Petrino and the program’s best since 2006, when the Hogs won 10 in a row.
The Razorbacks have outscored opponents 137-52 the past three weeks, too, eclipsing the 40-point mark in three straight games for the first time since 1970.
The result? Arkansas is finally free to talk about the matchup with LSU it was eyeing for weeks, facing a team it has beaten two of the past three seasons.
"A lot of people have been talking about it," linebacker Jerico Nelson said. "Watch ESPN, they talk about it. It’s one thing to talk about it and we weren’t there yet. We had to be a couple more teams to get there. ... That’s what we did. Now it’s time to focus on what everybody has been talking about: going down to Baton Rouge and playing No. 1."
And Petrino, finally, was ready to embrace the challenge after his team’s big win in Little Rock.
"We feel like we’re a real good football team," he said. "They’re a good football team. Let’s go play."