Saturday night in Arkansas, as the temperatures dipped from just pretty cold to completely and technically freezing, Dak Prescott played the best game of his career. Seven days removed from being on the receiving end of nine sacks (and throwing for 300 yards, anyway), Prescott played what could be considered the best game the country has seen in years, and by certain measures, the best performance by a quarterback in the history of the Southeastern Conference.
No one – ever – in the long tradition of the SEC has matched Prescott’s total of 554 yards and seven touchdowns, all of which came in regulation, no less. The performance, which included Prescott completing 76 percent of his 50 passes for 508 yards, was the latest example of what makes him the great player he is.
“I’d say he might be the best player I’ve ever coached,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said when asked what the performance said about his star quarterback. “If you look at my coaching resume, that’s pretty impressive.”
Told what his coach said, Prescott, too, was impressed.
“He’s coached a Heisman winner. He’s coached a No. 1 overall pick,” Prescott ticked off. “So that’s huge.”
“Multiple Heisman winners and No. 1 picks,” Mullen laughingly corrected when a reporter made the same mistake.
Cam Newton and Brian Johnson, winners of a Heisman, Sugar Bowl and National Championship between them, not to mention Newton’s status as a No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft and Johnson being featured on the cover of EA’s NCAA Football. Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, two more first round picks, another Heisman and the only player in the same breath as Prescott in terms of career achievement. And those are just the quarterbacks. Mullen didn’t specify a position.
However, he was asked to specify what it is, exactly, that makes Prescott good at being a quarterback. Or, ahem, great at being a quarterback. In the vacuum of Saturday’s thriller, a 51-50 win for MSU, the bigger picture of his success can be found.
“I always feel comfortable when we have Dak, because he’s so calm,” Mullen said as he ticked items off his mental list of why Prescott is so great in his mind. “His ability to lead … His ability to manage the team and the emotions of the team.”
The game was, in all ways, a roller coaster. MSU leapt to out to a multi-score lead over Arkansas and took a 31-21 lead into halftime. When the teams came back onto the field, State turned the ball over three-straight times, helping the Hogs go on a 28-0 run. UA was up 11 before MSU scored again, but State finally re-took the lead. Then, promptly, they lost it.
Through it all, Prescott never changed, never wavered. He was the same resilient, charismatic player the whole way through, moving the chains and encouraging his teammates whatever the score.
“No panic,” Mullen said. “It was a great job.”
“We just listened to the leader,” junior receiver De’Runnya Wilson explained. “We had to feed off him and he made the plays down the stretch to win the ball game.”
When Arkansas had all the momentum in the third quarter, Prescott was finding his teammates and telling them not to worry, to stand strong, to remember what they trained for all year.
“He’s a winner,” Mullen shared, continuing his thoughts on what makes Prescott his most-prized pupil. “He wants the ball in his hands to go win the game. I think that whole team knows, if you give him a chance, he’s going to win the football game.”
And they did give him a chance. With five minutes left in the game, MSU was staring at a 50-44 deficit and what was likely their last shot at pulling ahead to win an intense battle on the road.
Quickly – almost too quickly – Prescott led his team down the field. A six-yard pass to junior receiver Fred Ross. 12 more yards to Wilson. A long gain on a 45-yard pass to junior Brandon Holloway got the Bulldogs to the Razorback’s 19-yard line. The next two plays, however, resulted only in a rush for no gain and a five-yard pass to the tight end. Third and five at the Arkansas 14, MSU was running out of chances. Only 3:10 left in the game, a field goal wouldn’t have been any help. Someone had to make a play, and Prescott was going to be the guy.
The Razorbacks called a timeout to think about it. When both teams returned to the line, MSU had its play ready: a double slant. Nothing fancy, just a simple play where Prescott had to make the right choice and an accurate throw. Ross and Wilson were both running the quick slant at different levels of depth, the two playmakers Prescott had relied on all year, and he had to get the ball into the hands of one of them.
“It was man-to-man across the board,” Prescott recalled seeing as he looked at UA’s defense. “If Fred didn’t win, then I was throwing it to Bear. Fred won clean, so I just threw it off the back foot and he made a good catch and broke the tackle.”
14 yards and one extra point later, Prescott and his Bulldogs took the final lead for either team, 51-50.
“That’s our quarterback,” Wilson said. “That’s what he brings to the table. We have to have faith in him. We already know that he’s a great leader. He’s gonna leave it all on the football field. We’re just gonna try to feed off that.”
“His ability to lead, his ability to throw and make all the different throws,” Mullen listed off as he continued his countdown of Prescott’s great qualities. “To make checks. To make all the different possible throws.”
Those throws are part of what has been so impressive about Prescott this season. For the first three years of his career, he seemed to have the unfortunate though somewhat-complimentary reputation as an athlete who played quarterback, rather than a quarterback who was an athlete. The most-played highlight of his career was a 50-plus yard touchdown run against LSU in 2014, the stiff-arm portion of which remains the stuff of legend among MSU fans.
Even against Arkansas Saturday, Prescott ran for a pair of touchdowns in his record-breaking performance. However, where two rushing touchdowns would be considered the highlight of many games, they were dwarfed by the five he scored through the air.
Since State kicked off the season in September it’s been Prescott’s passes, not his runs, that fill the highlight reels. Long ones and short ones, hard ones and easy ones, though he has a knack for making the supremely difficult look exceedingly simple.
In 2015, through 11 games, he leads MSU in rushing yards (478) and touchdowns (nine) which is nice, to be sure. But it’s his passing, and more importantly the efficiency of his passing, that has truly stood out. In 393 attempts, he’s completed 66.2 percent of his passes, and only three of those have been intercepted, one of which was a tipped pass in that three-turnover stretch Saturday night. Mistakes are rare, but as Saturday showed – and, really, his whole life has displayed – Prescott doesn’t have a hard time bouncing back.
The senior has thrown for 3,159 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015, improving on his yards per game, completion percentage, TD-INT ratio and passer rating from 2014, despite losing three starting offensive linemen and a starting running back to the NFL from last year’s squad. In his last five games, Prescott has thrown for 347, 348, 300, 303 and 508 yards during the season’s homestretch, totaling 1,805 yards. In those games, he’s accounted for 21 total touchdowns, the most of any player in the Power Five during that stretch.
Prescott’s 554 yards as an individual Saturday were more than all the other 13 schools in the conference had as entire teams in their games, and more than twice as many yards as three of them totaled. He’s one of only four players in the history of FBS football to throw for 60 and run for 40 career touchdowns and he’s in sole possession of fourth place in SEC history with 107 touchdowns responsible for, passing Peyton Manning and Chris Leak over the course of Saturday’s game.
So, to the original question by a reporter on Saturday night in Arkansas, yes, there are quite a few reasons Dak Prescott is the best quarterback Dan Mullen or Mississippi State have ever had.
“You can say a great quarterback, probably one of the best quarterbacks,” Wilson said of Prescott, “but he’s a leader first. That sets him [apart] to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football.”