It was kind of a weird game.
Very weird, really.
On a night when Mississippi State’s quarterback Dak Prescott set a personal high (and a seven-year high for the school) in passing yards with 331, on a night when the star running back Josh Robinson tallied 174 total yards and a touchdown, and on a night when MSU was clicking at a rate of 7.4 yards per play (a 459 yard total on the game), the Bulldogs still only scored 17 points.
And on a night when Arkansas had two of the SEC’s top six rushers held under 100 yards each (with the entire team only totaling 128), on a night when that vaunted rushing attack was stopped short on fourth and goal and on a night when Arkansas completed exactly 50 percent of its passes for zero touchdowns and one interception, the Razorbacks were still in the game with 20 seconds left.
17-10, home team. Normal score, weird game.
MSU played great for the majority of it, though. On about 50 of the 62 offensive plays, they were fine. On nearly all of the 82 (quite the disparity) defensive plays, they did what they were supposed to, holding the Razorbacks largely in check. Heck, MSU scored three points more and allowed three points less than ‘Bama did against the Hogs, but it probably shouldn’t have been anywhere near that close were not it for those other plays.
Eight total penalties in the game, most of them on offense and many of them drive-stalling or outright stopping. Three turnovers, including one when it looked like MSU was about to score and another on a punt return, never even giving MSU a chance at points while Arkansas took advantage of the short field for their only touchdown of the night. Add in a failed fourth-and-short conversion attempt in Razorback territory, too.
Said Dan Mullen, “that’s just sloppy play. Those are all mental penalties. Those are all certainly avoidable,” but, he added with a frustrated laugh, “Besides that, it was a pretty well-played game!”
He’s right, though. Take away an interception and the punt return fumble, and that’s a possible 21-point swing. Pretend that Prescott was able to run for a yard on fourth down, which he nearly always is, (“I liked the play call at the time,” Mullen said) and the gap grows larger. That’s not how football works, obviously, and it’s a much easier lesson to learn when you win, but that’s just part of the weird game.
Were it not for the two interceptions, this would have been a career day for Prescott as he broke the passing record and tied himself for the all-time lead in touchdowns responsible for at MSU. But the interceptions can’t be ignored. He didn’t try to and neither did Mullen.
“We’re not gonna shy away from anything,” he said. “We’re gonna come right back and expect him to make plays.”
And Prescott did just that, leading the 75-yard go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter.
There were, however, unblemished good things to happen. While Arkansas was still in contention with 30 seconds left, it was the 15-second mark when a hero stepped up for MSU, or a villain took down the Hogs, depending who you cheer for.
The long and athletic cornerback is a little over midway through his junior season at MSU, having enrolled as a freshman, but he’s only now played in sixteen games after sitting out the first 18 at the command of the NCAA for violations relating to his recruitment in high school. It took Redmond some time to get acclimated after such a long time not playing football, but he’s slowly becoming a quiet star on a Mississippi State defense full of studs.
“Hands down, he’s our best corner,” Robinson said Saturday night, though he might have to answer to teammates (and corners) Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun for that one.
But after Redmond saved the day, who’s to argue? He’s made play-after-play and tackle-after-tackle since State began SEC play, and on Saturday night he made the biggest one yet.
Arkansas had first-and-10 at MSU’s 16-yard line, trailing 17-10 with more seconds left than yards to gain to tie it up. Quarterback Brandon Allen took the snap for a quick three-step drop and sent the ball flying to the endzone, where 6’3” senior receiver Demetrius Wilson was waiting to make the game-tying catch.
As he stretched out his hands to receive the ball, it was another pair of gloved hands that popped up a foot in front of his and snagged it out of the air. Will Redmond fell to the ground with the game-winning interception in his arms.
“Will’s playing very well,” Mullen said. “I think he plays aggressive. He does a good job. Will’s a smart and very, very intelligent young man. He really studies the game and wants to be a great player. Works hard, has a good work ethic. You see that out there on the field that his number is called and he makes the play.”
Many in Redmond’s position would not have worked so hard. Plenty before him, with much less to fight against, just quit. But he stuck it out, and now he here is, one of the budding stars on the No. 1 team in the country. And not to say it’s due to him, but Redmond has played in 16 games now, and MSU has won the last 11 in a row.
That’s how State’s defense works, though. It’s someone different every week. Every drive, even. It’s the whole point of the 1-A and 1-B defense, Mullen says. Redmond isn’t technically a starter, but he had the experience all season to draw from when he made the game-saving play.
It was the second time in three appearances Geoff Collins’ defense held the Arkansas offense scoreless in the redzone, and it was the most important such occurrence.
That’s why MSU has the best redzone defense in the country. It’s also part of why, for now at least, MSU is the No. 1 team in the country.
Weird, maybe, but certainly good for Mississippi State.
“A win is a win, man,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said afterward. “You can say barely or ugly, but a win is a win.”