November 18, 2012 12:43:53 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State University football team's home finale Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium marked the end of one squad's bad month and the continuation of the other's season-long suffering.
MSU showed its problems are easier to fix.
Coming in riding a three-game losing streak, a motivated and humbled MSU forced a season-high five turnovers en route to a 45-14 victory against the University of Arkansas.
MSU (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) had lost the turnover battle in losses to the University of Alabama, Texas A&M University, and LSU by a combined minus-4. The Bulldogs changed that statistic by going plus-4 against the Razorbacks (4-7, 2-5), who were eliminated from bowl consideration. The Bulldogs have won 23 of 24 games when they have the advantage in the turnover column. They also lead the country with a plus-18 turnover margin at home.
"We got back to that playmaking mentality." MSU coach Dan Mullen said when asked about his defense. "Creating the turnovers is a huge, huge deal in what we need to win the game."
At the most critical time, Arkansas offense wilted in front of an announced crowd of 54,838. In a six-possession stretch in the second half, the Razorbacks committed five turnovers and went three-and-out to see MSU score the game's final 38 points.
"We ended up really losing the turnover battle in the second half, and that's the story of the game," Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. "We are asking guys to do things that maybe they can't do. It's hard for veteran guys, let alone young guys."
The loss continued a free fall Arkansas has been in since Bobby Petrino was let go as coach weeks before the season. Petrino was involved in a motorcycle crash with former Arkansas All-SEC volleyball player Jessica Dorrell, whom he hired March 28, 2012, as the student-athlete development coordinator for the football program. She had worked as a fundraiser in the Razorback Foundation. After lying to local police, Petrino revealed Dorrell was a passenger on his motorcycle when he had the accident and that he had been involved in an adulterous relationship with her. Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long placed Petrino on an indefinite paid leave of absence before dismissing him after four seasons.
Arkansas' demise was symbolized in a two-play sequence in the third quarter when it fielded a punt and had to take a timeout because it was unsure what play to call after coming on the field. After the timeout, the tailback Jonathan Williams' fumble fell into the arms of senior linebacker Cam Lawrence (11 tackles, pass breakup, third career fumble recovery).
"(MSU defensive coordinator Chris) Wilson made a big emphasis that we needed to make more plays and create more turnovers, (and) that's exactly what we did," Lawrence said. "We were hunting the ball the whole time and we were able to come up with it a couple of times."
The five turnovers matched the season-high MSU also reached in a 28-10 victory against Auburn University earlier this season. The 45 points also were the most points MSU has scored against Arkansas.
"That's our big thing, when we force turnovers we are very successful," MSU senior receiver Chad Bumphis said. "We capitalized on their mistakes, and that's just such a big part of how we beat teams, especially at home."
MSU was forced to adjust after quarterback Tyler Wilson (23 of 29 for 225 yards, two touchdowns) completed his first 10 passes and walked the football down the field on the opening two drives to help the Razorbacks take a 14-7 lead.
But MSU didn't lose its focus like it did against Alabama and Texas A&M. Instead, the Bulldogs continued to rush four defensive lineman and tried to cover with the back two levels of defense. Defensive lineman Denico Autry and Preston Smith began to create pressure on Wilson, and Autry, the former East Mississippi Community College standout, even got his fourth sack.
Smith, a freshman who has seen little playing time in 2012, had four tackles, one and a half tackles for loss, a sack, and a fumble recovery.
"After the poor start early, I thought we made a lot of plays," Mullen said. "Give our staff credit, they hung in there. They overcame me and I'm rough duty to deal with on game day. They did a good job of sticking a lot with our game plan."
In its annual rivalry game against the University of Mississippi at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) in Oxford, MSU will face an opponent that was plus-4 in the turnover department in SEC play. To win its fourth straight Egg Bowl, MSU will have to create turnovers to generate similar momentum in a hostile environment.
"I can't wait," Mullen said. "A little bit different attitude this week. Always the biggest game of the year for us, so we'll be ready to go."