LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas was inching closer to its breakthrough moment after a turnover turned into a touchdown late in the third quarter Saturday.
It meant the Razorbacks carried a lead into the fourth quarter for the first time in two months. More importantly, they were 15 minutes away from burying a seven-game losing streak and picking up their first conference win since October 2012.
But Arkansas receiver Javontee Herndon admitted he didn’t feel so secure.
"I was thinking to myself we need to score one more time," Herndon said.
Herndon’s intuition was right. Arkansas needed another score to snap its seven-game losing streak, but never got it and suffered a 24-17 overtime loss to Mississippi State in front of an announced crowd of 45,198 in War Memorial Stadium.
The Bulldogs scored the game-tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter then, after missing a field goal at the end of regulation, took the lead on quarterback Damian Williams’ 25-yard touchdown run on the first play of overtime. Mississippi State wrapped up the win four plays later, when cornerback Taveze Calhoun intercepted Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen’s fourth-down pass.
It helped MSU (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) keep alive its bowl hopes in the battle for the bottom of the SEC Western Division standings, moving into another must-win game against Ole Miss in Thursday’s Egg Bowl (6:30 p.m., ESPN).
It also helped coach Bret Bielema and the 2013 Razorbacks secure an unwanted record: Arkansas’ eight-game losing streak is the longest in school history.
"It’s like we have to keep running this race that has several hurdles in it, but as soon as we clear one hurdle, we have to go back to the beginning," Bielema said. "We don’t ever advance it. We can’t quite put ourselves in that next phase and (Saturday) would be an example of that."
Arkansas (3-8, 0-7) has lost in a number of ways the past 10 weeks and Saturday added another chapter. The biggest blunders came on a blown fake punt with the Razorbacks leading 10-3 late in the second quarter and Alex Collins’ fumble at the Mississippi State 9 with the game tied at 17 in the fourth quarter.
The self-inflicted wounds swiped momentum from the Razorbacks and gave Mississippi State some much-needed life at critical times.
"This one’s tough," said Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen, who finished 10-of-17 for 114 yards with the interception in overtime. "We had so many chances to put points on the board and kind of put the game away and, again, shooting ourselves in the foot on drives and weren’t able to do so."
Arkansas — which executed four fake punts and converted two this season — saw a look it liked when punter Sam Irwin-Hill rolled to his left and tried to run on a fourth-and-2 play from the Razorbacks’ 44. But Mississippi State was not fooled, stopping Irwin-Hill for a 4-yard loss. It eventually led to the game-tying touchdown when Tyler Russell threw a 30-yard pass to running back LaDarius Perkins.
"It was the look that we wanted and we gave it the green light ‘Go,’ and obviously missed a critical block," Bielema said. "If I had it to do all over again, I obviously wouldn’t do it. But we thought the look was there and we thought we could get anywhere from 5 to 10 (yards) on that, even if they reacted properly."
Arkansas was fortunate it wasn’t worse at halftime. Tight end Mitchell Loewen fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and the Bulldogs marched toward the go-ahead score. But Mississippi State running back Derrick Milton fumbled at the goal line. It was recovered by safety Rohan Gaines and the game remained tied at halftime.
MSU got the ball first in the second half and moved close enough to attempt a field goal. Once again, the game remained tied at 10 when 6-foot-10 Arkansas offensive lineman Dan Skipper blocked his third field goal of the season.
The Razorbacks got another big play a few minutes later, when first-time starter Jared Collins intercepted a pass from quarterback Tyler Russell, who finished 18-of-28 for 263 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception. Arkansas scored six plays later on Julian Horton’s 22-yard touchdown run to make it 17-10.
"I thought a growing point for our team was when Jared Collins made a nice interception and the offense took it down and scored," Bielema said. "You saw how much of an effect it had on the game."
Arkansas couldn’t finish the job, though. Mississippi State scored on Russell’s 5-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jameon Lewis on the next possession to tie the game.
The Razorbacks did respond to the score, moving to Mississippi State’s 12-yard line when Allen completed a 44-yard pass to tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. But Collins — who finished the game 2 yards shy of reaching the 1,000-yard mark — had the ball ripped out of his hands by Mississippi State safety Nickoe Whitley on the next play.
"We talked about it all week," Bielema said about Arkansas’ ball security.
The only good news left was the fact Arkansas survived a close call at the end of regulation, when Mississippi State place kicker Devon Bell pushed a game-winning, 42-yard field goal attempt wide left, forcing overtime.
The Bulldogs didn’t take long to shrug off the miss, though. Williams — who was on the field after Russell left the game with a shoulder injury on the final possession of regulation — ran a read-option play right up the middle to the end zone.
Arkansas had no response, gaining 1 yard on four plays to end the game.
"A lot of things didn’t go our way," said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, whose team turned the ball over twice and missed two field goals. "But I’ll tell you what, those guys kept battling. They kept fighting. They found a way to win."
It was Mississippi State’s first win in Arkansas in 11 tries. It also was the Bulldogs’ first overtime win against the Hogs after going 0-3 in previous attempts.
"I’m not surprised. I’m frustrated, yeah," Bielema said about the mistakes that cost his team Saturday. "But I had an idea of the growth that we had to take to get where we need to be. Unfortunately, it’s taking longer than we want, than you want, than all of my coaches, all of my players and all of our fans want."
Arkansas has lost eight games for the second consecutive season. Its SEC losing streak was extended to 11 games as well Saturday. The Razorbacks have to win their final game at LSU on Friday to avoid becoming the first Arkansas team to go winless in conference play since 1942.
"It’s not something any of us wanted or any of us expected," Allen said of the school-record eight straight losses. "We’ve got to get ourselves out of it. It’s something that’s on us. No one can do it for us. We’ve got to dig ourselves out of this."