The Bulldogs took the field Saturday in front of an ecstatic crowd anxious to see the Davis Wade debut of Mike Leach, KJ Costello and the legendary offense that had knocked off a defending national champion just one week earlier. This week though, they simply could not get it done against an unranked Arkansas squad, suffering through a brutal night from start to finish.
It began when senior star running back Kylin Hill, from Columbus, went down with a head injury on his first carry, and ended with a muffed punt from Jaden Walley, a freshman receiver from D'Iberville, Mississippi, sealing the deal on a 21-14 loss for the Bulldogs. Coach Leach was quick to take a share of responsibility, emphasizing the role Mississippi State University's many mistakes had on the outcome.
"A lot of our wounds were self-inflicted. One after the next, we had self-inflicted wounds. That starts with coaches and me as well. There's a lot of things," Leach said. "You preach all week about the urgency and all that stuff, but I didn't feel like we had quite the edge this week that we did last week. That's got to be maintained. We have to be full throttle and can't make judgments about games and opponents. I felt like we did some of that. I felt like, as coaches, we tried, but we didn't reach it. We didn't get the message across. I thought that Arkansas came here with a determination to take this game away from us, and they did."
The mistakes were certainly evident on Saturday. Quarterback KJ Costello, a graduate transfer from Stanford, threw three crucial interceptions, with Arkansas returning the first for a touchdown to open up the scoring. In addition to the three interceptions, the Arkansas defense repeatedly dropped back into zone coverage, and was able to limit Costello to just 313 yards passing, half of the damage he was able to do last week against LSU. Costello maintains confidence in their offensive game plan, however, and says they simply failed to execute when it was needed most.
"I couldn't care less if teams want to play that coverage," Costello said. "We completed the ball all over the field. At the end of the day, we got to execute in crucial situations. When it's third and short, fourth-and-3 (or) when its fourth-and-1. I have to take care of the football, bottom line. It's that simple. I got to take care of the football, take what the defense gives me and move the ball one play at a time."
The fourth down stops by the Arkansas defense were absolutely critical, as their red zone defense was a huge contributor to the victory. On the other hand, MSU's red zone defense struggled, giving up 14 points on two different blown coverage touchdowns, allowing Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks to find wide open receivers in the end zone.
"I feel like the defense played good enough to win, but there's a lot of work to do," said MSU cornerback Martin Emerson, a sophomore from Pensacola, Florida. "I feel like we left plays out there that we should have made and could have changed the game."
Martin's analysis seems accurate, as the Bulldog defense did an excellent job in limiting the Razorbacks to just 275 yards in total offense, yet those two touchdown passes stand out as plays the Bulldogs would certainly like to have back. Even limiting Arkansas to a field goal on either of those possessions would likely have given Mike Leach the confidence to kick a field goal or two of their own, instead of regrettably failing to convert multiple fourth down opportunities in the red zone.
The Bulldog defense, however, will not be the primary question mark going forward. The sheer inconsistency between the two games is preventing fans and analysts alike from making a sure judgment on how this Air Raid offense will translate to the toughest conference in the country. For now, fans are left to wonder which game was the fluke, or if both were radical examples of just how good or bad this team can perform. With a grueling SEC schedule ahead, Mike Leach and the Bulldogs are bound to provide an answer to that question sooner rather than later. MSU (1-1) will be back in action on Saturday, Oct. 10th, at the University of Kentucky (0-2).