It certainly happened again in a 45-14 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
After the Bulldogs (8-3) scored on the opening drive of the game, the Razorbacks (4-7) tied the score with an 11-play, 86-yard drive that featured Tyler Wilson completing all five of his passes for 69 yards — including a 30-yard TD pass to Cobi Hamilton.
Dennis Johnson ran four times for 15 yards and Knile Davis took the ball once for 2 yards.
After Mississippi State’s drive stalled, Arkansas put together a 10-play, 65-yard drive. Wilson again threw the ball six times, but one was incomplete before he connected with Johnson for a 7-yard TD pass with 12:17 left in the second quarter. Johnathan Williams carried three times for 11 yards on the drive, while Johnson got one carry for 7 yards.
Arkansas led 14-7 and Wilson’s stat line was 11-of-12 passing for 115 yards and one TD. His NCAA quarterback efficiency rating was 199.67 at that point.
Then the wheels came off.
After a muffed punt resulted in a Mississippi State field goal that cut the Arkansas lead to 14-10, the focus of the Razorbacks’ offense shifted from Wilson to Davis.
On the Razorbacks’ third drive, Davis carried the ball four times, Wilson threw once to Cobi Hamilton and drew a pass interference call. On first down, Wilson dropped back to pass but wound up scrambling for 8 yards. Two Davis carries resulted in just 1 yard and Arkansas punted.
On the ensuing drive, the Bulldogs needed just five plays to take a 17-14 lead. It was a lead Arkansas never threatened. And the failed third-down carry was the last time Davis touched the ball.
Asked if emphasizing the run with Davis disrupted the rhythm the Razorbacks had going, Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said it didn’t.
“You know, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case,” Petrino said. “We’re at third-and-1, you’ve got to convert third downs. We were actually at second-and-3, ran the ball twice and didn’t get the first down.”
Arkansas head coach John L. Smith’s analysis was more terse.
“Knile came in for Dennis and ran the ball,” Smith said.
Arkansas had converted 4 of 4 third downs in the first two drives, but managed to pick up first downs just twice on eight more third-down attempts, starting with the ill-fated third drive. Arkansas also turned the ball over five times with Wilson throwing two interceptions.
“That’s what we needed to do (convert third downs),” Smith said. “The tale of the tape, of course, comes down to the turnover factor. The other tale of the tape comes down to the third-down production — on both sides — and those really are the two factors that, to me, determine the outcome.”
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen credited his defense for some of Arkansas’ problems after the first two drives.
“After the poor start early in the game with our defense, I thought we made a lot of plays,” Mullen said. “They overcame dealing with me, and sometimes on the sideline I can be a rough dude to handle. I get fired up, but they did a great job and made some small adjustments while sticking to the gameplan. … We were able to make the necessary stops.”
Wilson finished 23-of-29 passing for 225 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The senior from Greenwood said the second-half struggles by the Arkansas offense can be chalked up to mental mistakes that begin to snowball.
“It’s like one thing hits and then kind of deflates all the air in the tires,” Wilson said. “We have to almost play a flawless game in all three areas — special teams, offense, defense — to kind of keep everybody’s spirit up. If not, it seems to turn the other way.”
The last chance for Arkansas to do that this season will be against LSU on Friday at Razorback Stadium.