By Otis Kirk
Arkansas will head to Starkville today hoping to secure its first SEC win on Saturday in Davis Wade Stadium.
The Razorbacks will try to win in a place that has provided a tough forum to get a win. This will be the 14th time for Arkansas and Mississippi State to play in Starkville and though the Hogs hold a 7-6 advantage the wins didn’t come easily.
A key for Arkansas will be to get the running game going something they weren’t able to do against LSU. Arkansas won the game in 2016 when both Devwah Whaley and Rawleigh Williams III ran for over a 100 yards while Austin Allen topped the 300-yard mark passing.
Chad Morris knows the Hogs will be in a battle on Saturday. Mississippi State is similar on defense to LSU. What do you do against them to get the running game going?
“A lot of teams have been trying to figure that out too this year,” Morris said. “I think they have only given up 12 touchdowns all year long, nine coming into last week. They are extremely fast, physical and they are athletic at all positions. As I shared earlier, this is the fastest overall, top to bottom, team defensively that we’ve seen.
“But again, it goes back to us. We’ve got to do a good job of sustaining blocks. When we do get our opportunities we’ve got to make sure we’re picking up the three, four yard gains at times. And mix up the run and the pass.”
Morris respects what Joe Moorhead has been able to do in his first year with the Bulldogs.
“We’ve got a tough, tough road test,” Moorhead said. “This will be our first true, true road game since Sept. 22. So getting back out on the road. We’ve got a tough opponent. Mississippi State. Coach Moorhead has done a good job there. They’ve got a lot of returning starters. As a matter of fact, the majority of their team is returning.
“The defense is as good as advertised. No. 1 in the SEC. It’s the fastest overall defense that we’ve seen. Extremely aggressive. They are very pressure oriented. You can tell that by the number of turnovers they’ve created. They pressure from all angles. They’ve got the top pass rusher in the league in Montez Sweat, which is, he’s a dynamic player and very disruptive.”
Morris also is impressed with Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.
“Offensively, led by senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, which has done a great job for them,” Morris said. “Leads the SEC. All-time rushing quarterback leader in the SEC. A lot of his runs are off of RPOs. They’re downhill. A lot of power, a lot of counter with him. But he’s very efficient and when he has to throw the football he’s very effective. He does some really good things there. They do a good job of protecting the football. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Bulldogs have held opponents to less than 14 points in seven of the 10 games this season. Sweat, a defensive end, and defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons have combined for 24 tackles for loss. The Bulldogs have gained at least one turnover in 13 straight games. In only one game this season has the Mississippi State defense allowed 150-or-more yards rushing in a game.
Whaley will play on Saturday for the first time since being injured against Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 13, in Little Rock. Rakeem Boyd and Chase Hayden, both sophomores, will also join with Whaley in trying to get Arkansas’ ground game going on Saturday. Boyd leads the team in rushing with 104 carries for 645 yards and two touchdowns.
Arkansas is coming off a 24-17 loss to LSU this past Saturday night when they rushed for 16 yards on 19 carries.
“We couldn’t get anything going in the run game,” Morris said. “They made us one-dimensional and that was evident. Still, with all this, our grit, our toughness, our continue to fight and get back up got us back in the game with a chance to win it with one stop. With that I’m thankful for their fight and they’re continuing to compete.”
Moorhead and the Bulldogs are coming off a 24-0 loss to Alabama this past Saturday night. Moorhead is now focused on the task at hand this week against the Razorbacks.
“Moving on to Arkansas, a very good football team,” Moorhead said. “Chad Morris had a successful stint as the coordinator at Clemson and head coach at SMU. I don’t think their record right now is indicative of how they are playing. I think they are much better than their record. A multiple style, kind of spread offense. Joe Craddock is the coordinator and I think they do a good job. [Ty] Storey is the quarterback. [They do a good job] mixing the run and the pass, [using] some unconventional formations and unconventional plays. A lot of wheel routes. They try to do a good job spreading the ball around there.
“Defensively, they are led by John Chavis. Multiple three-down and four-down looks and a mix of coverage. [Chavis is] a guy who has done it at a high level for a significant amount of time. He is a very good defensive coordinator. At all three levels, [Arkansas] has SEC caliber players who do an excellent job of getting to the ball and pressuring the quarterback and playing tight coverage.”
Boyd and the Hogs watched film of Mississippi State. Boyd is impressed with the Mississippi State defense.
“The D-line is really good,” Boyd said. “The linebackers are sound. They’re really good.”
Boyd is excited to be joined by Whaley again for the first time in four games.
“It’ll be really good, me and him together,” Boyd said. “It’ll be dominant. Good to have him back. Me and him together is unstoppable. That’ll be good and fun to watch.”
Arkansas safety Kamren Curl is aware of what Fitzgerald can do at quarterback after playing against him last season.
“I’m expecting a lot of run game with Nick Fitzgerald,” Curl said. “He’s a big body and a really good athlete and with him running the RPO game. He’s big and fast and can run but we can tackle him.”
Junior linebacker De’Jon Harris leads the team in tackles with 106 while also compiling nine tackles for loss and five pass breakups. Harris talked Fitzgerald as well and what challenges he presents.
“A lot of challenges,” Harris said. “They do a lot of RPO running so he is a big factor in the offense. I know that he is the leading rusher on the offense and top 5 (all-time) in the SEC so he is going to present a lot of problems for us.”
What was it like trying to tackle him last year?
“Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” Harris said. “He is a big guy, an easy target for us to bring down and it was wet that game, too.”
What do you remember about cowbells and atmosphere in 2016?
“I played a lot my freshman year,” Harris said. “It was loud. It was my first road game playing so very loud to me. It really was irritating, but we got off to a good start so they weren’t bringing it that much.”
Arkansas (2-8, 0-6) and Mississippi State (6-4, 2-4) will kickoff at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning.