BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
This has certainly not been the season that either Arkansas or Mississippi State envisioned having even if they were picked as the likely two bottom finishers in the SEC Western Division.
The Razorbacks (2-5, 0-4) and visiting Bulldogs (3-3, 0-3) will meet Saturday in Fayetteville in an 11 a.m. game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium that will be televised by the SEC Network.
While Arkansas has lost five straight games and not played at home in over a month, Mississippi State at least ended a three-game losing skid with a 41-27 home win over Western Michigan on Oct. 7 and then had last Saturday off.
The Bulldogs sandwiched home loses to LSU and Alabama around a road one to South Carolina before getting a win.
“Excited to get back into game week,” Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett said. “Playing another really good opponent. Arkansas is always tough, physical. That shows up on film again this year.
“Coming off a bye week…couldn’t come at a better time for us. Gave us a lot of time to give some guys time off. We kind of used it as a developmental week. The vast majority of the reps went to younger guys. Hopefully we’re developing depth because you need it in the second half of the season.
“…Our older guys…it wasn’t a true week off, but they got very few reps. Gave them a chance to get their bodies feeling good again. Since training camp, the bye week is the only chance to get them back feeling that healthy again.
“…Hopefully everyone is feeling refreshed, recovered and excited to compete. We’re playing a heck of an opponent this weekend.”
One key player who isn’t feeling healthy is quarterback Will Rogers, who is dealing with a shoulder injury that he suffered in the fourth quarter of the win over Western Michigan.
Arnett was hesitant to discuss the health of injured Mississippi State players such as Rogers, tailbacks Jo’Quavious Marks (fourth in the SEC with 458 rushing yards) and Jeffry Pittman, wide receiver Justin Robinson and defensive lineman De’Monte Russell.
“We gave them limited reps last week,” Arnett said. “If they did or didn’t, these situations are being kept within the club only…Every single guy on the roster is on a day-to-day evaluation. Everybody that is cleared to play, will play If they are not, they will not.”
Rogers set the SEC single season record for touchdown passes with 501 in 2021 while running the late Mike Leach’s famed Air Raid and is the only current SEC signal caller with over 10,000 passing yards.
He also is the only SEC QB ever with over 1,000 career completions with 1,203, but has struggled somewhat in new offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay’ss run-oriented system while going 105 of 171 passing for 1,275 yards with 10 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
If Rogers is not available to start his 36th straight game, Mississippi State will turn to Vanderbilt transfer Mike Wright, who spent the previous three seasons with the Commodores.
Freshman Chris Parson, a former four-star prospect out of Brentwood, Tennessee, who had offers from Arkansas, Florida State and others, is behind Wright.
Mississippi State has run the ball 53 times in Wright’s 66 snaps this season while Rogers has 197 passing snaps to 129 rushing snaps according to Pro Football Focus.
“There’s things we do with Mike in there at quarterback that are structured more for him,” Arnett said. “When he’s in there, we’re going to play to the strengths of our personnel that’s in there. I think it’s going to look very similar to when he’s in there any other time.”
Arnett sized up Arkansas’ defense, who is giving up over 140 less yards this season than it did in the 2022 campaign.
“I think they’re really good on defense,” Arnett said. “They have a lot of impact players they got out of the portal. They rebuilt that side of the ball. They are long and big and physical up front.”
He talked about how Arkansas has had four close games during its five-game skid.
“Last five games, all but one has been a one-possession game,” Arnett said. “If the ball bounces the other way, one or two plays go the other way, the game is drastically different.
“(Arkansas head coach) Coach Pittman is an offensive line coach by trade, so he’s got big, physical offensive linemen who come off the ball.”
They are led by quarterback KJ Jefferson (6-3, 245), who is 124 of 188 passing for 1,450 yards this season for 14 touchdowns and six interceptions and has rushed for 354 positive yards although 29 sacks have limited his net to just 162.
“KJ Jefferson is as dynamic a player as there is in college football,” Arnett said. “His ability to shrug off tacklers is very impressive.”
Arkansas running back Rocket Sanders, who rushed for over 1,400 yards last season, has been limited with an injury and will miss a second straight game on Saturday and his fourth this season
“I’m sure Rocket Sanders has been frustrated this year,”Arnett said. “He hasn’t been able to go in several games. You look at his career, every time he has the ball in his hands, he is about to break out.”
Arnett has taken note of Arkansas’ group of receivers being blessed with lots of height.
“They have really good length at receiver,” Arnett said. “Guys who run well. They did a nice job rebuilding their roster. They have guys out of the portal who are playing really good for them. They look like a big physical football team on film.”
Rogers is hopeful his team can finish the season strong.
“College football is a game of momentum,” Arnett said. “That goes with regard to your program going into the offseason. Everything is always better when you’re coming off a win.
“When you can rip off a string of victories, it builds positive momentum toward everything else you’re trying to accomplish. It creates positivity on the recruiting trail, but we’re a long way from the end of the season.”
“I just think we’re competitors,” Arnett said. “Both in the locker room and in the coaching staff. Any time you play a game, there’s gonna be a winner and a loser. If you’re a competitor, you’re gonna control what you can control. You’re gonna put in the work and preparation to be successful.
“And then there’s still no guarantee of success. That’s why people are so passionate about it. You have to put yourself out there a little bit. To invest that much into something without a guarantee of success. How many people are willing to do that?
“We’ve got competitors on this football team, and if you’re going to give yourself the best chance to be successful, then you have to put that level of investment into it. That is what you can control. We have a building full of people that will do just that. Does that guarantee us success? No, it does not.”
It is mostly a matter of focusing on what Mississippi State is doing itself per Arnett.
“ We need to focus on us, the things we control – how we show up and prepare – because we’re facing a quality opponent,” Arnett said. “They want to compete and win just as much as us. They are hungry to get out there to compete and win. We have to make sure we’re just as hungry to compete and win.
Arnett thinks mindset is a big key in 11 a.m. games, especially on the road.
“When you go on the road, everything goes more quickly,” Arnett said. “Last week, we emphasized doing a better job of starting faster on both sides of the ball. We did that. We jumped out to a 10-point lead after the first couple of drives. We’ll follow a similar practice plan, some things we did differently – without going into detail – an 11 am kick gets on you quicker.
“The pregame timing won’t be the same as a home game at 11, but we will have similar practice structure. Gotta be ready to go as soon as they put the ball down. But you don’t have to sit around all day and think about the game and wait for kickoff.”
Photo courtesy of Mississippi State