FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — No. 25 Arkansas hopes to snap a two-game losing skid on Saturday when they take on No. 23 Mississippi State, but it won’t be easy.
Arkansas (3-2, 1-2) and Mississippi State (4-1, 1-1) will kickoff at 11 a.m. on the SEC Network. Pittman knows the challenges of playing a team coached by Mike Leach. Pittman is 2-0 against Leach since both were hired by SEC schools, but neither win has been easy.
“We’re excited to go to Starkville,” Pittman said. “Coach Leach has his team playing extremely hard. They’re playing really well. As good a special teams group as I’ve seen this year. I mean, they’re fantastic. I know Alabama was really good last week, but this group is really, really good on special teams.
“Obviously, Will Rogers is a problem. Really good quarterback. Their offense is what they do. They have a lot of talented receivers. Defensively, they’re an attack, blitz a lot. It seems to be working for them, but they play extremely hard. They’re well-coached and there’s a reason they’re 4-1 and ranked in the top 25. They have a really good football team. We’re excited to go play them.”
Jefferson was injured against Alabama late in the game when his head hit the ground hard. Pittman said that Jefferson will be on the plane to Starkville, but it appears likely that Cade Fortin will get the start. Malik Hornsby would be the backup quarterback to Fortin if Jefferson can’t play. Don’t expect an announcement on that until closer to kickoff.
Mississippi State beat Texas A&M 42-24 last Saturday in Starkville. A&M defeated Arkansas 23-21 the previous Saturday in Arlington, Texas. Pittman talked about the Bulldogs’ win over the Aggies.
“Well, that would be a big deal in the game you know,” Pittman said. “I mean, A&M goes down to the 5-yard line and fumbles and they kick a field goal and it goes back for a touchdown. Then their starting quarterback got hurt. There’s a lot of things that happened. A lot of those — all those things happened because Mississippi State made them happen you know. I get that. But it was a tight game there. Then basically on the field goal that was blocked back for a touchdown kind of put the game out of hand.
“But they play so hard. This is a really good football team, a really good football team. They play so hard. And obviously, they can score points. But they’re going to cause you problems on offense if you’re not ready for all this movement and all the blitzing that they do. All this total blitz that they do. And they have players that can do it. They’ve got really good football players, guys that have played. I love their linebacker group. I think they’re really good. It starts with (Jeff) Johnson, but (Nathaniel) Watson and (Tyrus) Wheat, they’re all really good players and they use them well. And they’re really good at special teams. They have made a difference in a lot of games just on special teams alone. They’re playing … they’re hot right now.”
Rogers has completed 171 of 234 passes for 1,715 yards, 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. Pittman talked about how he’s hard to get pressure on.
“Now he’s on Year 3 of playing,” Pittman said. “You can see it. The thing is, you really have to disguise in the secondary, because if you don’t, he knows exactly what you’re doing whether you’re in man, or it’s quarters or double cloud or whatever it may be, he can exploit you. I mean, he’s really good, and they’ve got receivers that can as well. So they’ll have to be a decision made obviously on third down and things of that nature whether we’re going to go after him or not. We can’t just let him sit back there. If we decide to go after him with four, we need to get there. If we decide to go after him with three we’ve got to get there.
“They’re good at tackle. Obviously, they lost their first-rounder last year at left tackle. But they’re good at tackle and good on the offensive line. So we’ve got to move him at some point. We’ve got to hurry him at least. I thought we did a pretty good job of that last year.”
While everyone heaps plenty of praise on the Mississippi State offense, its defense is also playing well this season.
“Well, you better win first down because they’re going to come at you, now,” Pittman said of the blitzing Bulldogs. “I mean, this is one of the most moving defenses, blitzing defenses, that I’ve seen in a while. And it works. So I think any time you play teams like that, you have to have some explosive plays. It has to be more than 7 yards and the guy got a shoestring tackle… You’ve got to go 70, you’ve got to go 65, you’ve got to make some big plays – 30 (yards) – on them, or they’ll never get out of it. I will say this, I think Coach (Cody) Kennedy and the offensive line, I think they do about as good a job as I’ve seen with movement on the defensive line and linebackers. So we’re certainly going to practice the heck out of it. There’s no fear in their defensive coordinator, I’ll say that.”
Pittman was then asked how to beat a total blitz.
“Well I always thought, when I was a line coach, I used to always think it was recognition of the quarterback and the O-Line,” Pittman said. “And I still think that’s a big part of it. But if you ever look at it, and your receivers are the ones that have to understand it. Because you can’t- Total means they have one more than you do, no matter what. They have another guy and they’re man coverage — now if your back went out, you might could take a guy with him, but total means they have one more than you and it’s hot. It’s automatic hot. It’s the only blitz really you can’t pick up. And the wide receivers, if they’re running, let’s say they’re running either a corner or they’re running a post or they’re running a comeback. Well, there’s no time to get to the comeback part of it. The wide receivers have to be aware that that’s happening, too, and then obviously you want to get as many people to the middle of the field as you can, because that’s where it’s vacant. I think all of them do, but I used to think it’s just the line and the quarterback, but I think it’s so important that the wide receivers understand it as well.”
The Bulldogs have five players with between 19-25 receptions from Rogers. They spread the ball around extremely well. Pittman talked about that and how you defend it.
“Well, you just have to stay balanced,” Pittman said. “It’s not like maybe us last year where guys knew where Burks was, and you’re going to throw him the football. They’ve got so many guys that can… they catch some one-on-one type balls, they catch them. They’re really good at wideout. I believe that Will trusts them, and he’ll throw it up. Not in a crowd, but he’ll throw the one-on-one ball, and they’ll come down with it. They have so many really talented wideouts that can run and certainly can catch. The thing they’re doing a little bit more than I’ve seen in the past is they’ll turn around and hand the ball off, and they’ve had great success with that as well when they elect to run it.”
The Bulldogs have outscored opponents 52-7 in the first quarter and that is something considering his quarterback situation that Pittman is very aware of.
“Obviously they’ve been well coached, and their game plan is against what they’re seeing,” Pittman said. “And it seemed to me like they’re well prepared on both sides of the ball, obviously, to give up seven for the year in the first and score 52. But I think a lot of that, too, is their offensive system has been identical for three years in a row now. Their quarterback’s been back for three years in a row now. And defensively, I know the coordinator’s been there at least two. And they’ve got some older players, you know, guys that should be ready when it kicks off. So they’ve just done a great job of getting them prepared, I think.”
Pittman knows Rogers is capable of putting up a lot of points on his revamped secondary that has been riddled all season with injuries.
“Well, they have a lot of offensive talent, and it starts with Will Rogers,” Pittman said. “He’s fantastic. The guy is fantastic. If you check it, and you don’t disguise your coverages and he knows exactly what it is, then you’ve got problems because got great receivers who can catch the ball. At any point, they can turn around and hand it off. They’re running the ball as well as I think they’ve ever run it the last three years. There are just so many things that you have to defend against them. They have talent at each one of these spots.
“Their O-Line is playing extremely well. It starts with Will Rogers and his wide receivers’ ability to catch the ball and his backs who catch the ball out of the backfield and run it. They’ve just got a really powerful team. I’m not speaking for Coach Leach, but I would assume he’s very happy with the talent that he has in there, and he’s using every one of them.”
As far as his own team, Pittman likes to play the underdog role even when his team is favored, But this week he is playing Arkansas against the world in hopes of seeing his team snap the two-game skid.
“Well, probably,” Pittman said. “We want to win every game, but obviously with the close game loss to A&M and getting beat by Alabama… losses last a lot longer than wins do. It’s just no fun when you lose. For the team or any of us.
“But the bottom line is we have a great opportunity against a good football team to go down there and play hard and win. Yeah, I think there’s a little to that. They’re playing extremely well and favored and all that kind of stuff. So, I think they’re certainly in our realm of how we approach teams that are favored over us, which there’s been a bunch of them since I’ve been here. But, yes, to answer your question.”
Arkansas will also be on the road next Saturday when they face BYU in Provo, Utah.