FAYETTEVILLE — In losses to Ole Miss and Auburn the Razorbacks looked worn down and weren’t making the plays they did earlier against Texas A&M, Texas and others.
Sam Pittman is hoping the bye week combined with the starters only playing the first half two week’s ago in a 45-3 win over UAPB has helped the Hogs get healthy and refreshed. They need to be because a very good Mississippi State team rolls into Fayetteville coming off a big win over No. 12 Kentucky.
“Well, we’re glad to come off a bye week,” Pittman said. “You know we went eight straight and glad we had a week off last week. Playing a really good Mississippi State team. Will Rogers, I don’t know if he could’ve played much better than he did against Kentucky. The offensive line is hitting on all cylinders for them. Wonderful wide receivers. Two backs that can go and their defense is so much improved over last year. They can move on you, play multiple fronts. They’ve got really good linebackers, a wonderful nose guard. They’re just a really good football team and we are excited to play them here at home. We haven’t had many home games over the last few weeks and excited to get back in our stadium.”
Rogers, the sophomore quarterback, completed 36 of 39 passes, which is an SEC record for any game with 30-plus attempts. Running back Dillon Johnson, who Arkansas recruited heavily, ran for two touchdowns and Mississippi State scored 14 points off of four Kentucky turnovers to beat them 31-17 on Saturday night.
Saturday afternoon’s game has an interesting matchup in that Arkansas is good at running the ball and stopping that is one of the strengths of Mississippi State.
“Well, something’s got to give because we’re proud of what we do rushing the football and they certainly have no allowed people to run it against them,” Pittman said. “A lot of reasons – they have a lot of talent over there, love their schematics, they move a lot, they’re multiple in their front, very, very aggressive on third down and the kids are playing extremely hard. That’s why, to me, they get a lot of people to the ball against rushing situations. They get you behind the sticks early. We have to do a good job on first down because they seem to me like their whole dynamics are geared around getting in second-and-off schedule. They’ve been able to do that a lot against teams.”
While the Bulldogs are currently ranked No. 17 and Arkansas got as high as No. 8 when they came out of the gate 4-0 this season the two teams were picked near or at the bottom of the SEC West in preseason.
“The West is a beast,” Pittman said. “I mean, all the SEC is, but the West is what it has been for years. I think the portal is changing football a little bit. You can add some guys to your team that can help you significantly, like Mississippi State’s done and like we’ve done, which gives a little bit more parity to the league, I think. But we’re still, because we’ve only won one SEC game, we’re still not there with Mississippi State because they’ve won several. I think they’re one of the few teams that’s beat three top-25 teams in the country. That’s a pretty darn good resume and I think that’s why they’re ranked 17th in this latest poll that came out last night and well-deserving. We’ll see what happens, but both of us 5-3, should be a really good matchup.”
While the Bulldogs are coming off an impressive win over Kentucky, it was just last season caught them after they had routed the defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge. Arkansas defeated them 21-14 in Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. That was in Pittman’s second game at Arkansas and his first win as head coach of the Razorbacks.
“I think it just helped the kids believe in us and what we were selling, what we were telling them,” Pittman said. “I think that certainly helped. We got Mississippi State at a great time. They’d just come off a huge win against LSU. But I think it just solidified that we can win SEC games, whether it be Mississippi State or whomever. I think it validated what we’re trying to get done, and the early part of this season did, as well. We lost to three really good teams in Auburn, Georgia and certainly Ole Miss. We’re on track, but this is a big game for us.”
Arkansas intercepted KJ Costello three times last season in the win over the Bulldogs. Greg Brooks’ interception was a pick-six. Pittman feels the Hogs will have to give the Bulldogs multiple looks on defense to win this game.
“Yeah, I think you have to be multiple against all offenses, especially Coach (Mike) Leach because he’s such a good teacher and such an offensive mind that Will Rogers is, to me, is just an extension of Coach out there,” Pittman said. “I mean, going 36 of 39 last week was… it’s incredible. But I think you have to switch the looks up on him, and you probably need to do that late. And he’s got a look system, he’s got a fast system, he slows down. He’s got answers, and we’re going to have to have answers, too, as well. And to have answers of that you have to be multiple, and you have to have different answers for different situations. And just like they do. I don’t think you can just sit down there and drop eight and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to beat Mississippi State,’ because that’s proven that that doesn’t work all the time.”
Pittman was part of the Arkansas-Mississippi State series when he was an assistant for three years from 2013-15. He has plenty of respect for the program.
“I think they’re a really good football team: Physical,” Pittman said. “When I was here three years in a row we had really good games against Mississippi State but we didn’t win any of them in 13-14-15. I believe one of them was over in Little Rock if I’m correct there. I believe I am. And they were No. 1 when we went over there at one point. I think they beat us 14-10, somewhere around in there. It was a close football game. But they’ve always been a physical football team, a well-coached team.
“This year, if you look at them, they lost to Memphis by 2, LSU by 3. Of course you can turn around and look at the Louisiana Tech game where they came back and won. But they could easily be 7-1 right now. So with the only big loss they’ve had is Alabama. They’re a really good football team and they’ve played very similar opponents to what we have. They go with their quarterback on offense. He’s been playing … obviously he played his career game last week. So they’re just, they’ve done a really good job in recruiting and recruited the portal and their kids are playing extremely hard. I really like what they’re doing on defense as well, because they’re hard to block because they’re big and they move. They’re really good against stopping the rush and we’re a pretty good running team, so something’s got to give on Saturday.”
The Razorbacks and Mississippi State will kickoff at 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. The game will be televised on the SEC Network. Both teams are 5-3 on the season, but the Bulldogs are 3-2 in the SEC while the Hogs are 1-3.