Arkansas, Mississippi St face off for bowl eligibility
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — A year ago, Mississippi State became the answer to a not-so-funny Arkansas trivia question.
What school did the Razorbacks beat to end a three-plus season Southeastern Conference losing streak? The answer was the Bulldogs in a 21-14 victory that ended a 20-game SEC skid for the Razorbacks. The win not only finally put an end to a long drought, it also created a catch-phrase for first-year Arkansas coach Sam Pittman.
In the postgame celebration with his team, the folksy Pittman made a reference to turning up the volume on the juke box, a musical vending machine that probably few of his players have ever actually seen. That phrase went viral in Hogland.
“I didn’t know it would become a T-shirt,” Pittman said as his team prepared to host Mississippi State on Saturday. “It was my second game. Just seeing the kids’ faces and the relief in the locker room. Honestly I didn’t know how long the streak was. I didn’t know how far it went. But just seeing the kids and how excited they were about winning is what I remember.”
This year, the teams come in after much better starts to the season. Arkansas (5-3, 1-3 SEC) bolted to a 4-0 start with wins against Texas and Texas A&M that vaulted the Razorbacks to No. 8 in the country. Since then, the Razorbacks are 1-3, but can become bowl eligible with a win Saturday.
Mississippi State (5-3, 3-2) is coming off a 31-17 win against then-No. 12 Kentucky last week. Quarterback Will Rogers was nearly flawless against the Wildcats, completing 36 of 39 passes.
The Razorbacks have the conference’s second-leading running game, averaging 249 yards per game boasting three backs with over 400 rushing yards. Mississippi State has the nation’s No. 2 run defense, allowing just 89.6 yards per game. The Bulldogs held Kentucky to just 66 yards on the ground last week.
“We’re a running team, so we’re going to try and find success there,” said Pittman. “You have to win first down on this team, and stay out of third and long, We are a run-first team and we will try and establish that.”
WILL THE THRILL
Rogers is having a breakout season for the Bulldogs. He completed 47 passes against LSU and 50 against Memphis this season. He is averaging 371 yards per game over the past six games.
“He was incredible last Saturday,” said Pittman. “They protected him really well. I don’t think anybody got close to him. They are starting to hit on all cylinders on offense.”
SPREAD THE WEALTH
Mississippi State has six players with 26 or more receptions, led by Makai Polk with 63 catches for 603 yards and six touchdowns.
“I think it says a lot about the offensive system that they have and they run it extremely well,” said Pittman. “Their wideouts are also really good blockers. They run a lot of tunnel screens. They are really good physical blockers. They are just a physical football team and they play hard.”
The Bulldogs are among the best teams in the nation in converting third downs. A reporter asked Mississippi State coach Mike Leach about his team’s third-down success and the second-year coach, who is never short on one-liners, compared that to the lottery.
“If you keep moving the sticks, you keep the ball,” Leach said. “It’s like lottery tickets. The more you keep the ball, the more chances you have to go score.”
The Bulldogs had 35 rushing plays against Kentucky, and Rogers had 39 pass attempts, almost identical numbers. Leach, known for his Air Raid pass-happy offense, was asked about that balance at his news conference this week:
“I’ve thought about running it 100% one game, then throwing it 100% the next game,” said Leach, “But with my luck, some punter would drop the damn ball, so that would count as a rush. And then I could brag about how balanced we are.”
After Saturday’s game, Arkansas will travel to LSU and Alabama before closing the season at home against Missouri.
“We don’t want to go 4-0 and ranked eighth and let it all slide away from you,” Pittman said. “I don’t think it will if we win X number of games. We’ve won one conference game, so we need to win some conference games. One at a time, but this would get us bowl eligible. That would be a big thing for us. We want to finish the season as good as possible and I think we will.”