John L. Smith didn't provide the numbers, but he had the key statistic as Arkansas heads to Starkville to play 7-3 Mississippi State. Stop the run.
Well, the Arkansas head coach added in quick order that the Razorbacks also have to buck up against State quarterback Tyler Russell. After all, the UA secondary hasn't exactly been bullet proof in a 4-6 season.
But the detailed numbers in the State rushing attack are worth checking. As the Bulldogs run the ball, goes their offense. Consider these rushing stats in the 10 MSU games this season and the result:
• Jackson State, 202, 56-9 victory
• Auburn, 169, 28-10 victory
• Troy, 213, 30-24 victory
• South Alabama, 156, 30-10 victory
• Kentucky, 158, 27-14 victory
• Tennessee, 141, 41-31 victory
• Middle Tennessee, 227, 45-3 victory
• Alabama, 47, 38-7 loss
• Texas A&M, 98, 38-13 loss
• LSU, 47, 37-17 loss
Conversely, most in the Arkansas camp know that the key to production for the Arkansas offense might be improvement in the running game. The Hogs are the healthiest they've been in the offensive backfield in several weeks with Dennis Johnson, Knile Davis, Jonathan Williams and Ronnie Wingo all availble and at or near full speed.
State's defense has given up 213, 179, 361 and 119 in its last four conference games. The only two league foes failing to top the century mark against MSU this season are Auburn (91) and Kentucky (84).
So how do the Hogs win the ground game? First, they must get their own running game going for perhaps the first time all season. It's been a little better over the second half of the season. Here's the week-to-week rush number since making just 73 on 19 carries against Rutgers: 142, 116, 161, 167, 135 and 83.
However, the key number might be rushing touchdowns. The Hogs ran for four against hapless Jacksonville State in the opener, but have scored two on the ground in only three games since: Auburn, Kentucky and Tulsa.
Arkansas has had good success against State. The Hogs lead the all-time series, 15-6-1. The Hogs have won 15 of 17 since 1995, losing only in 1998 and 2008, both in Starkville. But there have been some tight ones, especially in Starkville where they still allow cow bells. Smith admitted he hadn't given much thought to the cow bell tradition until it was mentioned Thursday.
"They still do?" he said. "I don't even remember them two years ago. I guess (cow bells) are still alive and well there."
Did the Hogs do anything to prepare for the extra noise of the cow bells?
"At this point in the season, we don't think we need that," he said. "We seem to get along pretty well as far as the noise. It was pretty loud at both Texas A&M and then last year at South Carolina. We were able to audible and get our signals in certain situations despite (the noise)."
The noise at Starkville can be a factor. The cow bells are not supposed to ring when the quarterback is under center, but there is not a lot the SEC officiating crew will do to stop it. It's kind of been an unwritten rule with the SEC office that as long as the cow bells stop when the play is being called at the line, they will not be left alone from Birmingham. That's at least the way I see it.
The Bulldogs are solid about everywhere. They have given up big plays in the secondary, but perhaps that's because senior cornerbacks Johnathan Banks and Darius Slay have been given freedom to attack. Both have four interceptions. Ross Rasner leads the Hogs with three and the two cornerbacks, Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines, have just one apiece.
State starts six seniors and four juniors on offense. Defensively, there are five senior starters and three juniors. There is one redshirt freshman in the starting lineup, middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney and no true freshmen in MSU's two-deep on offense and defense. The only true freshman the Bulldogs play regularly is placekicker Devon Bell.
The Hogs have freshmen scattered throughout the defense. Smith said true freshmen linebackers A. J. Turner and Otha Peters have improved over the last week, but they were abused early in the game last week by Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw.
That has to be the key question again this week, can those UA freshmen survive in an SEC road game? Hines is a true freshman and Mitchel is a sophomore. That's where MSU quarterback Tyler Russell will probably look first. The Hogs also play two redshirt freshmen in the secondary, Rohan Gaines and Davyon McKinney. Both gave up plays last week at Columbia.
"It's a constant process," Smith said of Turner and Peters. "They get better each week. You notice the improvement. They play with more discipline with their eyes. What we have to continue to get is the eye control so they are good in the run fits. They've gotten better against the pass.
"I think one of the keys is stopping the run this week. The last three weeks that (MSU) has lost, they haven't rushed for 100 yards. The play of their quarterback is really good, but we need to limit their running game. We also want to limit the pass, too. But the running game is a big key."
Turner and Peters -- along with the UA interior tackles -- will have to pay close attention to the misdirection in the State running game. Head coach Dan Mullen favors a pulling guard system that entices linebackers to leave their gaps. Nose tackle Jared Green said the Hogs have learned this week to play as much by feel as sight and not follow the guards.
"Our gaps will change as the guards pull," Green said. "You have to change gaps and turn back into the center to establish your leverage and make sure you are gap sound. We've worked hard on that this week."
Lastly, this will be as much about physical mindset as eye control. The Hogs controlled the line of scrimmage the last two years against State. There was give and take in the line of scrimmage two years ago when the Hogs outlasted the Bulldogs in overtime, mainly because Jerico Nelson knocked the ball loose on the goal line late in the game.
The Bulldogs go with two seniors at defensive tackle in DeWayne Cherrington (325) and Josh Boyd (300). Can UA linemen Travis Swanson, Alvin Bailey and Tyler Deacon control the middle and give Johnson, Davis and Williams some running room?
The battle up front when State has the ball might be on the UA's right flank. That's where the Hogs will try to take advantage of tackle Blaine Clausell, a lanky sophomore. Clausell has been good in protections, as have the rest of the MSU front. But if there is going to be a break down, it might be with Trey Flowers and Chris Smith against Clausell.
If the Hogs can't apply any pressure against Russell, then it's probably going to come down to how long Mitchel can cover against senior wideout Chad Bumphis. He's slippery and has been a big play man for four seasons. Bumphis has 43 catches for 676 yards, 15.7 per reception.
On the other side, State will match their senior corners against UA star Cobi Hamilton, now with 73 catches for 1,149 yards. Hamilton looks forward to press coverage, a constant with State.
"They are aggressive," Hamilton said, "but we are always going to attack. That's the style of our offensive coordinator."
Paul Petrino, the coordinator, said it's been his experience that great receivers beat great defensive backs. He said it's tougher to overcome great defensive tackles.
Yes, it generally does always come down to the defensive tackles and ability to pressure the quarterback -- and the team that can run the ball usually has the best chance to put those pass rushers on their heels.
State of the Hogs: Keys (Miss. State)
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