We are going to do a little KISS in this week's Top 10 Things to Watch in the Arkansas-Mississippi State football game. It's not heavy rock music. It's philosophy. That's the way it works for any trip to Starkville, Miss. Keep It Simple Stupid.
I'm not talking about State fans, players or coaches. I'm talking about what will work against the Bulldogs and the way they try to play the game of football. They are going to keep it simple. The Bulldogs, plain and simple, are going to try to whip the other team.
That means the running game reigns supreme most of the time in this game. The Bulldogs want to pound you with smashmouth football. They want to get down and dirty. They want to hit you in the mouth, knock you on the ground and then stand over you when the play is over. I don't mean it's dirty football. It's not. It's just downright tough football, played the right way.
It's the KISS formula, plain and simple. It's no-frill football. Oh, they'll have some options in their running attack. That's the complexity. They blitz and play an odd overall scheme on defense, moving their cornerbacks in an unorthodox alignment. Offensively, the motions and crossing actions in the backfield will be real and complex. But it still comes down to the blocking and tackling of the game.
It was simple stuff last year in a 42-21 Arkansas victory. The Hogs had trouble running the ball, making only 83 yards on 27 rushes. State turned up the running game in the second half with Chris Relf at quarterback. The Bulldogs finished with 327 yards on 55 runs.
The problem for the Bulldogs was that they couldn't throw it, protect the quarterback or defend the pass. Arkansas got five TD passes from Ryan Mallett. State completed just 8 of 13 passes for 49 yards.
Can you win without throwing the ball? State coach Dan Mullen, in his second season, proved you can with a 10-7 slugfest at Florida. The Bulldogs were 4 of 9 passing for 33 yards against Florida. Relf threw only one pass in the second half, completing it for a 5-yard loss.
With that tidbit, we'll look at this week's Top 10 List:
1) The running game
The Arkansas goal is balance, but that means the Hogs will have to run it better than last year when State stuffed the Hogs at the line of scrimmage. They've found more running room over the last month and that's made things easier for quarterback Ryan Mallett. The play-action passing game has been lethal now that Knile Davis has been scampering for big chunks behind a now solid offensive line. But State's defense is different. The Bulldogs pinch their cornerbacks two yards inside the face of the wide receivers and turn loose from zone coverage to step up to stop the perimeter running game. The Hogs have to be aware of what is happening there to keep from getting in second and long situations.
2) The running game
I said it was the KISS formula. I mean it. The Hogs have to stop the option running of quarterback Chris Relf. He's more of a fullback than a quarterback. He's 6-2, 240 and he will run the ball downhill between the tackles. This is the assignment Jerry Franklin has all day. The Arkansas middle linebacker has to keep Relf from knocking him back into the safeties. It will be a war. If the Hogs have to bring their safeties up to help Franklin too much, the State play-action game becomes dangerous. It's better to keep the Bulldogs one dimensional. To do that, the Hogs have to stop the running game on first and second down.
3) Ryan Mallett
This is the lowest I've had Mallett on the Top 10 List. It's probably a mistake. Recognize that I did it this week just to emphasize the point about how important it is for the Hogs to stop the State running attack and generate some running game of their own. But it still is going to come down to the decision making of Mallett. He'll have to read the State blitzes and avoid bad plays. He may have to check to more passes this week because State's style is to blitz the running game. There will be the temptation to throw fades with the State corners cheating on the run, but sometimes that's just an illusion. There will be safety help over the top. KISS suggests keeping it simple, but it may not be as simple as just throwing the fade play after play. Mallett will have to execute the checks and reads in a complex Bobby Petrino offense. He's looked comfortable of late. But this is on the road and there will be noise, those silly cow bells.
It's been a word tossed out by Arkansas players this week. Offensive tackle Ray Dominguez used that exact word after practice Wednesday. He said that will be the key to the game, who owns the line of scrimmage. He said the Hogs became more physical starting after the Texas A&M game. He said the offensive line looked at the game tape the Sunday following that game and said, "That's terrible. We've got to get better there." And they did. If the Hogs can be the more physical team, they'll win easily. If it's a stalemate, it promises to be a game that goes into the fourth quarter undecided. The Hogs whipped South Carolina with a huge physical presence a few weeks ago. Can they do that again on the road? Watch the guards and tackles to see who gets the edge and which way the pile moves. It's been moving the right way for the Hogs of late. Will that continue?
5) The Edge
The Hogs have owned the edge the last few weeks. They've tackled and blocked well on the perimeter. They've made the yards on the sidelines and stopped the other team from getting outside. Linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks have played well for the Hogs. The Arkansas wide receivers and tight ends have handled the blocking on the perimeter week after week. It's been getting so good of late that Dominguez told Hawgs Illustrated in the middle of this week that the Hogs get the edge on the perimeter because "our coach is a genius. We know he's going to make the defense move to the point that we get angles on them to help our blocking. Mississippi State has really good ends, fast linebackers, but we know our coach will make them move just enough that we get the angles to block them outside, slow them down just enough."
This has been an improved area of late for the Hogs, but the noise of the cow bells will be a factor. The Hogs will likely have to go to a silent cadence and watch the snap of ball instead of waiting for a verbal command from Mallett. They'll also have to avoid holding against the State blitzes. They can't afford first and long because of penalties. They need some sharpness and poise because this is usually a tough environment. Night games on the road can be interesting.
This is a broad category, but I think it applies this week. I don't see that State has a matchup for Joe Adams. He's likely to get a few chances after resting the last couple of weeks. He played last week, but not much. Bobby Petrino said he considered Adams a part-time player against UTEP, holding him out on most plays to make sure he's full speed for State. He's that important with Greg Childs out. He's the toughest matchup the Hogs can offer and in the slot, he may be too much for the Bulldogs. D. J. Williams might be sitting pretty, too. I say sitting, because he's great at sitting down in an open zone. If the Bulldogs play their base, they'll have a lot of zone over the middle. If not, I'm not sure there is anyone who can run with Williams. He's a tough matchup every week, especially for a defense that moves its safeties wide like State. If you want to lock into a neat matchup, find Arkansas end Jake Bequette against State left tackle Derek Sherrod. Bequette and Sherrod have hooked up for the last two years and know each other well. Bequette had a big game last year.
8) Chad Bumphius
Just a sophomore, Bumphius might be State's best player. He's like Adams, a mismatch. He's fast and Dan Mullen likes to move him around in different situations. The Hogs have to find No. 1 and track him. He's the primary playmaker for the Bulldogs. He was probably the best player among their playmakers last year when he made 32 catches as a true freshman. The Bulldogs don't pass much, but when they do, they'll look to Bumphius first.
9) The Defensive Front
Can the Hogs hold up in the defensive line. That's where the Bulldogs will attack first. If the Hogs handle a good State offensive line, things will get easier. If not, the Hogs will be in for a long night. That's what they should expect, but this might be the night when we learn if the Hogs have accomplished the goal of the offseason, to get stronger and more physical in the defensive front.
10) Finish What You Start
I promised to keep it simple. That's what this is about, finishing what the Hogs started. They've been good on the road this season, except for the fourth quarter at Auburn. They had a little blip in the fourth quarter at Auburn, too. They need to finish strong. That means in the game and in the season. A victory would give the Hogs a 4-1 record outside the state's borders with victories over Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Mississippi State. That would be fantastic and set them up for a great November.
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