Arkansas may have lost 16 straight SEC games and be facing the No. 1 ranked team in the country at its own place on Saturday night, but Razorback head football coach Bret Bielema says his team will not go to Starkville, Miss., in awe.
In fact, Arkansas (4-4, 0-4) believes its tough schedule has prepared it for the big stage when it faces top-ranked Mississippi State (7-0, 4-0) Saturday night at 6:15 p.m on ESPN2.
“We played some really good teams already, you know?,” Bielema said. “But they collectively probably have a little bit of a swagger to them that is very apparent. We took them to overtime last year, and I kind of challenged our guys...Have they improved that much more than us that we’re a 4-4 team and they’re a team that’s ranked No. 1 in the country? So, kind of threw it at our guys with that. It’s meant out of respect, and I mean that with all due respect.”
It certainly is a great opportunity for the Razorbacks, who will be playing their fifth team ranked nationally in the top 10 at the time of kickoff.
“I am excited where we are at and the opportunity to go and play No. 1 on the road in the evening will be a great opportunity for our guys,” Bielema said. “Obviously Mississippi State is a very impressive football team. We played them a great game a year ago. Obviously they have taken from where they were a year ago and ran very, very well.
“Statistically they are very good in many categories offensively,” Bielema added. “Defense, one that's glaring is they are very good in the red zone. They are effective in the kicking game. A tremendous task for us but one I think our guys are excited to play in.”
The Razorbacks are coming in off a 45-17 win non-conference home win over UAB while the Bulldogs won at Kentucky 45-31 on Saturday.
“Mississippi State deserves to be ranked right where they're at,” Bielema said. “They're ranked [No. 1] I believe in both polls. Obviously we'll see what the (Arkansas athletic director and BCS Playoff committee) chair (Jeff Long) comes up with tomorrow night when the poll comes out for that one. They're a very, very good football team and they deserve all the things that they're getting.”
The Bulldogs downed the Razorbacks 24-17 in overtime last season in Little Rock in a game that quarterback Dak Prescott (6-2, 230) did not play in due to injury.
Prescott, who was in a walking boot after Saturday's win, has been a dual-threat standout for Mississippi State this season while passing for 1,684 yards, rushing for 664 more and having a hand in 26 total touchdowns this season.
“...He's a very, very effective runner with the ball,” Bielema said. “He breaks tackles, he makes people miss, he runs with his pads down. I think in the throw game, they use his skill set very well whether it's on the move on through play-action, so it allows him to do some things there.
“And the third thing, probably is, he's just playing with great confidence,” Bielema added. “You can tell by the way he carries himself and the way he conducts himself, and the way the players rally around him, I think they have great confidence in what he's doing.”
The hosts also have a powerful tailback in Josh Robinson (5-9, 215), who leads the SEC in yards per game average in league games only at 149.8 yards per outing.
I” think he's a powerful runner,” Bielema said. “Runs very hard. I know we gave a stat yesterday that we had charted his yards after contact are a lot … They kind of feed off one another, I think. Obviously, they do a lot of spacing with their personnel...They just do a lot of different things.”
The Bulldogs' defense has also done its part and is headed by an All-American prospect at linebacker in Benardrick McKinney (6-5, 245), who leads his team with 45 tackles and is part of a group that leads the nation in red zone defense with just 14 scores alone on 23 trips into the area.
“They are very big up front,” Bielema said. “That is very, very clear. The linebackers are active. I think they are a very opportunistic group...They kind of give up some yardage in some other areas, but the closer they get to the red zone the more stingy they get.”
Bielema, who has never coached a game in Starkville, said Arkansas will have cow bell noise at its practices all week to prepare for the ringing of the artificial noisemakers that occurs at Mississippi State home games.
“We have got cow bells revved up on the Ipod for practice simulation,” Bielema said. “Every stadium when you get on the road and I am not demeaning what we are going to see there, but you learn to play in those environments and have a little fun with it. I think going on the road to Auburn is going to help us here. I think to a certain extent the A&M game and those games have got to be able to help you now as you live through them and persevere.
“It is going to be a very unique opportunity,” Bielema added. “I know a lot of people have made comments about playing there so I am excited to get there.”
Arkansas should go into the game healthy as both middle linebacker Brooks Ellis and freshman cornerback Henre' Toliver (sore back) should return to practice this week full-time this week and play against the Bulldogs.
“From an injury standpoint Brooks Ellis will start with us tomorrow depending on how he handles Tuesday,” Bielema said. “Wednesday we'll see where he's at for the weekend. I am excited where he's at and I know he's excited to get back out there as well.
“And then Henre Toliver - if we don't have him out there tomorrow we expect to have him on Wednesday and he should be good to go for the weekend,” Bielema added.
Bielema's team roared to a 35-0 lead by intermission over UAB and added a field goal early in the third as it scored on its first six possessions before letting off the gas in the second half and having several miscues as more reserves entered the game.
“A lot of really good things and some things need we clean to up,” Bielema said. “The good news was some of those glaring on errors, especially on special teams were on some guys in the second half that we lost our heads a little bit in that second half. The part that I liked was the way we came out and prepared and played in the first half and tried to get some guys doing things in the second half and some of those little mistakes hopefully will be of benefit to us as we move forward for them to be called upon.”
The touchdown pass thrown by Arkansas offensive lineman Sebastian Tretola certainly got a lot of national publicity and was noticed by recruits as Razorback offensive line coach Sam Pittman and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney thought it would be.
“When I first brought it up to the offensive staff. I was with Sam and Jim a little bit later on,” Bielema said. “Sam's like, 'Man, we can recruit any O-lineman in the country here before, If you throw that pass,' he goes 'we can get in on anybody.' It was fun to get to my phone on Saturday night, and our top prospects at that type of position had blown up my phone. It was just kind of fun to see that atmosphere.
“ Again, he's a very likable kid,” Bielema said. “The quote that got me on Sunday morning I read that he had newfound respect for (starting quarterback) Brandon Allen because things can get a little hectic back there. I can just hear that quip coming off his tongue and just start laughing because that's how he kind of is. It was well deserved, a lot of fun, but it's now time to turn the page and move on.”
The Arkansas head coach was certainly pleased with the effort from newly installed sophomore field goal kicker Adam McFain, who made a 49-yard field goal and was true on all of his PATs after that part of the game had been a struggle earlier for the Razorbacks.
“I don't think he even feels the pressure,” Bielema said. “I know he'll get asked about it, but he just kind of handles everything Every time I've walked up to him during the course of the game, at practice we try to make it as pressure-like as we can … I was excited to get that 49-yard field goal opportunity.
“I was kind of hoping we'd get a couple more on Saturday,” Bielema added. “I wanted to run that fake with Sebastian, which took a field goal opportunity away from him there. To get those other ones were really good for our guys to get some confidence.”
Bielema noted he was opening up the punt returner position after both D.J. Dean and Demetrius Wilson had miscues on Saturday and noted that while the duties are spread around on special teams, the buck stops with him.
“Different coach in charge of every unit,” Bielema said. “Coach (Rory) Segrest runs kickoff coverage KO return. I run PBR -- punt block/return, not a beer -- and Coach (Joel) Thomas runs punt. Those guys are kind of in charge of the depth. We meet every day and we'll go through depth. Tomorrow we work punt and KOC, (kickoff coverage) and Wednesday we work PB/R and KOR. Ultimately I'm in charge. It's all going to fall on my head, so that's what we have to do.”
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