State of the Hogs: Top 10 Keys (MSU)

Can the Hogs stop the Mississippi State resurgence? Here are the top 10 keys as written by publisher Clay Henry as Arkansas goes to Starkville.

Someone asked me this week about the status of Mississippi State as the nation's new No. 1 team. How could it happen? And what are the chances of the Bulldogs staying there for any length of time, given the relative power of the SEC West?

It reminds me of what some might have been saying about Arkansas in 1964 when Frank Broyles whipped the state into a frenzy with what ultimately became 22 straight victories. The Hogs eventually would climb into the No. 1 spot in the 1965 season – although just briefly – and earned a national championship following the 11-0 campaign of '64.

The Razorbacks dueled with Texas for most of the 1960s as the top program in the Southwest Conference and were a constant in the top 10.

There were also solid runs by both Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield in the national polls. Houston Nutt had the Hogs ranked in the top 10 a few times during his time at Arkansas, as did Bobby Petrino.

That's common knowledge among those who follow the Hogs even just casually. What isn't clear to most in Razorback Nation is that pre-Broyles wasn't so good and there were times when it was just downright bad.

Since this is even before my time, I was stunned when I pulled out my father's scrapbook – and it has the details from when he started covering the Hogs regularly during World War II – to read his notes in the Arkansas Gazette after the '64 Texas Tech game, a 17-0 Arkansas victory to close out a 10-0 regular season that included five straight shutouts.

There was an attempt to put in perspective what that meant 50 years ago next month. The conclusion was that nothing had ever come close to that in the Southwest Conference. For sure, it was rare air for the Razorbacks, long at the bottom of the SWC cumulative standings.

Here's the kicker, the Hogs stood last in the SWC in victories ahead of the 1964 season. With 7-0, they passed both Texas A&M and Baylor for the previous 50 years since they joined the league. This is what Orville Henry, who began covering the Hogs in World War II, wrote in November of 1964:

“To tell you the truth, when I started writing sports, the UofA looked like a sure bet to be perpetually last in this perennial category.”

The summation from my father is that it was done with great coaching. Broyles advanced from losing six straight to start his time at Arkansas, then gradually gaining momentum, finally slipping into the national polls for the first time (under Broyles) with a 3-0 triumph over TCU in 1959. Except for a 4-5-1 stumble in 1967, the Hogs were in the national polls almost every week from then through 1971.

It was that 99-0 in November of '64 that stamped them as an elite team and it was a surprise to the rest of the nation at that point. I love the way it was described in that column from late November of 1964:

“Frank came in with those 3-0 cardiac games in 1959 and he's progressed to the 99-0 November sweep. His 1964 Razorbacks came in scrambling to stay alive and wound up executing their foes with James Bond detachment, sureness and ingenuity.”

Without question the Hogs have slipped back to the pre-1958 Razorbacks, but they can dig their way out again under Bret Bielema. If anyone needs an example, it's Dan Mullen's team at Mississippi State. All you have to do is go back to last season when State was struggling to win an SEC West game. The Bulldogs beat Arkansas in overtime and haven't lost since, rolling to a 7-0 start and first in the national playoff poll this week. In case anyone forgets, Mississippi State has long been the SEC's doormat. Mullen has done at State what Broyles did at Arkansas, although he'll need a lot more victories to escape last place.

I checked the all-time winning percentages for SEC schools at the start of this season. Alabama is easily first. But it might surprise some that Arkansas is fourth in all-time wins, 34th best nationally. It's not a surprise that Mississippi State is last in the SEC, and ranked 100th nationally.

Coaching is the key, as always. And, the cornerstone of coaching is recruiting. And, the cornerstone of recruiting is evaluation, the exact thing that Mullen has done well. It's the very point that Bielema thinks he does best. Of course, time will tell, but in my one-on-one discussions with the second-year Arkansas coach, that is the thing he continues to point to as a strength.

I challenged him that it's tough to find linebackers in the current climate of so many spread offenses in high school football. He said that evaluating and putting players in proper positions is his strength. He said he would find athletes and then fit them to his scheme and system, with development as a key point. It appears that's what Mullen has done at State and it should give Bielema confidence that he can do the same thing at Arkansas.

Linebacker play is what Arkansas has missed the most in the last decade. It's been the constant in poor defense that has left Arkansas with no other option to win games than by trying to score more points. It's the thing that I'll start with as I look for the top 10 keys as the Hogs try to snap a 16-game SEC losing streak at Starkville.

The best news is that Arkansas seems to be settling in at linebacker. Brooks Ellis is back after missing two games with a bone bruise in the knee area. He's the middle linebacker who makes the calls for Robb Smith's defenses. He's a heady player and is good at recognizing formations and schemes for the 4-3 defense that Bielema favors.

Then there's Martrell Spaight, the junior college transfer rising up as a senior after battling through the learning curve and a bad knee last year. It's Spaight and Ellis that will be challenged with deciphering the reads from Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott, the State quarterback. Is it Prescott with the ball, or is it bowling ball runner Josh Robinson?

Spaight might be tracking Prescott step for step, trying to keep him from escaping the pocket. If Spaight has a big day, the Hogs have a chance in pulling the upset, but he's going to need help from Ellis.

It can be done. It may help the Hogs that Prescott is less than 100 percent after battling an ankle injury for much of the season. That the Hogs are getting healthy – with the return of Ellis and cover corner Henre' Toliver – gives them a better chance. In November, it's all about who is healthy for the stretch run in the SEC.

It should be a raucous atmosphere in Starkville. It's a 6:15 start for ESPN2, the first home game since the Bulldogs climbed to the No. 1 spot. More than 61,000 will fill the recently expanded stadium and the cow bells will be ringing.

Top 10 Keys

1, Linebackers – This is it for me this week. Tackling Robinson is no easy chore, but it's tough to account for a gifted 235-pound quarterback who is another running back for the Bulldogs. Smith likened it to playing against Cam Newton last year in the NFL when he coached the Tampa Bay linebackers. He said there were situations when Newton broke the pocket and a defensive back was assigned to bring him down. Smith said it “ended badly for the DB.” That's why he'll need to scheme things where the extra man when Prescott breaks free is a linebacker. State's linebackers are big and physical. They play a base of 4-3 but will probably sub an extra linemen to play a 5-2 against the Hogs' big offensive line with extra tight ends. So linebackers will have to make plays for the Bulldogs, too.

2, Score – That's way to simple, I know, but it's the key for the Hogs on offense. They scored 28 against Texas A&M and 33 against Georgia. They may need upwards of that against State's potent offense. They may need a first half like they got at Auburn (21) and a second half like they got against Georgia (26). Can they show some balance and burst with an improved passing game now that Demetrius Wilson is finally full go at split end?

3, Kicking game – If there has been an area that haunts the Hogs in close games this year, it's the kicking game. Take your pick for the trouble spot. It's been something different every week, with the common bad thread at punt return. DJ Dean and Wilson flunked the course last week, prompting Bielema to hold tryouts for the punt return job this week in practice. Can the Hogs keep from losing huge chunks of yardage in the punt game? It might be a deciding factor. Adam McFain earned the placekicking job with a 49-yarder against UAB, but there still isn't a lot of confidence in that unit since there's been only three makes on the season. I hate to go back to 1964 again, but the Hogs sure could use a solid punt returner – and I'm not just talking about a Ken Hatfield or a Lance Alworth. I'd settle for Martine Bercher.

4, Collins time – Jonathan Williams is plenty good enough, but where is his sidekick? Alex Collins looked more like his old self last week against UAB. Can he come all the way back to the form of Texas Tech when he looked like the best Arkansas back? Collins will be needed if the Hogs are going to keep up with State's fine offense. State's secondary has missed tackles. Collins may be just shifty enough to hurt the Bulldogs if he can get to the second level. I think he does that this week.

5, Turnovers – It's always the key to scoring an upset on the road. And, make no mistake about it, this would be an upset. State's defense has been opportunistic, forcing fumbles and interceptions. The Hogs have to play clean this week. They didn't at Auburn and they didn't in AT&T Stadium against Texas A&M.

6, Fourth Quarter – Mississippi State has been terrific in the first half. That's been an alright area for the Hogs. So perhaps this sets up well out of the gate for the visitors. It's the fourth quarter that has haunted the Razorbacks. They have been especially weak in the fourth quarter away from home. Can the Hogs muster something at the end to close out the Bulldogs? Well, they have to get there first. State's given up a lot of passing yards, primarily because it's been way ahead early.

7, Physical Power – Arkansas has a huge offensive line, led by two fine guards in Sebastian Tretola and Denver Kirkland, both in the 340 range. They must play well at Starkville for the Hogs to have a chance. They will likely be covered as State tightens the gaps inside against the Hogs. Sam Pittman said that State has played a lot of even front, but will likely go with a nose tackle and pinch down inside to stop the power of the Arkansas line. Can these two massive guards win the line of scrimmage for the Hogs?

8, Stick with the run – Arkansas was forced to leave the run early against Georgia because of turnovers and a big deficit. They'll want to run the clock and run the ball against State to keep the ball away from Dak Prescott. The only downhill running team State has seen this year has been against LSU and that was before the Tigers came together up front. Can the Hogs control the line of scrimmage against a fine MSU defensive front? It will require some patience and ball security to do that.

9, Match Dak – Dak Prescott is an elite quarterback. Brandon Allen has not been that for the Hogs this year. Allen has been improved over last season when his shoulder was faulty. But Allen has to play his best game for the Hogs to win in Starkville. And, he may have to make a few plays with his feet, like Prescott. I go back to the play Allen made at Lubbock when a screen pass broke down. He turned it up and made something out of nothing, scoring a touchdown. It is still ranks as the top play the junior quarterback has made in his Arkansas career. He needs a couple like that against the Bulldogs and that might mean an upset.

10, Clean Machine – The one thing I worry about this time of year, will the SEC officials stay out of the picture and let the teams decide it on the field. When there is separation this time of year in the standings, do the officials have an idea of who “should” win and make a call that maybe isn't there. I've seen that in football and basketball for as long as I've gone to games. The Hogs need to get out front and convince the officials that they are the most deserving team and maybe a break goes there way. There's a lot of money involved in the SEC getting teams to the playoffs. I am not suggesting anything shady, but humans will be humans and officials will be officials. Here's hoping that it's a clean game and the replay man doesn't get used much.

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