Everyone sees similarities between Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Sure, the 'Dogs and the Rebs are Southeastern Conference Western Division foes from the same bordering state, but there's more to it. Both are coming off bye weeks after losses to teams from Alabama, play sound defense behind strong fronts, have struggling offenses which are switching things up at quarterback and disciplined coaches who foster physical play.
Mississippi State (2-7 overall, 0-6 in SEC play) is trying to snap some ugly streaks today against Arkansas (3-6, 1-5). The Bulldogs have lost to the Hogs six straight times and haven't beat an SEC West opponent on the road since 2001.
"I think it's going to be the same type of game it was at Ole Miss," said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who's 6-1 against MSU. "We're hoping it's the same as in the second half, with a little bit more running game."
If it's the same, then Nutt may have to rely more on passing. His always reliable running game stalled against a revved up Rebels defense.
At halftime, it was decided passing was the only option and true freshman Casey Dick's 12 consecutive completions led the comeback. He threw three second-half touchdowns to rally the Razorbacks from a 10-point deficit.
It was only Dick's second start and first on the road.
No team ever wants to be forced to pass. But if the Hogs are again today by a run-stuffing defense led by end Willie Evans and linebacker Quinton Culberson, they proved it can be done.
Of course, they'll first try to get freshman tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones going, but it may be difficult again this week since the offensive line continues to be banged up. Senior center Kyle Roper is questionable with a knee injury and won't start. Nutt said the Rebels have an "umbrella-type" defense that keeps everything in front of it to limit big plays.
"It's going to be a challenge," Nutt said. "But we're getting more and more confident in (Dick) because he's getting better. He's shown a lot of poise when things get heated up."
Dick missed practice time Tuesday with an illness, but got his strength back Wednesday and was able to get "back into a groove."
From film study, Dick said the Bulldogs mix up and disguise pass coverages well behind a stingy front. They've held three opponents to 100 yards or less rushing, another factor which could force Arkansas into passing situations again this week.
"They're pretty big up front and their backers are pretty good, so we're just going to try to take what they give us," Dick said.
Dick continues to get more comfortable with each snap. He said he now runs plays without even thinking and has a better feel for where his teammates are going to be in most situations. He said the expectations for himself have risen since his second-half performance last week.
"You always come back and you want to do better than the last time," Dick said. "We executed a bunch of plays that we thought we couldn't, so we just want to come out and play close and have a chance to win in the second half and we should be fine.
"If we need to throw the ball, we can and we will throw the ball. We have that confidence now."
Confidence in Arkansas' defense also is high. Like Dick, defensive coordinator Reggie Herring's expectations are on the rise. His defense has surrendered just 107 yards rushing combined the last three games, but will face a tough task against MSU's Jerious Norwood, who needs 73 yards to reach the 3,000-yard plateau for his career.
"That's totally different from the last two weeks where it was stop the pass first and play the run second," Herring said. "This is back to a different challenge for us, so we're going to see how the kids handle this."
The Bulldogs will give redshirt freshman Michael Henig his second start at quarterback. He presents more of a passing threat than Omarr Conner, who started the first eight games. Henig has completed 38 of 88 passes with three interceptions and no touchdowns.
Both quarterbacks saw action in a 17-0 loss at Alabama two weeks ago and Herring said the Hogs have prepared for both this week.
"This is going to be a tough week because this is a run-play action team," Herring said. "They are very protection conscious, very conservative and we cannot afford to be in third and shorts or it will be a long day. If we can get them in third and longs, then we'll see."
Arkansas' defense wants to avoid a repeat of last week's game. They played 47 snaps in the first half at Ole Miss and were wearing thin late in the game. That's when Dick and the Razorbacks passing game saved the day.
"The key to our win last week was the offense coming on and playing the way they did the second half and controlling the ball and scoring points and having drives," Herring said. "If they would not have done that, we would have been in trouble because we had already played like 50 snaps and we were running out of gas.
"But our guys fed off of (the offense). It gave us a breather."
Nutt said he'll keep the pregame pep talk much of the same as it was last week before playing Ole Miss. With no bowl hopes on the line for the second straight game, he'll talk about playing for pride, sending the seniors out of their last game in Little Rock on a winning note and tell the team to remember the feeling after last week's win because "that's what it's all about."
Win or lose, there's a couple of things he'd like to see today.
"A team that just refuses to let go and refuses to give up," Nutt said. "A team that plays very, very physical, especially on the offensive line. I want our offensive line to get back. It's been hard with the amount of injuries because we've had to piece together a few things.
"But the main thing I want to see is a team that plays hard for 60 minutes."
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