Steve Robertson/Genespage.com

State, Arkansas Battling for Better Post-Season Positions

FORT SMITH, AR -- Two years ago one ‘first’ was scored. So why not go after another?

Mississippi State visits Arkansas on this next-to-last weekend of the schedule in a matchup with holiday ramifications. No, the Bulldogs (7-3, 3-3 SEC) have no shot at the Western Division now. Last week’s loss to loop-leader Alabama took care of that. It also cost State its ranking in both the CFP and AP lists, though the Coaches Poll still has the Dogs at #25.

What this week, and the concluding home game with Ole Miss, offer bowl-eligible State are opportunities to improve their post-season position. And, with successes, to sell bowl tickets…something surely on the minds of nervous MSU administrators these days.

The host Razorbacks (6-4, 4-2) remain mathematically alive in the West race as long as Alabama loses next week and other events create tricky tiebreaks. More realistically Arkansas sees their opportunity to maintain a second-half streak now at four wins and crash the second tier of SEC bowl berths. Dan Mullen isn’t coach-speaking a bit by calling Arkansas “one of the hottest teams in the country.”

The Razorbacks didn’t start that way, losing three of four September non-conference games. Since a competitive loss at Alabama though Arkansas has been unblemished.

“Honestly they’re playing with more confidence,” Mullen said. “Early in the season they had some tight losses, they’ve turned that round and found a way to win those close games including two overtime wins. When that stuff happens you start to build confidence and momentum.”

Though those overtime wins, over Auburn and Ole Miss, do skew offensive statistics, there’s no questioning the results. Arkansas is now third in both rushing and passing offense in the league, and second overall in both total yards and scoring. The ground game success doesn’t surprise, though early-season injuries did cramp the backfield in September.

A healthy Alex Collins is now netting 120 yards each week, over six per carry, and trails only his better-known peers at LSU and Alabama in yards and touchdowns. He certainly benefits from, as anyone who’s watched a few minutes of any weekend telecast has heard, the heaviest offensive line in football; college or professional.

The real beneficiary though has become Brandon Allen. With defenses focused up front the senior quarterback has broken-out as the SEC’s most efficient passer…and when needed a gutsy runner. Drew Morgan and Dominque Reed are going to get single coverage almost entirely because safeties not only have to worry about run support. Allen has shredded recent opponents working the ball outside to his backs and especially tight end Hunter Henry.

Though Arkansas’ offense has exploded of late, Mullen said nothing has changed in their schemes from September. Allen and Co. are just executing that much better. “Confidence allows you to execute better.” Plus, only LSU has fewer turnovers.

Until last week the Bulldogs had their own brand of momentum, a four-win streak including a road victory at Missouri. Then Alabama shut-down State’s offense and used four big scoring plays to bring everyone down to earth. Most of all a proud Bulldog offense stunned at failing to find the end zone.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever started a game and not scored a touchdown in my life,” Prescott said. “Yeah, that wasn’t easy setting on me, I know the offense as well.”

This matchup should allow State to score again. Arkansas allows over 400 yards (all season) and that’s despite holding the football longer than anyone in the league, almost 34 minutes. Such stats mean teams tend to score quickly, which is also MSU’s forte. As in, the Bulldogs are dead-last in league possession time but still net 32 points each week.

Another encouraging MSU matchup is a Razorback defense that is last against both passing yards and yards-per-catch. The State strength, of course, is Prescott throwing it around liberally and effectively. Though H-receiver Fred Ross is the favorite target with 59 balls, and split end De’Runnya Wilson the big-play threat on the outside, Prescott has a full range of weapons at his disposal this week. The wideout corps is expected to be full-strength and presumably full-speed for the first time since mid-October.

The backfield picture is less clear. The only health question is Dontavian Lee after a two-game absence. It might not seem to matter since Lee was fourth in the backfield rotation at the time…but after weeks of struggling to simply run the football with anyone other than Prescott, things might be shifting at last. Aeris Williams is getting more carries and usually better results than either of the veterans, though Brandon Holloway is likely to stay the starter with his speed potential. Plus, Mullen has been using slot receivers Ross and Gabe Myles for rushing plays, and now he gets Malik Dear back in the mix.

But based on what opponents have done even in losses to Arkansas, the best ground threat will still be Prescott picking the right plays to go get ground on his own initiative. This may be especially true on conversion downs. Because, as the lopsided TOP shows, the Bulldogs don’t burn lots of clock even when they do score.

Arkansas grinds time regardless. It’s not exaggerating to suggest the key to the game could be who wins the coin toss. In the last two meetings, the Razorbacks either won the ball themselves or were given it by Dog deferral. The result: combined first quarters time of 22:35 for Arkansas, 8:35 for State. And first quarters are already a State weak point on both sides of the ball.

So, Prescott agreed, getting off to a stronger start this week is “vital.”

“They’re going to try to come out and get that lead and make us play right into their gameplan,” Prescott said. “But it’s important for us to start off fast and make them play from behind and do things out of their comfort zone.”

That might prove difficult. Though the last few Septembers have seen home upsets, when the weather changes Arkansas is utterly comfortable playing in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. A venue where State has yet to win a game, though they’ve only visited thrice and most recently in 2003. The other road meetings have been in Little Rock.

But then, that’s where State also had never won a game…until two years ago. In overtime, no less, as Damian Williams in emergency duty darted 25 yards for the go ahead touchdown. Then cornerback Taveze Calhoun picked off Allen’s fourth-down throw to seal Mississippi State’s first ever win in this state.

So, why not go for another program first?

 

BULLDOG NOTEBOOK

*Mississippi State has won three-straight over Arkansas. The 2012 and ’14 wins were in Starkville, and ’13 in War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

*But State is 0-3 in Fayetteville with losses in 1997 (when those Bulldogs were playing for the SEC West title), 2001, and 2003.

*There have been four overtime games in this series; 1996, 2000, 2010, and 2013 with Arkansas winning the first three. State has only played nine overtime games total.

*Mississippi State has won its last 19 games against unranked opponents regardless of location.

*The Bulldogs are 3-0 this season when scoring first, and have won their last 14 games when putting up the first points.

*Mississippi State has drawn the fewest penalties of any SEC team, 39 in ten games.

*Only LSU is better in red zone offense (all season). And had State made good on one more field goal with the ball inside the 20-yard line, these Dogs would be in first place at nearly 90%.

*State is last in league time of possession at 25:38 minutes. But that’s because 21 Bulldog touchdown drives have lasted less than two minutes.

*This is a strange season for State turnover/takeaways. The Bulldogs have fumbled the ball away ten times against just two interceptions; but they have recovered only one fumble while picking eleven passes. At least that recovery was for a touchdown, by DT Nelson Adams (Troy).

*The Bulldog defense has also scored on an interception return (S Brandon Bryant, LaTech).

*Special teams have provided two touchdowns. RB Brandon Holloway had a 100-yard kickoff return at Southern Miss; and WR Fred Ross on a 77-yard punt return against Troy. WR Donald Gray blocked a Northwestern State punt recovered at the two-yard line.

*PK Westin Graves had his perfect season end with a miss against Kentucky. He has also missed a 49 and 50 yarders though those are outside his standard range. Graves is still 11-of-14 on the year and perfect on 37 PATs.

*P Logan Cooke has eleven punts of 50-or-more yards and a 42.2 yard average.

*Alabama spoiled another great season of punt coverage, with a 69-yard touchdown return. On the other seven attempts to return, opponents netted just 56 yards.

*MLB Richie Brown is 10th in SEC tackles at 7.9 per game. He has already surpassed the 71 tackles by last year’s leader Benardrick McKinney in 13 games.

*And 2014 starter OLB Beniquez Brown has 70 tackles this year in ten games. He had 62 as a starter last year.

*In first and third quarters, State has out-scored opponents 153 to 114. But in second and third quarters, the margin is 165-72.

*WR De’Runnya Wilson has eight touchdown catches this season, tied for third-best year in MSU history. The record is 12 by Chad Bumphis in 2012.

*Wilson’s 20 career touchdown catches are second behind, again, Bumphis at 24.

*Wilson is now 8th in career catches with 113, three back of Mardye McDole and five of Eric Moulds.

*Wilson’s 1,695 yards ranks 9th career at State. Next up is Terrell Grindle at 1,724.

*WR Fred Ross has 98 career catches, 10th-most ever at MSU.

*Of Wilson’s 20 touchdowns caught, 17 were thrown by QB Dak Prescott. That ties them for the most productive pitch-and-catch touchdown tandem ever at State, as Tyler Russell and Bumphis combined for 17 also.

*Prescott has now been responsible for 100 career touchdowns, easily most-ever at State and sixth-best in SEC history. One more touchdown—throwing, rushing, catching—would tie him for fourth with Peyton Manning and Chris Leak.

*Prescott owns every Bulldog passing mark worth mentioning. He still has time to catch some career rushing records, too. He is 8th in yards (and easily #1 among MSU quarterbacks) and is four rushing touchdowns behind Anthony Dixon’s standard of 42.

*Prescott has scored 248 points in his career. That’s also second only to Dixon, at 276.

*Prescott has won 21 of his 29 starts. That is topped only by Wayne Madkin’s 25 and John Bond’s 24.


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