It must have something to do with being in the most remote corner of the conference, safely distant from mainline league media. But every season Arkansas manages to confound everyone and exceed all expectations. This year's forecast for the Razorbacks was dim because practically the entire starting lineup (only one offensive starter returned) had to be rebuilt after graduation and early departures. True, this team is battling to stay in bowl contention and isn't even playing spoiler for the Division contenders. But considering all that had to be replaced, this is really one of the most impressive coaching jobs of the SEC's year. Or, maybe Houston Nutt actually signs more talent each year than recruiting ‘experts' focused on the Deep South recognize. Actually, it's a combination of both…though Arkansas folk probably don't mind at all being overlooked until kickoff, when a well-coached, highly-motivated team shows what kind of program they have in Fayetteville.
There isn't a team in the conference—maybe the country—so entirely dependant on the remarkable talents of one man to make the offense run. Matt Jones is up to the task, able to pass, pitch, or keep the ball and gain big yards at any point. He holds school records for quarterback rushing, touchdown responsibility, and career yards-per-play, and is the NCAA's active leader in total offense per-play. The senior is ending his career on a tear, with 237 yards running in just the past two games, though his touchdown/interception ratio is only 13/9 so far in '04. Jones is on the finalist lists for both the O'Brien and Unitas awards. The supporting backfield cast has largely played in their lanky leader's shadow, but other runners have to be respected now. Senior speedster DeCori Birmingham (392 yards, 3 TDs) and junior De'Arrius Howard (398, 5) have gotten most of the carries this year but bruising freshman Peyton Hilllis is taking on a larger role lately at both fullback and tailback now that he's recovered from a serious September back injury. His 6 TDs top the team's list. The improved ground game is creating defensive headaches because there are receiving threats stretching the field. Freshman SE Marcus Monk has exploded onto the SEC scene with 32 catches, 501 yards, and six scores, netting almost 16 yards per grab. Senior FL Steven Harris betters that with a 18.8 average on his 26 receptions for 489 yards and three TDs. Now for the really bad news: big (6-6, 270) TE Jared Hicks had three catches and two TDs in his last game, rounding out the offensive package. Rebuilding the blocking is a tougher issue but this front has done quite well, aided of course by Jones' fancy footwork. The group has even overcome the loss of veteran tackle Zac Tubbs to a broken leg. Four of the current starters will be back in '05, with RG Gene Perry the only senior. Fumbles haven't been a big problem this season, nor have penalties. And if the game is tight late, Arkansas has outscored foes 67-17 in fourth quarters.
Compared to the offense, the Razorback defense has a wealth of experience with three starters returned from 2003. Still this unit has had more of a challenge rebuilding than their counterparts, and Arkansas is giving up 393 yards and 23 points a game so far. Last year's team allowed 344 yards, but actually did give up a few more points. Numbers aside, this '04 defense looks a lot like their predecessors, and it's a group that gets stronger as the game goes on, allowing just 167 yards in second halves and only 57 yards in fourth periods. The strength is up around the line of scrimmage with the offset four-man front built around 295-pound senior DT Arrion Dixon and soph NG Jeremy Howell. Both have been league defensive PsOTW, and Dixon is up for all-star honors. Their muscle in the middle lets Jeb Huckeba run wild at end. The senior has 11 tackles for losses, including six sacks. Junior Sam Olajubutu is in the middle of the linebackers and action, with four passes broken up. Junior Pierre Brown took over SLB two games into the season and is third in team tackles. Safety Lerinezo Robinson holds a slight lead in team tackles with 54 over regular FS Vickiel Vaughn (52), but Arkansas has done some tinkering here with eight-game starter Robinson was replaced at SS by Vaughn for the last game. Both have two interceptions. Randy Kelly is listed to start at SS this week, but all will play. The ‘field' cornerback position has also changed with Chris Houston taking over after six-game starter Michael Coe strained a thigh. Coe (two INTs) is back in the mix this week. The defense is giving up an uncharacteristic 222 passing yards with just six picks all year, and teams have completed almost 58% of their throws against UA with 14 touchdowns. Still, offenses had best get their shots in early on this squad because when things get tight the Razorbacks have an annoying habit of making clutch plays.
PK Chris Balseiro hasn't gotten a lot of field-goal work this year, with just six kicked and three made. His longest good kick is a 35-yarder. He is 35-of-36 on PATs, though. Jeremy Davis took over punting at mid-season with a 39.4 average. Birmingham (21.4) and Washington (18.5) share kickoff return duties, but Birmingham takes care of all punts with a 5.5-yard average return.
Mississippi State and Arkansas have been annual opponents since the Razorbacks escaped the sinking Southwest Conference ship for a place in the expanded SEC, starting in 1992. The schools of neighboring states had seen each other before, but not for a long time…since 1939 when State won in Memphis. The first game was back in 1916, won by A&M also in Memphis. The Bulldogs also opened the new SEC rivalry well with wins in 1992 and '94 at home and a 13-13 tie in Little Rock in-between. But the Razorbacks have owned the series ever since, winning eight of the last nine meetings regardless of site. The only skip in UA dominance was in 1998 when the Bulldogs edged the ‘Backs for the SEC West title. Arkansas has won five-straight, and the series is tied 3-3 in Starkville games. Houston Nutt is 5-1 against State.
The Last Time: November 22, 2003
It was a beautiful November afternoon in northwest Arkansas, but the visiting Bulldogs saw little to like inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium as Mississippi State was crushed 52-6. Arkansas piled up 576 yards of offense, including 322 on the ground, while holding MSU to only 227 yards and no touchdowns. The Bulldogs gave the home team plenty of help, turning the ball over eight times. Six of these giveaways were in the air as quarterbacks Kevin Fant and Kyle York were each picked off three times. State actually scored first with a 30-yard field goal by Brent Smith 11 minutes into a sluggish first period. But once Arkansas' offense woke up the contest was over. De'Arrius Howard and Cedric Cobbs ran for second-quarter touchdowns before Smith booted a second field goal at 4:18. With 25 seconds left to intermission offensive tackle-turned-fullback Shawn Andrews bulled over from one yard out for a 21-6 halftime score. Any possibility of keeping this a game ended when Matt Jones threw touchdowns of 12- and 25-yards in the third period, around a six-yard TD run by Cobbs. Arkansas padded the lead with ten fourth-quarter points on a 43-yard pass to Steven Harris from Ryan Sorahan, and a field goal. Cobbs finished with 150 yards on 30 carries and Jones ran for 73 yards on six rushes. He was 11-of-16 passing for 187 yards. Jerious Norwood paced State's modest offense with 61 yards on ten rushes.
Did You Know?
How They Compare:
No, he doesn't fit any mold. Jones just makes plays and leaves defenses looking foolish. Is he 100% healthy, though? Conner is despite that brace on his right knee.
Running Backs: State
But only because Jones technically doesn't count as a running back. Factor him in on the keeper and you would have to give the edge to Arkansas.
Offensive Line: even
Hog blockers have the blessing of a fleet-footed quarterback needing minimal protection. Bulldog line has been the most-improved unit in town the last month, and is healthy this week.
State looks at rookie Monk—and tight end Hicks—and wonders how productive Conner and Norwood will be when MSU finally features similar defense-stretching threats.
Defensive Line: Arkansas
But it's a closer call now than would have been a month ago. Hog front can disrupt gameplans but also gives up big plays. State line has been reasonably consistent, and shows some depth.
Neither unit is spectacular. Bulldog ‘backers are coming along nicely, though, and the best is in store. Razorbacks take care of business.
Arkansas has been shuffling the DB deck lately but still gives up more yards than usual for the program. State secondary has a tough day in store, sticking to receivers as Jones scrambles.
Bulldog kickers look to have a leg up in most aspects, and everything else evens out.
There's still a bowl bid there to be won, and Arkansas showed resilience by bouncing back from a last-minute loss at South Carolina to destroy Mississippi. But then again, have you ever seen an un-motivated Razorback team in the Nutt era? The Bulldogs have had a week to rest and get ready, as well as get over the letdown of a tough loss at Alabama.
Though the larger motivations are obviously different both sides enter looking to win. That's nothing new for Arkansas of course, but it is a positive change of mind in the MSU camp after a couple of dismal Novembers. The Razorbacks are rightly favored, because their offensive style is a tough style-matchup and the Dogs haven't contained Jones since his clutch fourth-quarter scramble of 2001. Still there is some confidence on the State sideline now that things are on the right track, that a healthy offense can score on anyone and the defense is getting things together. Senior Days generally mark the end of an era; from MSU's point of view, 2004 is really the start of something big.