About the Razorbacks: Hottest team in the conference? How about the whole country? With the program's longest winning streak since 1970 and their first 6-0 SEC start ever, Arkansas is on a roll, a tear, a…apply your own description. It seems years, not mere months ago that the Hogs were crushed in their 2006 opener by Southern Cal, a lone loss that could ultimately keep Arkansas from playing for the national title. Yet that defeat contributed to the ‘stealth' factor for this maturing team. A couple of close September wins with the restored lineup brought back the confidence, a startling romp at Auburn staked them to the league lead, and Arkansas has done no wrong since. The only questions now are how comfortable these guys are wearing a bulls-eye on their ‘Backs, and if they might suddenly be sneaking peeks ahead to the LSU showdown and their fourth appearance in Atlanta.
Offense: It seemed small consolation at the time, but even in that opening blowout Arkansas scored a couple of touchdowns. The point being this is an offense that nobody has stopped and few have slowed for long. Only LSU is putting up more points than UA's 30.8, and no one in the league (and just three in the entire land) runs more productively. The Razorbacks net 241 yards per game and over six yards each time the ball is handed off to the top tailback tandem in the NCAA. Soph Darren McFadden is literally running away with league POTY races, pounding out 122 yards per game and 6.2 per tote. He bowled over South Carolina for 219 yards and came back with 181 more against Tennessee and a pair of scores each outing, giving him a dozen TDs on the year. So far. Imagine then how much ground the 6-2, 212-pounder would produce if he didn't share snaps with fellow soph Felix Jones (78.6 per game, 3 TDs). Between them the Hog tailbacks have 2,005 yards; State's entire offense, run and throw, has just 2,773. Of course even the best ground-pounders need at least some aid from the air to win championships. Here is where the UA staff has done a remarkable job of picking the right passer at the right times…even letting McFadden twice toss the ball, for a touchdown each time. Frosh Mitch Mustain was handed the playbook in the final quarter of the first game and scored seven-straight wins. But Casey Dick, the projected quarterback starter prior to suffering a back injury during presesaon practice, has directed the last two SEC successes. Soph Dick, who had a big day last November against State, is listed to start again; he's a 64% thrower with five TDs and one pick. Mustain has ten scores and eight intercepts on a 53% accuracy. Needless to say State is prepping for either. What has Hog faithful worried now is the health of the brilliant Marcus Monk down the stretch, with sore ribs. A healthy Monk might not have the stats of some SEC peers but in a pass-first system he would be all-American, with 41 grabs for 779 yards and eight TDs. Damien Williams (15, 184 yards, 1 TD) is listed starting flanker. UA will use multi-receiver sets but also can toss to the fullback…or insert 288-pound Mitch Petrus as another blocker. Not that this line needs too much help. Three seniors headline a front that ranks with the most-tested anywhere. Look to the right side for the sheer size, with 6-6, 335-pound tackle Zac Tubbs and 6-4, 316 guard Robert Felton. But then the entire quintet tops 300 and 6-2 LG Jeremy Harrell is the dwarf of the group. There are a couple of stout tight ends to aid blocking on the corners, with lighter Ben Cleveland the catcher of the trio. It's debatable who is the most talented overall offense in the SEC, but there are no longer any questions who is playing best as a unit. For example, the second-highest scoring team in the league ranks 11th in time of possession. Who cares about controlling the clock when you dominate the scoreboard?
Defense: On paper it lists as a standard 4-3 setup; on the field the Razorbacks are anything but typical. Arkansas takes those pieces and shifts them, stunts them, spreads them, stacks them…whatever the situation demands. Of for that matter what it doesn't, in a usually-successful attempt to keep the blockers guessing what those Hogs are really up to. It's clearly working as Arkansas ranks 17th in NCAA scoring defense and 24th in yardage allowed. The sets change but the lineup largely hasn't, save when UA threw a nickel-set against Vanderbilt and South Carolina. The front is active, to say the least. Junior DE Jamaal Anderson has taken over the SEC sack-lead, while the other DE Antwain Robinson is first in all tackles-for-losses. They're free to jump the line of scrimmage with 310-pound Marcus Harrison and 296-pound Keith Jackson plugging up the middle. Then again 292-pound Earnest Mitchell has started five times in place of Harrison and has as many TFLs as the other two regulars combined. Oh, and those days UA replaced two linebackers with safeties for coverage? No surprise which ‘backer stayed in the scheme; MLB Sam Olajubutu, at long last a senior, will be on the field in all situations. The team's leading tackler has 83 stops (10th SEC) and nine for losses. Weston Dacus has 70 tackles as the strongside LB and fellow junior Matt Hewitt 54 more. Where Arkansas' defense really stands out from the norm is in the secondary, with four DBs who look much like LBs. Even the corners are covered by bodies of around 190 pounds, with obvious benefits to tackling support. RC Matterral Richardson has 44 stops with eight breakups, LC Chris Houston 33 more and nine deflections. That group will do without interception leader FS Michael Grant (3 picks, all against Louisiana-Monroe) a second week, with junior Kevin Woods stepping up the starting job; no big trouble as he has two intercepts himself. SS Randy Kelly might as well play linebacker with 65 tackles, third on the squad, 4.5 for losses. It's an aggressive approach yet not overly reckless, evidenced by Arkansas ranking third in the SEC in third-down defense and far-and-away first against fourth-down attempts. Besides, there's always that offense able to more than make up for the occasional lapse.
Specialists: If there are any soft spots on this team it is in kicking situations. Such as punting, which nets only 34.4 yards. Not that UA has been hurt much by exchanged kicks, of course. Senior Jacob Skinner averages 38.1 per attempt. Soph Jeremy Davis is 6-of-9 on field goals with a long of 44 and is 1-of-3 in the 40s-range. Jones returns kickoffs at a 24-yard clip and has one full-distance touchdown return on the year. Punt returning has been shared with Hillis usually getting first chance on a 11.5-yard production.
The Series: Arkansas owns a 10-5-1 lead, with all ten wins coming since it became a regular West rivalry. State scored victories in the olden days, beating Arkansas at old Memphis Crump Field back in 1916 and '39. And the Bulldogs greeted the new SEC members with two wins and a tie in the first three years. Since then though it has been a Razorback run including seven-straight victories coming into this meeting. State's last success was in 1998, at Starkville where the visitors now own a 4-3 lead. Sylvester Croom is 0-2 against Arkansas, and Houston Nutt is 1-7 against State.
The Last Time: November 12, 2005 – Arkansas put their other ‘home' field to good advantage with a 44-10 thrashing of the Bulldogs in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium. The Razorbacks scored on the first series of the day and didn't slow down until 41 points were on the board…before halftime. Rookie back Darren McFadden got the show started by scoring the first two UA touchdowns, with a one-yard dive at 11:16 of the opening quarter and a 21-yard scamper at 4:35. The Bulldog defense did manage to limit the Hogs field goals on consecutive second-quarter series, before freshman Casey Dick got his team back into the end zone with a 15-yard touchdown toss at 5:15. Even when State finally got on the scoreboard with an Adam Carlson field goal at 3:35 the home team more than answered. And immediately, with Felix Jones returning the kickoff all 100 yards. And with eleven seconds left to intermission Dick hit Marcus Monk for another 15-yard touchdown toss and the 41-3 intermission margin. State's lone touchdown came in the third period as backup halfback Demarcus Johnson scored from two yards out, while Arkansas added a meaningless field goal at 6:40 of the last quarter. In that period McFadden tore off a 64-yard rush that put him over 1,000 yards for the season. He had 165 for the game. State's Jerious Norwood had a more modest 91 yards on 14 carries but did move over 3,000 yards for his career. In his second college start Mike Henig was 11-of-27 throwing for 77 yards and an interception. Dick was 12-of-23 for 124 yards.
Did You Know? UA's Felix Jones has two 100-yard touchdown kickoff returns in his career. His first was against MSU last year in Little Rock; the second this season against Mississippi.
*Mississippi State has never won a game played in the state of Arkansas.
Bulldog Player Notes: Junior WR Tony Burks has 749 receiving yards this season, just seven yards short of a top-ten year for a Bulldog. He needs 756 to match David Smith's 1969 total which ranks 10th on the MSU list. The record is 1,035 by Mardye McDole in 1978.
*Burks is having the best season ever by a Bulldog receiver in yards-per-catch, with a 25.8 average. That tops the record set by Danny Knight in 1982 of 24.97 yards per grab. The SEC doesn't chart this but Burks' rate is the best among the league top-ten ranked in receiving yards per game.
*Burks has already tied the program record for 100-yard games in a season, with five. He had the fifth-best game in MSU annals with 192 yards, on a season-best seven grabs, against Kentucky.
*Two current Dogs are now tied, with five former Dogs, for the career interception/touchdown record at two. Both senior LB Quinton Culberson and soph CB Derek Pegues have run back picks for scores twice, though Pegues has done it in this same season. Culberson collected his scores in 2004 (Kentucky) and '06 (Alabama).
* Pegues has gone two games without an interception and remains at four for the season, five for his career. Senior FS Jeramie Johnson has seven career interceptions but none so far this season.
*Pegues has fallen somewhat off his mid-October pace in returns, but still ranks second in the SEC and 7th nationally in punt yardage (14.5) and fifth SEC, 47th NCAA in kickoffs (22.9). Pegues has run back one punt this year for a touchdown, 81 yards against JSU; his longest kickoff so far this season is 61 yards against Tulane.
*Johnson has knocked five balls loose this season, and is still on top of the SEC chart after ten games with four competitors right behind at four FFs. Johnson had forced only three fumbles in his previous three seasons.
*Culberson had his fifth double-digit tackle day of this season with ten stops at Alabama. In his previous three years Culberson had ten or more stops in just three games. This season he is currently second in the league in tackles at 88, but is only one tackle ahead of #3 Wesley Woodyard of Kentucky. All trail UM's Patrick Willis at 112.
*The Bulldog sacks-race remains a half-bagging apart through ten games, but there is a new leader this week as junior DE Titus Brown (7.0) just passed senior DE Michael Heard (6.5) with one sack at Alabama. The rest of the MSU defense has a combined 6.5 sacks. Brown ranks 4th in the SEC in sack average.
*Brown has also stepped out in total tackles-for-loss with 12.5 (4th-best SEC); Heard is at 10.0, and senior DT Deljuan Robinson at 9.5.
*Soph QB Mike Henig had a modest passing day at Alabama with 143 yards. But two of his completions scored touchdowns and improved his TD-to-pick average for the year to 6-to-8. The yardage was down only in comparison to his previous two efforts, with 234 against Georgia and 384 against Kentucky. That latter output was the fourth-highest ever for a Bulldog passer.
*Henig's completions rate is still just 46%, but when his balls are caught they net almost 17 yards each grab. And in the last three games Henig has thrown for 761 yards; he had 630 yards in all of 2005.
*Junior TE Eric Butler shook off an early drop to make two tougher catches at Alabama, giving him eight for the entire season and 150 yards. That's an average of 18.8 yards every time he gets the ball. But his touchdown pace this season is well-down from the four in 2004 and three in '05. Butler has one scoring catch this season.
*Freshman HB Anthony Dixon bounced back from a 14-yard day against Kentucky with 121 rushing yards at Alabama, his first 100-yard day as a Dog. That raised his rookie year total for ground-gained to 454 yards as Dixon bids to become the first freshman to lead State in rushing since 1989. *Dixon has scored seven times in nine games. He needs three more this year to have a top-ten season at State.
*Soph WR Jamayel Smith has earned his place in the rotation with 14 catches for 255 yards. And the walk-on has scored a touchdown in each of the last two SEC games. His fellow soph, Aubrey Bell, has just eight catches but a slightly better average of 18.9 yards. And Bell has done it all in the last four games since his mid-season activation.
*The best quarter for State scoring is the fourth, with 71 of the team's total 166 points coming in the final period of regulation play. But after struggling for the opening six games of the season to put up points by intermission, the Dogs are suddenly more efficient in first and second quarters with 38 points in those periods the last two outings. Two of these TDs have come from the defense.
*Twenty Bulldog seniors will have their last home game this week. One, FB Bryson Davis, will definitely not play due to injury. The rest should be dressed out for the home finale. They are: HB Derek Ambrose, OG Brian Anderson, KO Keith Andrews, QB Omarr Conner, DS Russell Cook, HO Brooks Crabtree, LB Quinton Culberson, ST Marcus Evans, CB David Heard, DE Michael Heard, LB Brad Horton, DT Antonio Johnson, FS Jeramie Johnson, DT Anwar Phillips, DT Andrew Powell, WR Will Prosser, DT Deljuan Robinson, FB Casey Rogers, and ST Leron Yarbrough.
*David Heard, Jeramie Johnson, and Russell Cook all top the varsity roster for career-games at 43. Each also has started 28 games. But Quinton Culberson has the most starts of this group with 33, out of 40 career games. And Brian Anderson has the longest active consecutive-starts mark at 28, ahead of Heard and Culberson at 26-straight.
*There are now 49 players on the current roster who have started at least one MSU game since 2004, including specialists. The latest to join the list is LB Jamon Hughes who opened at Alabama. A total of 72 Dogs have played in at least one career game on this roster.
Redshirt Report: Twenty-three Bulldogs have made their college-game debuts this season, including seven true freshmen. First-year rookies yet to play and by now almost certainly not to are: OG J.C. Brigone, WR Alex Carpenter, DL Brandon Cooper, DS Aaron Feld, TE Chris Herrera, TE Brandon Henderson, OT Mark Melichar, WR Keith Mills, DT Reggie Odom, and DE Rodney Prince. Mills has been dismissed from the team.