Hogs seek to right season, earn bowl eligibility against MSU

Who would have thought Arkansas’ game with Mississippi State would be the biggest football game of the year for the Razorback program?

It’s not the game I would have picked going into the season.

It wouldn’t have been the one I would have targeted going into the month of October with the Hogs riding high at 4-0 and ranked in the Top-10 for the first time since early in the 2012 season after Bobby Petrino had that fateful motorcycle crash the previous spring, now nearly a decade ago.

However, the Razorbacks stare down the final third of their schedule with a respectable but still haunting 5-3 overall record and a 1-3 SEC mark. Saturday’s 3 p.m. contest with Mike Leach’s Bulldogs (5-3, 3-2 SEC) stands as a pivotal game for the Hogs, who would earn bowl eligibility with a victory.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Mississippi State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri

October was rough on Arkansas. Georgia made their contest a statement game, and Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs pounded the Hogs back to reality, leaving them beat-up and bedraggled.

Arkansas had enough in them to challenge a solid Ole Miss squad in a shoot-out at Oxford, but the Rebels’ defense made a play on the Hogs’ two-point conversion attempt, and the Rebels survived for a 52-51 victory.

The following week at Razorback Stadium, Arkansas accumulated more yardage against Auburn, but failed to capitalize too often on offense and gave up too many chunk plays on defense to win. It’s the lone game I can point to in Pittman’s tenure as coach where his Razorbacks just didn’t seem to bring it.

Now after beating Pine Bluff and enjoying an open date, the Razorbacks face another crossroads in their season.

Win Saturday, and Sam Pittman’s program is back on task and really even ahead of schedule with a world of possibilities awaiting an up-and-coming ball team that would at least have the possibility of playing their way back into a New Year’s Day bowl picture by winning out.

Sure, I know winning or losing Saturday doesn’t affect the reality of playing No. 2 Alabama at Tuscaloosa on Nov. 20, where the Hogs haven’t won since Houston Nutt was playing musical quarterback with Matt Jones and Ryan Sorahan back in 2003 (pre-Nick Saban), but winning Saturday would make the possibility seem at least a little more likely.

However, a loss to the Bulldogs would be a fourth consecutive SEC loss. Losing to a Bulldog squad that is surging right now after upsetting No. 19 Kentucky, 31-17, last Saturday in Starkville, Miss., would place the Razorbacks’ outlook for the remainder of the season on very shaky ground.

It’s daunting enough to face even an up-and-down LSU squad in Death Valley for a night game, but the chore would seem even more arduous if the Hogs were carrying a five-game SEC losing streak with them to Baton Rouge on Nov. 13.

Of course, all of that is just conjecture at this point. Reality is that the Razorbacks face a much improved Bulldog squad in a game that seems to have make-or-break consequences for both teams.

Mississippi State was impressive in whipping Kentucky, which had legitimate claim on being the third best team in the SEC going into last Saturday’s game. The victory made MSU one of only three teams to have multiple victories over current members of the Top 25 this season. The others are No. 1 Georgia and No. 7 Oregon.

Bulldog quarterback Will Rogers carved up the Wildcats, breaking an SEC and MSU single-game completion percentage record by connecting on 36 of 39 attempted passes (92.3 percent) for 344 yards and a touchdown.

“Mississippi State, they’re playing really well right now,” Pittman said. “Their quarterback, Will Rogers, was incredible on Saturday. They protect him well. Nobody really got close to him. They have a lot of wideouts who are playing well. They have two really nice backs. So, on offense they’re starting to hit on all strides, I think.”

Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom confused Leach’s passing attack last season with his drop-eight umbrella zone that led to a stunning upset of MSU at Starkville, but teams whom Odom confused last season have adjusted this season.

The Razorbacks’ scheme has struggled since strong safety Jalen Catalon was injured during the Texas A&M game. Catalon is out for the season, and while Myles Slusher is a talented young defensive back, he’s just not the player yet that Catalon was.

During Arkansas’ early four-game winning streak, Arkansas found a way to pressure the quarterback with a three-man rush. That rush seemed to evaporate once the Hogs got in the thick of SEC play in October.

Compounding matters is a stout Bulldog defense led by an excellent crew of linebackers in Tyrus Wheat (6-2, 265), Nathaniel Watson (6-2, 240) and Aaron Brule (6-1, 230).

Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes is an effective thief as the SEC’s active leader in interceptions with 8 for his career with 216 career return yards.

The Bulldogs have done an excellent job of getting off the field this year, holding Kentucky and Vanderbilt to fewer than 50 plays that last two weeks. The Bulldogs stuffed Kentucky’s rushing game, holding them to just 66 yards rushing.

“They play so much multiple defense,” Pittman said. “They show many fronts, and they move. I think the thing that’s most concerning is they’re big, but they have a lot of movement and a lot of blitzes. You have to stay out of third-and-long against them.”

The Razorbacks are five-point favorites as of Tuesday morning, but this looks like another pick-em game to me.

The Razorbacks need their fans to show up and show out like they did for the Texas game. That atmosphere was off the charts. Bringing that type of energy to Razorback Stadium on Saturday would be a tremendous help to the Hogs, who have been sluggish since the the victory over Texas A&M.

Good news for the Razorbacks was the return of two linemen for practice this week in offensive tackle Dalton Wagoner and defensive tackle Markell Utsey. Both were starters prior to their injuries with utility offensive lineman Ty Clary working in the place of Wagoner and Eric Gregory for Utsey. We’ll have to wait until Saturday to see who starts, but the added depth should only help.

It would appear sophomore running back Dominique Johnson will get the first start of his career Saturday. Pittman was a bit coy after asserting that Johnson needed more carries prior to the Auburn and Pine Bluff games.

“If that’s starting him to get more carries, then that’s what we’re going to do,” Pittman said. “He’s a guy that’s running over people, making people miss, and he needs to get more carries. I thought we had that figured out, but we didn’t. I’m positive we’ve got it figured out now.”

There is also a battle for the starting nickel spot between senior Greg Brooks, who has more than two dozen starts to his credit and freshman Jayden Johnson as well as safety Simeon Blair with Malik Chavis. Johnson and Chavis started in the Hogs’ last game against Pine Bluff. The depth chart lists the battles as an either/or propositions.

“Greg has been a man about it,” Pittman said. “Obviously, when you get replaced you have two options. You can go either beat the guy back out or mope and pout and guarantee you’re not going to beat him out. I think with Simeon Blair and Greg, both have great attitudes. You can’t beat somebody out pouting, and neither one of them has done that. They’ve gone back trying to win their jobs back.”