Two seasons ago Arkansas came up with a blueprint to defend Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense.
A three-man front with eight players dropping in coverage made for a rough night for the Mississippi State offense. That game plan did not work on Saturday.
Will Rogers threw for three touchdowns and broke the Southeastern Conference mark for career completions, and the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs ran for their most yards with Leach in charge in a 40-17 win over the Razorbacks.
“The more that we can run the ball and get extra guys in the box, the more it’s going to open up a passing lane,” Rogers said. “I think that helps us be on pace.”
Rogers was 31-of-48 passing for 395 yards and broke the SEC mark in he first quarter with the 922nd completion of his career, eclipsing the mark set by Georgia’s Aaron Murray in 52 games, Rogers has played in 28 games.
The Bulldogs (5-1, 2-1 SEC) rushed for over 100 yards for the second straight week for the first time with Leach as coach. Dillon Johnson gained 100 yards rushing, the first to do that in Leach’s three seasons, and scored twice.
The running backs took advantage of the Razorbacks’ three-man rush. Johnson and fellow running back Jo’Quavious Marks had 46 total touches in the game for 281 yards rushing and receiving combined, and accounted for three touchdowns.
“I think we have three really good running backs and you want them to touch the ball. You had Dillon on the ground and Woody through the air,” Leach said. “Those guys are the warriors back there and you want them to have the ball, and for good measure you’re going to ask them to block. I thought they had a good game.”
Arkansas played without starting quarterback KJ Jefferson, who had an unspecified injury. Malik Hornsby was 8-of-17 passing for 234 yards in Jefferson’s absence, with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also rushed for 114 yards on eight carries.
Raheim Sanders ran for 86 yards and a touchdown for Arkansas. Receiver Jadon Haselwood had 113 yards on three catches.
“Obviously, they outplayed us and were the most physical team today,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. “Will Rogers is a really good quarterback and managed the game for them well. We couldn’t convert situations and they did. Give them credit, coach Leach did a great job with them.”
Mississippi State scored the first 14 points, but the Razorbacks (3-3, 1-3) hung around, trailing just 21-10 at the half thanks to a missed field goal and turnover on downs by the Bulldogs’ offense late in the second quarter.
MSU put the game away in the fourth quarter with back-to-back interceptions from Jackie Matthews and Emmanuel Forbes.
The Razorbacks had 483 yards of offense but surrendered 568 to the Bulldogs. State’s 4-for-4 showing in the red zone continued a strong start of scoring on 20 of 21 trips this season, with 11-straight touchdowns on those trips.
After debuting in the polls last week at No. 23, the Bulldogs will have a chance to continue to move up with the win.
Arkansas: Playing without Jefferson certainly got the team off to a slow start. Backup Cade Fortin struggled in the first two possessions before the Razorbacks turned to Hornsby, who had over 350 yards of total offense.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were playing a second big game in a key stretch of the season and have passed the first two tests with wins over Texas A&M and now Arkansas. Kentucky is the next step in the challenge.
Mississippi State travels to Kentucky next Saturday.
Arkansas travels to BYU next Saturday.