For a Arkansas squad who’s secondary has been hurt and ineffective, Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers and the high-power Bulldogs offense might not be the best antidote.
Rogers is averaging 346.6 yards passing per game and No. 23 Mississippi State (4-1, 1-1) is piling up 444 yards total offense an outing heading into its contest with visiting Arkansas (3-2, 1-2) Saturday at 11 a.m. in Starkville.
“Obviously, Will Rogers is a problem,” Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said Monday. “Really good quarterback. Their offense (is great at) what they do. They have a lot of talented receivers.
“…They’re well coached and there’s a reason they’re 4-1 and ranked in the top 25. They have a really good football team. We’re excited to go play them.”
Rogers, who has completed 73 percent of his passes for 1,715 yards with 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 2022, is in his third year as the starter for the Bulldogs under head coach Mike Leach.
“You can see it,” Pittman said. “The thing is, you really have to disguise in the secondary, because if you don’t, he knows exactly what you’re doing whether you’re in man, or it’s quarters or double cloud or whatever it may be, he can exploit you. I mean, he’s really good, and they’ve got receivers that can as well.
“So they’ll have to be a decision made obviously on third down and things of that nature whether we’re going to go after him or not. We can’t just let him sit back there. If we decide to go after him with four, we need to get there. If we decide to go after him with three we’ve got to get there.”
The aforementioned cloud is dropping a defensive back and two safeties back to play the deep 1/3s of the field, putting two defensive backs in flats and having linebackers handle the short middle, something that helped Arkansas to a 9-4 mark last season.
“Well, to be honest with you and I’m not contradicting, but we won nine games last year doing it,” Pittman said. “So it worked. However, we also got exploited by some teams that could run the football and that are big, like Georgia, some of those guys and things of that nature. So certainly we’ll look at that this week. We played a lot of it last year as well.
“I’m sure they’ll be ready for that if we choose to go there. I still think that we have to be multiple, but certainly we have to understand we’ve got to keep people in front of us and get them on the ground. We’ve got to get better at that, so zone coverage at times can certainly help you with that.”
Expected starting defensive backs Jalen Catalon and LaDarrius Bishop are out with season-ending injuries, starting defensive end Jashaud Stewart has not played in two games and defensive back Myles Slusher was limited with a hamstring injury and had to leave the Alabama loss in the first half.
Arkansas is giving up 289.6 yards passing and 443 yards total offense per game this season.
“Well, we have to get some guys back a little bit,” Pittman said. “We’ve been beat up it seems to me like pretty much all year. We just have to continue to work on it. Man coverage has been a problem for us. Especially if we don’t get to the quarterback, it’s been a problem for us. We just have to continue to be in position better. Certainly, the explosive plays, we have to limit them.
“We have to be comfortable with keeping them in front of us and hoping we can have a pass breakup or get a guy on the ground. Our tackling and our secondary woes have to improve. We have kids that will fight back there and work at it. They are a big challenge though.”
Mississippi State has outscored its foes 52-7 in the first quarter so Pittman notes his team has to get off to a good start.
“Obviously they’ve been well coached, and their game plan is against what they’re seeing,” Pittman said. “And it seemed to me like they’re well prepared on both sides of the ball, obviously, to give up seven for the year in the first and score 52. But I think a lot of that, too, is their offensive system has been identical for three years in a row now. Their quarterback’s been back for three years in a row now.
“And defensively, I know the coordinator’s been there at least two. And they’ve got some older players, you know, guys that should be ready when when it kicks off. So they’ve just done a great job of getting them prepared, I think.”
That Mississippi State defense brings pressure and has 12 sacks, 9 behind Arkansas’ NCAA leading 21.
“A lot of teams pressure for the pass,” Pittman said. “In other words, they’re trying to get to the quarterback. Mississippi State pressures, to me, to get you behind the sticks in the run. Then that just continues whenever you get in third down. Again, they’re the most ‘come at you’ team I’ve seen in a long time. From a lot of different angles, from the middle, boundary, from the field.”
Pittman is pleased it is an 11 a.m. road kickoff instead of a night game.
“Yeah, I think any time that you can go on the road and play in the morning, that would be — at least for me — that would be the No. 1 time that we would want to play,” Pittman said. “Any time it starts getting later than that, the tailgates get better and the people get louder. So I like the early one to be honest with you.”
Day or night, Mississippi State’s will be ringing their Cowboys, something that is allowed except during the snap.
“You know, I talked to some people that have played them and they said it is louder than loud in pregame,” Pittman said. “Then their fans have certainly abided – or whatever word you want to use – by the rule once the center is approaching underneath the, or the quarterback underneath the center, then they can’t do it anymore. The said they didn’t. So… I think it’s a penalty if they do.”
• It was announced Monday that the Arkansas at BYU game in Provo, Utah will be played Saturday, Oct. 15 at 2:30 p.m.
• Wide receiver Warren Thompson – who did not play against Alabama, will also be assessed on Wednesday as to his availability for the Mississippi State game.
• Pittman said that he is not being a “little baby” about officiating, but Arkansas did send the SEC office what it believes the officials missed against Alabama.
“We did,” Pittman said. “Now, I’m not a little baby about it, either. I know what we’re going to get back from the league as well. So, if I don’t think we can win, I don’t send in 20. You’re not really winning anyway.
“You’re just getting a ‘yeah, you were right’ or a ‘no, you were wrong’ type of deal. We always send somewhere probably between three and seven a week. And they’re good enough to look at it, review and send us a voice over what their thoughts were on it.”
Photo By John D. James