FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Both Arkansas head coach Chad Morris and Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead expect a competitive game on Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Neither team comes into the game playing its best football this season. Arkansas started the season 2-1 and has since lost five games in a row. The Bulldogs started 3-1 and are on a four-game skid now.
“Really when you look at the month of November, the season of November we’re talking about right now, three of our four games will be played in front of our home crowd,” Morris said. “We’ve got a great opportunity in front of us. There’s still a lot left in this season and it starts this Saturday against Miss. State.”
The Hogs will host Western Kentucky on Nov. 9 and then get a bye week before closing at LSU and Missouri. The Hogs will host Missouri on Nov. 29 in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. Morris is hoping the Hogs can take a good week of practice to the stadium this week.
“It started on Sunday, these guys coming back in here ready to get better and just focused on just one day at a time and knowing that we enter an entirely different season in the month of November and what’s left ahead of us,” Morris said. “And just challenging ourselves just to stay the course and keep working. And you know, as I expected them to show up on Tuesday with great energy and crisp at practice on both sides of the ball and on special teams. I thought yesterday was one of the better Tuesdays we’ve had.”
Mississippi State is coming off a 49-30 loss to Texas A&M this past Saturday. Moorhead is looking for a better result this week.
“Disappointed in our loss against Texas A&M,” Moorhead said. “Quality SEC opponent on the road. Excited to get back on track this week and play an Arkansas team on the road. It will be a great challenge.”
Arkansas has played three different quarterbacks this season and a fourth, true freshman KJ Jefferson, could get some action this week. Senior Ben Hicks was injured in the Auburn game and didn’t play against Alabama. He looked healthier on Tuesday.
“They all got reps yesterday,” Morris said. “But Ben was definitely looked as healthy as I’ve seen him in quite some time.”
Morris hasn’t named a starting quarterback this week. Moorhead talked about the Razorback quarterbacks.
“You get crossover film throughout the course of the season and certainly (Nick) Starkel, Hicks and the young kid (John Stephen) Jones came in and did a nice job at the end of the Alabama game and led a touchdown drive,” Moorhead said. “So it’s difficult to prepare for all three. I don’t know the system necessarily changes based on who is in the game, but you certainly have seen glimpses of production out of all three of those guys.”
Last year, Mississippi State scored 52 points against the Razorbacks. Moorhead has a lot of respect for John Chavis, Arkansas’ defensive coordinator, and knows this year points may not be as plentiful for his offense.
“Like always got to establish the run and do a good job getting (running back) Kylin Hill moving,” Moorhead said. “The nose guard is a real good interior defensive lineman. Very active, very twitchy and very sudden and explosive. The middle linebacker is an All-SEC type guy. You’ve got a mixture of some older guys and some young guys on the back end. So I think Coach Chavis does a real nice job. It will be physical and this one will be a real challenge this week.”
Hill rushed for 150 yards against Texas A&M last week. He leads the SEC in rushing with 793 yards and six touchdowns. He is 87 yards ahead of Arkansas’ Rakeem Boyd.
Moorhead talked about the steps Mississippi State needs to do to move to next level on offense.
“I think continuing to focus on our efficiency and explosiveness in the run game,” Moorhead said. “(We’ve) connected on a bunch of down-the-field throws that were explosive and have done that throughout the season.
“I think we need to, one, not turn the ball over and do a good job of ball security and decision making, and then do a better job of converting on third downs. Those would be the two areas right now where we need to see the most improvement.”
Morris has seen the team lose Noah Gatlin (all season), Colton Jackson (gave up football this week), Austin Capps (injured against Auburn) and Kirby Adcock (injured against Alabama) on the offensive line. Shane Clenin stepped in at left guard for Adcock, who was starting for Capps, against the Tide.
“I feel, we’ve definitely had to have some rotation this year due to injuries, especially as of late,” Morris said. “Shane did a good job when he stepped in there last Saturday filling some voids. He did some good things. He’ll continue to come along and get better. We got to make sure we got a plan if we have any more injuries there, so Shane will be working some at center.”
So many injuries have caused continuity issues for the Hogs on the offensive line.
“Well, I think our guys have dealt with it tremendous,” Morris said. “They understand that it’s part of the game, injuries happen. This league is a line-of-scrimmage league, we understand that. It’s the next man up mentality. So, we try to do a good job of bringing these freshmen along. Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham and those guys, and we know what Ricky (Stromberg) has done for us.
“When you have multiple injuries, it forces you to find the next best five, and sometimes that means just five guys around. It’s not the ideal thing but it’s the thing you do. I think our guys have done a great job with it. We will continue to build with it and move forward.”
Junior running back Chase Hayden hasn’t played since the San Jose State game. Morris talked about that on Wednesday as well.
“Right now with where we are at with our running back position, he’s already played in his four games, our plan right now is to try to redshirt him if we can,” Morris said.
Sophomore cornerback Jarques McClellion has started all eight games this season at cornerback. However, he was replaced to start the second half against Alabama. Morris talked about how McClellion has responded this week.
“I thought he had a good day yesterday,” Morris said. “I thought yesterday was good on both sides of the ball as far as practice. He’ll respond to the challenge. He’s a great competitor, it’s just something that you deal with. You just come back to work, you put your head down and you try to get better. That’s what he did yesterday.”
While some Arkansas fans are growing restless with Morris, the same can be said about Moorhead at Mississippi State. Various reports have him on the hotseat in Starkville.
“I haven’t heard any of those things from anyone here at Mississippi State, so I’m worried about making sure we put these kids in a good position to be successful this week with the game plan, doing a good job at practice, improving our urgency and our precision, and going out on Saturday and playing a great game,” Moorhead said. “You understand what you sign up for when you become a head coach in this league – the good, the bad and the ugly.
“People are entitled to their opinions and what they think is reality and I’m entitled to mine, as well. I’m excited about what we did last year, I’m excited about the current state and I’m excited about the future of the program. That’s where we’re at and that’s where I’m at. If I was any better, there’d be two of me.”
Moorhead was offensive coordinator for James Franklin at Penn State when the Bulldogs hired him. Franklin was formerly the head coach at Vanderbilt. Is coaching in the SEC any different than you thought it would be?
“No,” Moorhead said. “I talked to Coach Franklin about it prior to coming down here and some of the ups and downs, highs and lows and what it takes. Part of the reason in taking this job, I mentioned other opportunities after the ’16-’17 season, is I wanted to engage myself and compete against the best of the best in the SEC. You know going into it when you’re coaching against Coach (Nick) Saban and the other great coaches in this conference and the recruiting aspect of it, as well, it’s going to be a grind every single day on the field and off the field. The margin of error is going to be small.
“The praise when you do well is going to be high and the criticism when you perform poorly is going to be harsh. That’s just part of it. This conference has gone through a bunch of great coaches and some have stayed and some have had hard times. I hate to simplify it to this matter, it’s what you sign up for, so it is what it is.”
Arkansas and Mississippi State will kickoff at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be shown on the SEC Network.