Arkansas has lost seven straight games but you would never know it listening to Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.
The Bulldogs will face a much different Razorback team than the one they defeated 45-14 in Starkville last fall. Arkansas is now led by former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema who brings more of a power run oriented offense with him from the Big Ten.
“We’ve got to get everybody healthy and get everybody ready for another ‘punch you in the mouth’ type of physical game,” Mullen said. “Last year (Arkansas) was a little bit more of a spread you out and run around type of team with a more open field game.
The Hogs are averaging 358.7 yards per game with 209.7 coming via the ground game. Sophomore running back Jonathan Williams and freshman Alex Collins have combined for 1,729 yards and eight touchdowns on the year.
“It looks like they’re playing a lot of young players,” Mullen said. “They’ve got some very talented guys and two extremely talented running backs. They’ve got a big, physical offensive line and one of the better running teams in the conference. They’ve run it on everybody.”
Defensively is where Arkansas has seen its share of struggles this season. The Razorbacks are allowing 400.3 yards and 31.4 points per game to their opponents on the year.
“They’ve got a great front and caused a lot of pressure,” Mullen said. “I think they’ve played good defense but have been bit by big plays a whole lot it seems like. You’ll watch them play good defense and then there’s three big plays and they’re giving up points.”
State has never defeated Arkansas in the Natural State in school history. The Bulldogs are 0-6-1 at the site of this week’s game in Little Rock and 0-3 when playing in Fayetteville.
“I think anywhere on the road is tough to play in in the SEC,” Mullen said. “I don’t know that it’s any more difficult there than it is in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Auburn or here in Starkville. A lot of that is the passion of the fan base. You’re going to Little Rock where their fans are very passionate about playing. It’s a loud, hostile environment and that always gives you a great home field advantage in this league and makes it very difficult.”
MSU’s ability to move the ball offensively hinges on the health of its quarterbacks. Sophomore Dak Prescott went down with a nerve injury to his left shoulder late in the Texas A&M game and did not dress this past weekend. Senior Tyler Russell suffered a shoulder injury of his own against Alabama and both players are listed as day-to-day.
“We’ve got to see what’s going on with those guys as the week goes on,” Mullen said. “They’re getting better and are coming in for treatments (Monday) and we don’t practice again until (Tuesday) afternoon. We’ll have to see where everybody is at during that point in time.”
True freshman Damian Williams was the only remaining scholarship quarterback on the Bulldogs roster once Russell went down. Appearing in just his third career game, Williams missed on all five passes and was sacked once.
For the year Williams has completed 11 of 23 passes for 152 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder has also carried 14 times for 32 yards.
“Sometimes you’d wonder and scratch your head if it was right to play Damian at all this year,” Mullen said. “At this point in time it looks like it was the right decision. Give him a lot of credit on Saturday night for coming in and performing. Obviously I’d like to see him performing at a higher level but the stage wasn’t too big for him when he came in. He was ready, came in and made a couple of nice throws. He’ll get his mindset right and get himself ready this week if he’s got to be our guy.”
Most of Williams’ reps with the first team came in the final three series Saturday night and during Sunday’s practice.
If Prescott and Russell cannot go Saturday, Mullen will be forced to go with Williams.
“If Damian is healthy and the other guys aren’t, we’ll go with Damian,” Mullen said.
Mississippi State’s kicking struggles continued Saturday night against Alabama. Redshirt freshman Evan Sobiesk missed a chip shot 23-yard field goal during the second quarter that would have tied things up with the Tide 3-3.
The Bulldogs have made just one field goal in the last five games (1-of-5) and are only 7-of-15 on the year.
“When you have a true sophomore and a redshirt freshman out there kicking for you a lot, they’re young guys coming in kicking in big situations and are still trying to figure it out. I think Devon (Bell) and Evan both have enough talent to when they get 100-percent on technique and confidence, we could have some of the better kickers in the league.”