Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The Arkansas Razorbacks are one of the hottest teams in college football, winning five of their last six games. The last two games, the Hogs outplayed and defeated nationally ranked Ole Miss and LSU. Their only loss since a 1-3 start in September was to Alabama, whom most believe boasts the best defense in the nation.
With so much improvement and with so much momentum, why would some feel the Razorbacks (6-4, 4-2 SEC) are ripe for the picking when they play host to the Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-3, 3-3) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium in front of a nationally televised ESPN audience?
It could be they question whether the Razorbacks are mature enough to handle success. It could be that they feel the Hogs have used up their fair share of luck after the Henry Heave that helped them topple Ole Miss two weeks ago. It could be that Mississippi State has one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Dak Prescott.
Or it could be a few comments made by Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema at his weekly press conference last Monday. Bielema answered a question about this game possibly being one in which Dan Mullen’s gritty Bulldogs might catch the Hogs off guard.
“Everybody wants to call it a letdown game, but as a coach, it’s very hard to really believe that you can get your players in a state of mind all 12 games of the regular season the way they need to be.” Bielema said. “It’s human nature. People just become satisfied. That’s the case with players and coaches.”
Here Bielema admited that a team can become complacent. While the Razorbacks do have a strong junior class and several key seniors, Arkansas is a young team with 28 underclassmen in its two-deep chart.
Could the Hogs be susceptible to relaxing just a bit after winning back-to-back road games to become bowl eligible?
The Razorbacks did drop a winnable game at Missouri in their regular-season finale last year just a week after reaching the six-win plateau. Could that be in the cards for the Hogs again?
“To have two games at the end, at home is good for us,” Bielema said. “I don’t worry about Senior Day against Missouri. With all our seniors being honored, I think we’ll be ready to play. But to play those two games we just played [at Ole Miss and at LSU] and to come home and play Mississippi State, I’m not worried. I think our kids will put in their work. But I am glad we have a home crowd rather than a visiting crowd.”
While Bielema spun the question positively, he did sound a bit concerned. In the same press conference, he said his coaches would act as “humblers” to keep the Hogs’ hooves firmly planted on the ground. He also said he warned his Hogs to not listen to the hype and bluster they might hear on campus.
It’s good Bielema is being proactive with the Razorbacks. The Hogs are guaranteed a bowl, but every victory moves them further up the pecking order. Every win makes it that much easier for Bielema and his staff to get into the homes of top recruits to state their case. Bielema wants to keep the momentum rolling, and the only way to do that is to keep winning.
Bielema has experience with strong finishes. He said he wasn’t surprised by the Razorbacks’ surge this October and November and last year’s in November. He planned it that way.
“I preach to our players that you get better as the year goes on.” Bielema said. “I’m not one of those coaches that believes in status quo. I believe you get better every day, or you’re not doing anything. One of the stats that I threw at our kids in our first year when I was trying to get them to buy in is that we improve as the year goes on.”
Bielema was 19-5 in November at Wisconsin in his seven years with the Badgers. He’s building his program at Arkansas to have the same kind of improvement and success in November.
“That was a stat I was very proud of because I knew that doesn’t happen by chance,” Bielema said. “It’s how you train and how you believe in what you are doing.
“A lot of the things we do are hard. They aren’t sexy. They require being physical. We wear you down. We do it in a way that has an effect late in the game and has an effect late in the year. We just have to get the front end of our calendar to look like the back end, and we’ll be on our way. It’s a testament to our kids and our coaches that we keep getting better.”
A key to the Razorbacks resurgence this year has been the recent play of Kody Walker (6-2, 256) as a complementary back to starter Alex Collins. Walker carried 17 times for 88 bruising yards in the Razorbacks victory over LSU. The combination of Collins and Walker has battered opponents in recent weeks.
“Coach [Jemal] Singleton said that everyone was going to point to Alex for his 140 yards and long touchdown run, but the guy who had an exceptional day to him was Kody [Walker],” Bielema said. “That was probably the Kody we expected to see all year. There was flashes of it in the Auburn game, but from the first quarter until the fourth quarter, Kody Walker was the guy that I think will be a 1,000-yard rusher for us next season and will get an opportunity to play in the NFL. He’s going to be someone who I think can help carry next year’s team to high levels.”
The Razorbacks will have to improve at containing a mobile quarterback, a sore spot dating back to the Texas Tech game in September, if they plan to subdue the Bulldogs. Prescott (6-2, 230) is an impressive player, one of only three SEC quarterbacks to pass for more than 3,000 and rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Prescott has completed 222 of 343 passes this season for 2,651 yards and 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He’s also rushed 112 times for 432 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Bielema said he’s impressed with Prescott’s skill and physical stature.
“Just his pure size stands out,” Bielema said. “He looks like a linebacker if you compare him to B.A. [Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen]. He’s very big, he’s very physical and he throws the ball really well. But just physically, I was impressed with the stature that he carries. That’s not a very common thing with quarterbacks. That’s why I think their staff has as much confidence in using him the way they do in the run game. He took nine sacks last Saturday. A normal quarterback might come out of there dinged up or a little bit slow, but with him, I don’t thing that will be the case at all.”
Bielema said the Hogs would have to be more disciplined when they rush Prescott after giving more than 100 yards rushing to Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, mostly on scrambles.
Mississippi State is a scary opponent for the Razorbacks, mainly because of Prescott. He throws well on the move and is the Bulldogs’ leading rusher. He is the type of player that can take over a game. How well the Razorbacks control him is the key to the football game.
The Bulldogs’ SEC victories have not come against the strongest of SEC teams with wins over Auburn, Kentucky and Missouri. The three have combined to go 14-16 on the season.
Considering the way the Razorbacks have been playing, Arkansas should win this game, but Prescott can make up the difference himself if the game is close. After picking Arkansas to defeat Ole Miss and LSU on back-to-back weekends, I have to ride it out.
Prediction: Arkansas 34, Mississippi State 27