Football is a game of adjustments, and that has never been more true for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The No. 25 Hogs (3-2, 1-2 SEC) travel to Starkville, Miss. for an 11 a.m. matchup with No. 23 Mississippi State (4-1, 1-1 SEC) that will be televised by the SEC Network with a number of injury issues weighing heavily on Sam Pittman, his coaching staff, and the Razorbacks themselves.
The biggest is the availability of starting quarterback K.J. Jefferson, the Razorbacks’ second-year starter. Pittman has hesitated to call Jefferson’s injury anything other than an “above-the-shoulder” injury, so I’ll leave it to you to infer what you will. Jefferson is making the trip to Starkville, so there is a chance he could play.
If he does not start, either Cade Fortin or Malik Hornsby would. Pittman said last Saturday that Fortin was the No. 2 quarterback, but Hornsby has uncommon speed and served as Jefferson’s back-up last year. Fortin is the more polished passer of the two.
Pittman indicated in his appearance on the SEC teleconference Wednesday that both could play if Jefferson is unable to go on Saturday.
Receiver Ketron Jackson said he respects the abilities of both and added the entire receiving corps has worked with both QBs this week and previously in practice.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at No. 23 Mississippi St.
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
Where: Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss.
Streaming: SEC Network
Oct. 8 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 – at BYU
Oct. 29 – at Auburn
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri
Center Ricky Stromberg said the Hogs’ offensive line is comfortable with either Fortin or Hornsby at quarterback, but like all Razorback fans, no doubt, he hopes Jefferson will be ready to play come Saturday.
Even if the Razorbacks know earlier, I wouldn’t expect the starter to be announced before Saturday morning. We may not know until the Hogs’ first offensive possession. Why let Coach Mike Leach and his Bulldogs know what they don’t until it is evident?
However, such information has been known to slip out early from sources close to the program, so keep your ears close to the ground.
Stromberg and Jackson held the party line in their interviews, but make no mistake, it’s a huge deal if Jefferson plays or not in this game that might take a Herculean offensive effort for Arkansas to win.
No doubt, Jefferson, a native of Sardis, Miss., is eager to play if he is healthy enough. A competitor like him will make every effort to be a difference-maker in the lone game the Hogs play in his home state, if healthy.
Arkansas’ pass defense has been spotty all season to various degrees. Injuries have been an issue from Game 1. A season-ending shoulder injury to All-American candidate Jalen Catalon was a huge blow against Cincinnati, but since then cornerback/safety LadDarius Bishop has been lost for the season, too. Nickel back Myles Slusher and Latavious Brini are also questionable for the game.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom is moving chess pieces like a madman to work out the kinks and deploy his talent to the team’s best benefit. Cornerback Hudson Clark has moved from cornerback to safety, and Sam Mbake, a freshman receiver and special teams gunner, has moved to the secondary as a cornerback.
Being unsettled in the secondary is a difficult challenge when traveling to face Leach’s pass-happy offense and his prolific veteran quarterback Will Rogers.
Rogers is tied for second nationally among active players with four games of five or more passing touchdowns. He is the only active quarterback with multiple games of six or more touchdowns through the air. He also leads the nation in passing yards (8,430) and is third in passing touchdowns (66).
Rogers has thrown for 300-plus yards and at least three touchdowns in 13 of his 27 career games. Rogers has 915 career completions, which is six shy of the current SEC record (921) set by Georgia’s Aaron Murray (2010-13). Rogers is also four passing touchdowns shy of Dallas Cowboys injured quarterback Dak Prescott’s (2012-15) MSU career record (70).
The Bulldogs are running the ball better than in the past, but Leach’s short passing game has functioned as his team’s running game since his time as an offensive coordinator for Hal Mumme at Kentucky in the late 1990s.
Odom has flummoxed Leach’s offense in close games the past two seasons, but Rogers is much improved, and he and Leach have seen Odom’s bag of tricks before.
This could to be a high-scoring game if the Razorbacks can somehow keep up. The Hogs will no doubt try to bully the Bulldogs with their running game, but Pittman said earlier in the week that Arkansas must delve deeper into its passing game to continue to be effective. It will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Kendall Briles throws at Mississippi State and whether or not Arkansas’ back-up QBs can execute it if Jefferson does not play.
There is an outside shot of Razorback linebacker Bumper Pool becoming the Hogs’ all-time leading tackler against the Bulldogs. He’s currently No. 2 on the list, and needs 14 to surpass Tony Bua’s total of 408. He did make 20 tackles against MSU previously.
The last two weeks have been rough on the Razorbacks. The sting and the stink of the 23-21 loss to Texas A&M is unfortunately going to follow the Hogs all season. It’s a game the Razorbacks should have won. The 49-26 loss to Alabama was basically expected, but it just grinds salt in the A&M wound.
The only way to get better is to win. That’s a tough chore without your starting quarterback or even if he is not 100 percent on the road in the SEC West.
Things don’t look much better with a road trip to No. 16 BYU next week. Arkansas really could have used their Oct. 22 open date this week, but they will need it after back-to-back road trips to face ranked teams.
By the time the Hogs travel to Auburn on Oct. 29, who knows what will be going on with their embattled coach Bryan Harsin’s seat growing hotter by the day?
A victory Saturday would be a welcome delight for all Razorbackers, who’ve witnessed the outlook his season grow dimmer by the week.
My heart says the Hogs will rebound Saturday, but my head isn’t sure if they are healthy enough to do it against the best Mississippi State team since Prescott lined up under center in 2015.