STARKVILLE, Miss. — Facing a team known for its Air Raid offense, Arkansas football struggled to slow down Mississippi State’s ground game Saturday.
The No. 23 Bulldogs racked up a season-high 173 rushing yards in their 40-17 shellacking of the Razorbacks inside Davis Wade Stadium.
“We thought we had a good game plan going in and really we couldn’t stop the run,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “They ran it basically when they wanted to. Part of that was they did a really good job and part of it is we did a poor job of tackling.”
From a schematic standpoint, Arkansas used the rush-three, drop-eight zone defense it used quite a bit the last two years — including to great success in Starkville back in 2020.
The Razorbacks had plans to mix things up, particularly when it involved using elite pass-rushing linebacker Drew Sanders, but not having Myles Slusher — plus losing defensive backs Jayden Johnson and Khari Johnson to injuries during the game — hampered their plans.
“We’ve been running that same defense now for 3 years against them,” Pittman said. “We had an opportunity, we had things in there where we get Drew up on the ball to rush, things of that nature. We were going to go to that a little bit earlier, but then we started losing some guys.”
“When Slusher didn’t come, and then we lost two more, then it’s hard to have a tremendous confidence in doing a whole lot, to be perfectly honest with you. Assignment-wise. We took a slow drumming is what ended up happening.”
Asked for clarification on why Arkansas wasn’t multiple on defense, as it has been all of 2022, and never switched to a four-man front or brought more pressure, Pittman pointed to the defensive personnel available.
“We were going to put Drew down a lot to allow him to become that pass rusher,” Pittman said. “Well then, when we were going with the nickel situation, then you’re talking about (Chris Paul Jr.) going out and playing some nickel. … We felt better with Drew inside.”
The result was the most rushing yards Mississippi State has ever gained during the Mike Leach era, blowing past the 151 it gained against Missouri in 2020. The Bulldogs were led by Dillon Johnson’s 100 yards, the first time they’ve had a player hit the century mark since Leach was hired.
Pittman said he wasn’t necessarily surprised by Mississippi State’s run game, but was surprised by its effectiveness without using the 20 personnel package that includes two running backs. The Razorbacks were prepared to give up 2- and 3-yard runs, but they were consistently getting 7 or so because they couldn’t get the Bulldogs on the ground, which prevented them from being as multiple as they hoped.
“We couldn’t handle the edge, and whenever you can’t handle the edge, then you’re going, ‘Well, you can’t take this guy underneath because if you do, now you’ve got an extra blocker outside,’” Pittman said. “Yeah, there were some things that we thought physically we could handle and then we could go off of that.”
“When you couldn’t handle the first part of the base part of it, we tried some knot games and some things of that nature, it just didn’t seem like a whole lot of it worked, to be honest with you.”
Mississippi State started pounding the Razorbacks immediately, too. Three of its first four plays were runs and it actually covered more distance on the ground than through the air on its opening touchdown drive.
Early on, a good chunk of those rushing yards came on runs right up the middle or between the tackles. Based on comments by Pittman and linebacker Bumper Pool, it didn’t sound like Arkansas ever considered switching out of its dime defense and going to a true four-man front, but it did squeeze its defensive ends in some in an effort to force the runs outside where it had more help.
“We made some adjustments, tried to get our ends into some 4i’s to help the ball bounce,” Pool said. “But they had a good game plan. They came out running the ball right away and just kind of felt we were on our heels from the jump.”
Another side effect of the rush-three scheme was the fact that Will Rogers had all day to throw. That resulted in him completing 31 of 48 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns. All told, the Bulldogs racked up 568 yards of offense and not only did Arkansas fail to notch a sack, but it didn’t have a tackle for loss for the first time since a 56-3 loss at Auburn in 2016.
Bumper Pool Breaks UA Record
Coming into the game 13 tackles shy of the Arkansas football career record, Bumper Pool finished with 14 to move just ahead of Tony Bua. The super senior from Texas now has 409 career tackles.
Unfortunately for him, the moment was marred by the Razorbacks’ ugly 23-point loss that included a rough outing for the defense as a whole, but Sam Pittman still took an opportunity to praise his team captain afterward.
“I wish we would’ve won,” Pittman said. “If we would’ve, I think what a great celebration it would have been for him. I’m so proud of him. Guys, he’s hurt all the time. You never hear it, but he is. People go, ‘Well, he missed that tackle.’ Well, hell, you would be too if you felt like Bumper Pool.”
Pool — whose 60 tackles rank second in the SEC and are tied for 12th nationally — has never been brought up when Pittman discusses injuries and he’s yet to miss a game this season, but he’s been banged up all year.
During the week leading up to the Texas A&M game, he missed practice Monday and appeared to be limited Tuesday based on the portions of practice open to the media. However, a few days later, he still played 51 of 61 snaps against the Aggies.
“Honestly, that’s kind of been one of the biggest challenges this year,” Pool said. “I’ve been battling with an injury in my hip, and just having to fight every single day to make sure that you put your best foot forward for your teammates, it’s never easy, especially when you lose. But I’ve just tried my best to make sure that I can give them everything I have no matter how I’m feeling.”
It may not have swung the game entirely in Mississippi State’s favor, but one area that the Bulldogs dominated was on fourth down.
The Razorbacks limited Mississippi State to 5 of 13 conversions on third down, which isn’t great, but a slight improvement from their 44.3% they were allowing. However, the Bulldogs still moved the chains three other times thanks to going 3 of 5 on fourth down.
Two of those fourth-down conversions came in the red zone when Mississippi State needed 3 yards and ran for 4. Both of them eventually resulted in touchdowns.
On the flip side, Arkansas was 0 for 3 on fourth downs and two of its failed attempts came inside the 10. Rocket Sanders and Rashod Dubinion were each stuffed on fourth-and-1, with the latter also being a fourth-and-goal.
“That’s situation football,” Pittman said. “It always sneaks up and it’ll get you. It got us today. It would have been a game, I think, had we been able to convert those two fourth downs. But we couldn’t.”
The Razorbacks have now converted only 45.5% (5 of 11) of their fourth downs, which is tied for 89th nationally. They have also allowed opponents to convert them at a 66.7% rate (6 of 9), which is tied for 100th.
Disastrous Kickoffs to Start Both Halves
The first and second halves could not have started worse for Arkansas football on Saturday.
Winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half, the Razorbacks had to kick off to start the game. Walk-on transfer Jake Bates has been one of the best kickoff men in the country this season, entering the weekend with an incredible 86.2% touchback rate, but he didn’t have a great day against Mississippi State.
It started with his first kickoff out of bounds, allowing the Bulldogs to start the ball at the 35 instead of the 25.
“Bates had a scholarship here at Mississippi State and he decided to stay at Arkansas and walk on,” Pittman said. “So I’m sure he was jammed up on trying to kick it into the nickel bleachers and kicked it out of bounds.”
Even with only one touchback on his four kickoffs Saturday, Bates still has a touchback rate of 78.8%, which ranks ninth in the FBS.
The Razorbacks fell behind 21-0 rather quickly, but did score the 10 points in the final six minutes of the second quarter to make it 21-10 at halftime.
All things considered, they were in a good spot because they got the ball to start the second half with a chance to make it a one-possession game. However, Arkansas never really got a great chance for that because of what happened on the kickoff.
Ben Raybon’s kickoff was on the ground and return man AJ Green struggled to pick it up. The ball eventually went into the end zone before he was able to secure it, by which point Mississippi State’s coverage team was right on top of him. He managed to get out of the end zone, but was tackled inside the 1.
“There was a little bit of panic on AJ’s part because we practiced that scenario in practice where it’s a muff into the end zone and you’re just going to go back there and get on it and you get the ball out to the 25,” Pittman said. “But he panicked and got the ball back out to the inch line.”
Back-to-back runs by Rocket Sanders picked up four yards, but Malik Hornsby’s third-down pass sailed over his intended receivers, so it was a three-and-out. Even with a booming 53-yard punt by Reid Bauer, the Bulldogs had good field position and scored six plays later to push their lead back to 17.
Arkansas Football Injury Report
Here are a few updates on Arkansas football players dealing with injuries…
- QB KJ Jefferson (head): Dressed out and participated in pregame warmups, but did not play… Pittman is optimistic he’ll be fully cleared by Monday’s practice
- DB Jayden Johnson (undisclosed): Had to be helped off the field late in the second quarter, did not return
- DB Khari Johnson (undisclosed): Suffered an undisclosed injury at some point and didn’t play much, if at all, in the second half
- WR Warren Thompson (undisclosed): An undisclosed injury kept him out of the Alabama game, but he played about half of the snaps against Mississippi State despite not starting
- DB Myles Slusher (calf): Did not travel… Pittman sounded optimistic that he’d be able to play next week at BYU
- DE Jashaud Stewart (undisclosed): After dressing out and not playing in the last two games, Stewart got on the field against Mississippi State
- WR Isaiah Sategna (ankle): Did not travel for the Texas A&M game, but on the 70-man travel roster for Mississippi State… Also dressed out against Alabama, so appears to be healthy
- WR Quincey McAdoo (arm/wrist): Did not travel after being on the Texas A&M travel roster… Spotted with a cast on his right arm/wrist prior to the Alabama game
- DT Taurean Carter (knee): Expected to be out for a while
- CB LaDarrius Bishop (knee): Out for the year
- S Jalen Catalon (shoulder): Out for the year
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…