Mike Leach, K.J. Costello make their home debut as the Bulldogs host the Razorbacks
Riding on the coattails of a 44-34 beatdown of then-No. 6 LSU, the Mississippi State Bulldogs return to Starkville on Saturday to host SEC West foe the Arkansas Razorbacks. This past Saturday, the Razorbacks debuted a new head coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators, and a new starting quarterback but found the same results against No. 3 Georgia falling 37-10 in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Bulldogs look to pour it on against the Hogs hoping to push their No. 16 national ranking into the top 10.
A slow start for Mississippi State on the road against LSU turned into a hot finish, putting up 27 points in the second half against a depleted Tigers squad. The highlight for new Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach was the performance of quarterback K.J. Costello. The graduate transfer from Stanford looked at home in Leach's Air Raid attack, setting an SEC single-game record with 623 passing yards with five touchdowns. The Bulldogs' defense benefitted from an offense putting up points seemingly at will, as MSU surrendered 425 yards of total offense to a group that had just one starter back from last season's SEC and national championship-winning unit.
Meanwhile, Arkansas came out looking solid against Georgia taking a 7-5 lead into halftime. But after adjustments were made and Georgia committed to quarterback Stetson Bennett, the complexion of the game turned into a runaway victory for the road team. The task was daunting for the Razorbacks, going up against one of the best defenses in the nation, and it showed. The Hogs amassed just 77 rushing yards and 203 through the air.
Arkansas vs. No. 16 Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Mississippi State -17.5
When Arkansas Has the Ball
How Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles approaches this game will set the tone for the rest of the season. Arkansas ran the ball 28 times with little success last week against Georgia. Rakeem Boyd has All-SEC talent, but was held to 21 yards on 11 totes. The full arsenal quarterback Feleipe Franks brings to the field was not showcased, as the dual-threat signal-caller managed just 13 yards on five carries. First-year head coach Sam Pittman, a veteran offensive line coach in the SEC, knows games are won in the trenches with a commanding run game. Thanks to seven sacks, Mississippi State clipped LSU's ground game to a net 80 yards. The Hogs have to sustain drives and give their capable defense time on the sidelines.
But there are other issues on offense, as not even a full four quarters into the season and Franks was hearing footsteps, leading to bad passes and bad decisions. The line has to hold up for Franks, in turn, Franks cannot throw two picks a game and expect to lead his team to many wins over SEC squads. On a positive note, receiver Treylon Burks showed he is an elite college football talent, tallying 102 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions.
While Mississippi State was victorious against LSU, some weaknesses were exposed as it relates to the defense. MSU was able to apply plenty of pressure on Tigers quarterback Myles Brennan, producing seven sacks and two picks. But in his first collegiate start, Brennan threw for 345 yards with three touchdowns. There should be room for Franks and company to maneuver if Briles calls the quick-hitting plays instead of opting for long vertical routes that take time to develop.
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
Arkansas holding a Georgia offense that rolled for an average of 181 rushing yards per game a year ago to 121 on 42 attempts last Saturday has to worry Leach. The run is not his offensive system's strong suit, as evidenced by All-SEC back Kylin Hill's 34 yards on just seven carries. But the ground game is necessary, especially on short-yardage plays. If Hill can get back to his form that produced 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last season, there will be no stopping this offense.
Leach loves to throw the ball, so the 60 pass attempts by Costello had against LSU could become a regular occurrence. It's tough to pick apart a record-breaking performance, but the Bulldogs did have some weak spots that need to be addressed. Costello was picked off twice and took five sacks. Likewise, the Razorbacks were able to get to Georgia quarterbacks, sacking D'Wan Mathis and Stetson Bennett a total of three times. The Bulldogs' offensive line should expect to see blitzes and stunts every other down as the Hogs try and throw Costello off his rhythm.
With 10 different receivers catching a pass from Costello last week, good luck trying to key in on even one playmaker. Four different targets had six or more receptions led by Osirus Mitchell (7/183/2) and Hill (8/158/1). Stopping Mitchell and Hill is a start for Arkansas, but JaVonta Payton and Austin Williams are talented enough to make teams pay. Bennett needled the Hogs' secondary, completing 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards with two touchdowns. Costello is far more seasoned and talented than Bennett, which bodes well for the home team.
If Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles cannot shorten the game on the ground and with sustained drives against Mike Leach's unrelenting Air Raid, this one could be over in a hurry, even if both teams keep lighting up the scoreboard for all four quarters. Briles tried to be cute with Arkansas' play-calling last week, including running a reverse on the goal line that ended in safety. He also drew up a receiver option pass that was thrown into double coverage which was picked. SEC defenses are far quicker than what he is accustomed to seeing in the Big 12 with Baylor or even in the ACC with Florida State. Can he adjust to keep Arkansas in this game?
Prediction: Mississippi State 45, Arkansas 28
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— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.