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Arkansas vs. Mississippi State Preview

The Hogs hit the road Saturday to face another elite defense

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Hogs are two losses away from the worst season in school history, and while the players and coaches are still fighting hard on the field and on the recruiting trail, the odds are stacked against them for the final two.

Mississippi State (6-4, 2-4 SEC) boasts an elite defense, which is what makes their overall recording a little disappointing. New coach Joe Moorhead’s offense has been a dud, rendering the Bulldogs frustrating to watch. No one has scored more than 28 points in an SEC game involving Mississippi State this year. They’ve lost to Florida, (13-7), Kentucky (28-7), LSU (19-3), and Alabama (24-0). They’ve beaten Auburn (23-9) and Texas A&M (28-13).

Here’s how the Hogs stack up, starting with this question: just how good is Mississippi State’s defense?

When Arkansas has the ball

Oh no.

Holding Alabama to 24 points and just 300 total yards was not a fluke. This is one of the two or three best defenses in the country. Yes, it’s better than LSU’s, possibly much better.

Defensive Line

  • Jeffery Simmons, 34.5 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 0 sacks, -33.1% marginal efficiency
  • Montez Sweat, 32.5 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, -20.4% marginal efficiency
  • Gerri Green, 15.0 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, -6.3% marginal efficiency
  • Braxton Hoyett, 10.5 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.0 sacks, -0.3% marginal efficiency

Simmons and Sweat are two of the best defensive linemen in all of the college football and the line as a whole might be the best outside of Clemson. I’m not sure that Arkansas is going to be able to block them. They’re responsible for the vast majority of the Bulldogs’ sacks and run stuffs.

Linebackers

  • Erroll Thompson, 46.5 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, -5.0% marginal efficiency
  • Leo Lewis, 28.0 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 0 sacks, +7.7% marginal efficiency
  • Willie Gay Jr., 24.5 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, -18.3% marginal efficiency

State’s linebackers are actually pretty pedestrian. They rank 113th in havoc rate as a unit, and most of Lewis’ tackles come on plays that have already gained several yards.

Secondary

  • Johnathan Abram, 55.0 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 1 interception, +32.1% marginal efficiency
  • Mark McLaurin, 48.0 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 0 interceptions, +22.5% marginal efficiency
  • Cameron Dantzler, 29.5 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 2 interceptions, -2.6% marginal efficiency
  • Jamal Peters, 17.5 tackles, 1.0 TFLs, 0 interceptions, +22.5% marginal efficiency

The Bulldogs will make aggressive use of safeties against the run and short passing game. Abram and McLaurin are the top two tacklers for State. Still, if they’re making the overwhelming majority of tackles, then the offense is gaining yards.

Looking over State’s defensive numbers and some film, I’m not really sure what Arkansas should do, other than throw it up to Cheyenne O’Grady and hope for the best. That’s worked pretty well so far.

When Mississippi State has the ball

Mississippi State struggled against the strong defenses of Florida, Kentucky, and LSU, scoring just one touchdown combined in those three games. They were also shut out against Alabama. Their season high for SEC scoring is 28 points against Texas A&M, and they scored 23 against Auburn.

Ending the season with Arkansas and Ole Miss is likely to drive their average up. As mentioned above, fans are pretty frustrated at the offense looks so out of whack. If Arkansas keeps this game close, it will be because they caused problems for the State offense.

Quarterback

  • Nick Fitzgerald, 51.2% completions, 1,377 yards, 10 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 5.1 yards per target

Running Backs

  • Nick Fitzgerald, 146 rushes, 981 yards, 6.7 average, +7.5% marginal efficiency
  • Kylin Hill, 88 rushes, 583 yards, 6.6 average, +10.7% marginal efficiency
  • Aeris Williams, 53 rushes, 334 yards, 6.3 average, +6.3% marginal efficiency

The read-option game with Fitzgerald and Hill is what drives the Mississippi State offense. They’ll line Hill up all over the field and get him the ball, or use him to set up the quarterback draws, powers, and counters, and Fitzgerald runs. You’ll see some RPO action off of these runs.

The rushing numbers are a little inflated. In State’s four losses, they ran the ball 127 times for 405 yards (3.2 yards per rush). In six wins, they’ve run it 247 times for 1,716 yards (6.9 yards per rush). Still, each of State’s six SEC opponents so far has a better run defense than Arkansas’, so expect the Bulldogs to get a minimum of 200 yards and 4.5 per carry, even if Arkansas plays well.

Receivers

  • Stephen Guidry, 43 targets, 349 yards, 8.1 yards per target
  • Osirus Mitchell, 40 targets, 364 yards, 9.1 yards per target
  • Deddrick Thomas, 26 targets, 217 yards, 8.3 yards per target

The receiving group is unimpressive, but most of State’s completions go for big gains. Guidry has caught just 37.2% of his targets this year, but the ones he has caught average 21.8 yards gained.

Keys to the game

  1. Force the issue on offense. Arkansas has zero chance of moving the ball on Mississippi State with a normal gameplan. The Hogs are going to shut out or very close to it unless they aim for big plays. The offense started to look competent in the fourth quarter against LSU when it abandoned the gameplan and starting taking shots to its best players. The Hogs can’t wait until the fourth quarter this time.
  2. Set the edge. State uses a lot of outside runs to open up the run and pass games. If the Hogs can contain these, they’ll have an easier time controlling the rest of MSU’s offense.
  3. Make the Bulldogs one-dimensional. Making MSU one-dimensional hasn’t been much of a challenge this year, as Fitzgerald has regressed badly as a passer. State can probably still win even if the pass is taken away, but the key to limiting the scoring against the Bulldogs this year has been to pressure the quarterback and take away the easy throws.