Mississippi State

Mississippi State hopes to keep recent edge over Arkansas

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) runs past Texas A&M defensive back Armani Watts (23) for a first down on Nov. 5 in Starkville.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) runs past Texas A&M defensive back Armani Watts (23) for a first down on Nov. 5 in Starkville. Associated Press

It’s become one of the more thrilling ball games of the year in the SEC when Mississippi State and Arkansas get together.

Dan Mullen has found a way to get the best of the Razorbacks in recent seasons with the eighth-year head coach winning the last four against the Hogs. That doesn't mean that he’s always handled them.

Mullen’s team had one of the toughest losses in his tenure when they fell to top 20 Arkansas in 2010 in double overtime. MSU returned the favor in 2013 with an overtime win that kept their bowl hopes alive. Will Redmond ended the Razorbacks’ chances of pulling the upset against No. 1 MSU when the corner intercepted a pass in the end zone on a potential game-tying drive.

Then came last season where the two teams combined for over 1,000 yards of offense as quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Brandon Allen went back and forth. The Bulldogs won their fourth straight in the series when Beniquez Brown blocked a game-winning field goal on the road.

“It seems like it comes down to the final play against Arkansas,” Mullen said. “It’s kind of gone back and forth pretty much my whole time here.”

This year might not be any different when the two teams meet. Arkansas (6-4, 2-4) has been up and down this season and has certainly taken their lumps in areas like run defense, but Mullen sees another dangerous opponent.

Led by quarterback Austin Allen, Mullen knows Arkansas will execute on offense. Allen averages 250 yards per game passing and has taken a lot from his older brother, Brandon, who gave the Razorbacks chances to win against MSU in his career.

“Arkansas is a great team,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to find a way to win the football game. They play physical and play hard every snap. (Austin Allen) might be one of the best quarterbacks we’ve played all year. We’ve got to be ready to play for four quarters.”

Bowl hopes alive

Mullen has pointed back to the 2013 season many times this season in comparison to his inexperienced team in 2016. The Bulldogs came into the final two games that year at 4-6 with a road game at Arkansas and Egg Bowl at home to follow.

MSU won both of those games to end the year as well as the Liberty Bowl and cashed that in for a No. 1 ranking for five weeks the next season. Mullen is hoping that something similar happens over the next two weekends, but he needs his leaders to step up and make plays.

“There’s some similarities. We had a young football team, we suffered an exorbitant amount of injuries that year and played some tough games,” Mullen said. “Those seniors stepped up and willed us to win. One thing I remember more than anything was Nickoe Whitley fighting through an ACL injury and essentially winning both games by himself. That type of leadership and toughness that willed us to win those games was huge.”

Another similarity is the rise of a sophomore quarterback. Nick Fitzgerald still has a long way to go to live up to the legacy Prescott left behind, but he’s getting there with his on-field numbers. The sophomore in his first year as a starter has already rushed for 854 yards and eight touchdowns while throwing for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Like Prescott did in that sophomore campaign, Fitzgerald and others are going to have to be the ones to take over the final two games. Richie Brown, AJ Jefferson and others contributed in that 2013 season, but most players on the roster didn’t.

“As coaches, we’ve been in this situation before,” Mullen said. “Most of the guys that were here were mostly towel wavers. You’ve got to go step up and be the Nickoe Whitley and go make the play. They’ve seen somebody do it so now it’s their opportunity to go do it now.”