Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs Complete Game Preview

Bryan HeaterCorrespondent INovember 22, 2013

Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs Complete Game Preview

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    Head coach Bret Bielema
    Head coach Bret BielemaWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Two games are left on the schedule, and time is running out for the Arkansas Razorbacks to avoid a winless season in the SEC, something that hasn't happened to the Hogs since joining the conference.

    With a trip to LSU for the final game of the year, seemingly the only way Arkansas can avoid going 0-8 in the SEC is by beating the Mississippi State Bulldogs this Saturday at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

    The Bulldogs are currently in a tailspin themselves, losing their last three games. They played hard at home versus Alabama last week, falling 20-7. Sitting at 4-6 (1-5 SEC), head coach Dan Mullen and Mississippi State have had a very disappointing 2013 campaign.

    The Razorbacks also gave a valiant effort in their last game, a 34-24 loss to Ole Miss two weeks ago in Oxford. But, good efforts don't show up in the win-loss column. It's still a loss on paper, and head coach Bret Bielema and his team know that finishing the year without a conference win is becoming a very real possibility, making this game all the more important for Arkansas. 

    Both teams are desperately searching for a win, so this gridiron matchup should be physical and hard fought. Here's everything you need to know about Saturday's game.

    Date: Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013

    Time: 12:21 p.m. ET

    Place: War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock, Arkansas

    TV: SECTV

    Radio: Arkansas Razorbacks Radio Network and Mississippi State Bulldogs Radio Network

    Spread: Mississippi State by two according to vegasinsider.com

    For more info on the Arkansas Razorbacks, follow Bryan Heater @BHeaterRivals.

Arkansas Keys to Victory

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    DE Chris Smith
    DE Chris SmithNelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Contain Dak Prescott

    It seems as though every week the Hogs aren't sure whether the opposing team's starting quarterback is going to play or not due to injuries. It's the same scenario once again this weekend, as Bulldogs signal-caller Dak Prescott's status for Saturday remains uncertain.

    He sat out last week against Alabama, and senior journeyman Tyler Russell made the start in his place but also was injured, forcing freshman Damian Williams to play the rest of the fourth quarter. 

    Even though Prescott may not play, Arkansas is preparing as if he will. Containing him may be the most important key for the Hogs in the game. The Razorbacks have had trouble with dual-threat quarterbacks in the past, and Prescott can do damage with his arm and legs. He's 10th in the SEC in rushing yards with 722 and is tied for fifth with 10 rushing touchdowns. He's not a great passer yet, but he has thrown for 1,542 yards and seven scores.

    If the Hogs can get into the backfield and disrupt the pocket, they could force Prescott, who has seven interceptions, into bad decisions and get the entire Mississippi State offense out of sync. 

     

    Brandon Allen 

    Allen has been a key for many games, and he will be for this one too. He had his first outing since game two against Samford, in which he completed over 50 percent (18-for-32, 56.3 percent) of his passes, in Arkansas' last game against Ole Miss. 

    The Razorbacks have two very talented backs in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, but they have been slowed down considerably because of Allen's inability to pose a threat to defenses with his arm.

    He's been prone to making inaccurate and bad throws the whole year, and as a result, the offense as a whole hasn't been able to score points, ranking 109th nationally with 20.4 points per game. The Razorbacks need Allen to be productive and make smart decisions if they want to avoid another conference loss.

    He has a chance to build off of his last performance against a modest Bulldog secondary giving up 226.8 YPG. 

     

    Avoid Mistakes

    Another huge reason for the offensive struggles has been the fact that Arkansas has turned the ball over a lot. On the season, the Hogs have handed opponents the ball 18 times, which is tied for 66th in the country. 

    The Razorbacks were already expected to struggle entering the season, so turning the ball over just makes the situation worse. If a team turns the ball over regularly, it's not going to win, no matter what caliber the opponent is. 

    For the Hogs to get that elusive first SEC win, they are going to have to take care of the ball, plain and simple.

Mississippi State Keys to Victory

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    QB Dak Prescott
    QB Dak PrescottJeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Protect Prescott

    Assuming Prescott is able to go, the Bulldogs offensive line is going to have to make sure it keeps Arkansas defenders from laying shots on him.

    A quarterback is already fragile when he's nursing an injury, so it's critical that he stay protected to avoid making it even worse. Prescott leads the team in rushing yards—the next closest is over 250 yards behind him—but probably won't be tucking the ball as much to avoid further injury.

    If the Hogs get in the backfield and put pressure, hurry and sack him, the Bulldogs will have a long day.

     

    Slow Down Razorbacks Rushing Attack

    Collins and Williams have combined for 1,729 yards with eight touchdowns on the year, and despite Arkansas lacking productivity from the quarterback and wideouts, they have still been very successful on the ground.

    The Bulldogs have been good against the run, allowing 147.1 YPG, good for 39th in the nation. However, Alabama exposed their rush defense last week, racking up 196 yards. Mississippi State is going to need to play like it did against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, with the defense holding him and the Aggies to just 91 yards on the ground.

    When teams have contained the Razorbacks duo, they have virtually brought the entire offense to a screeching halt. With a mediocre offense itself, it will be critical that Mississippi State keep Collins and Williams in check, so Arkansas doesn't eat up the clock, gain a comfortable lead and force the Bulldogs offense to come from behind on the road.

     

    Pressure Allen

    Just like Arkansas will want to pressure Prescott, Mississippi State needs to get to Allen. He already has issues with his accuracy, and when defenses have pressured him, he's had even more problems. 

    When Allen hasn't had sufficient time in the pocket, he's made some very ill-advised throws that have fallen directly into the hands of the defenders. It has also made his accuracy, which is already bad enough at 46.7 percent on the year, go completely down the drain.

    Alabama put pressure on Allen, and he completed a mere 28 percent of his passes for 91 yards and two picks. If the Bulldogs can follow that blueprint, Allen could have another game below the 50 percent mark. That's a big if though, as Mississippi State is 105th nationally in team sacks per game with 1.4 and just 14 in all.

Arkansas Players to Watch

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    WR Keon Hatcher
    WR Keon HatcherNelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    WR Keon Hatcher

    His stats aren't great by any means, but wide receiver Keon Hatcher has really started to come on late in the season. 

    He only has 18 catches for 233 yards on the year, but he's had 108 of those in the last two games. Two weeks ago against Ole Miss, he averaged 19.3 YPC with 58 yards on three receptions. He's still only a sophomore, so seeing him coming on is an encouraging sign for the future.

    Hatcher has good speed and could cause the Bulldogs secondary some problems. It's just up to Allen to find him.

     

    RB Alex Collins

    Is there ever a game where he isn't one to watch for the Hogs? Nah. 

    The freshman is that good and is an awful lot of fun to watch. Collins currently leads all freshman and is 29th nationally in total rushing yards with 946. As stated earlier, he's been slowed down due to Allen's ineffectiveness but has still been very impressive nonetheless. 

    Look for Bielema to rely on him, as well as Williams, to try and wear down the Mississippi State defense and keep its offense off the field.

     

    DE Chris Smith

    It really is too bad that defensive end Chris Smith is a senior. His pass rushing abilities and brute strength are going to be missed around the Hill.

    Smith leads the team with 7.5 sacks on the year and has been one of the most consistent players on the defense. He also leads Arkansas with 10.5 tackles for loss. Offensive linemen have had their hands full trying to keep him from getting into the backfield and disrupting plays before they even get started.

    Expect Smith to play a big role once again Saturday, as the Hogs will try and pressure Prescott to keep him from getting comfortable.

Mississippi State Players to Watch

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    WR Jameon Lewis
    WR Jameon LewisJeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    LB Benardrick McKinney

    Just a sophomore, starting linebacker Benardrick McKinney has been arguably the best player on the Bulldogs defense.

    He leads the team in tackles (58), is tied for first in sacks (2.5) and is second in TFL (5.5). McKinney has been all over the field this year and is a big reason why the Bulldogs rush defense has been so good. He's a very good pass-rusher and has also recorded four quarterback hurries.

    Mississippi State has struggled to take down opposing quarterbacks, but the Arkansas O-line will have to keep an eye out for this guy.

     

    WR Jameon Lewis

    Much like Arkansas, the Bulldogs don't have a dominant wide receiver. The wealth has been shared by a number of guys, with seven wideouts having over 100 yards on the season.

    However, only one of those receivers has over 300 yards. Jameon Lewis is tops on the team with 541 yards, four touchdowns and 43 receptions. Whether it has been Prescott, Russell or Williams throwing, Lewis has been the guy they have targeted more times than not. 

    Though he's only 5'9", Lewis is very speedy and could give an Arkansas secondary that gives up 229.1 YPG (63rd FBS) problems. He also has 117 yards on 13 carries and three scores.

     

    RB LaDarius Perkins

    Mississippi State uses multiple running backs. Excluding Prescott, who is the top rusher, LaDarius Perkins has been the most consistent back for the Bulldogs.

    He's rushed for 458 yards on 106 carries and is a hard-nosed runner. Like Collins, he's very good at making tacklers miss and has good speed. The Hogs have struggled against the run, ranking 71st in the country and allowing 171.2 YPG. Arkansas has also been very poor at tackling, so it would be wise for the Bulldogs to test the Razorbacks by giving Perkins the ball early on.

What They're Saying

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    Head coach Bret Bielema (right) and C Travis Swanson
    Head coach Bret Bielema (right) and C Travis SwansonNelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    For Whom The Cowbell Tolls on SB Nation noted that if Prescott isn't able to make the start against the Hogs, Williams will have to go:

    Coming into this contest, the Mississippi State offense remains a bit of a mystery. As of now, fans have been left wondering who will play quarterback Saturday as both Dak Prescott and Tyler Russell have been listed as day-to-day with injuries. Should neither be able to go, true freshman Damien Williams would draw his first career start. So far this year, he has completed eleven of 23 passes for 152 yards and an interception. To his credit, he looked fairly sharp in emergency duty against Alabama, and he had a sure fire touchdown pass dropped by De'Runnya Wilson.

    Even though the Bulldogs have a losing record, defensive coordinator Chris Ash told HawgSports.com (subscription) that Mississippi State will present challenges and have been very close in big games:

    Probably presents more schematic problems than any team we've faced this year. We've got to go out and play and then we'll adjust accordingly on game day based on who's playing and what they decide to do, but I would expect their top guys to be out there...They've been in every game except really one. LSU is the only one that really got away from them. But they've been very competitive. They haven't been able to get over the hump for whatever reason, and hopefully we can prevent that from happening on Saturday. 

    Associated Press Sports Writer Kurt Voigt, via the Miami Herald, talked on how close Collins is to making history for the Hogs:

    While Arkansas has struggled this season, running back Alex Collins is closing in on one of the best freshman seasons in school history. The Florida native is fifth in the SEC with 946 yards rushing this season, and he's just 168 yards away from topping former Razorbacks running back Darren McFadden for the most rushing yards in school history by a freshman. "We want to finish with a bang, especially since this is the last home game for our seniors," Collins said. "I just want to play strong for them. Why not go out and win? That's our main focus."

Prediction

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    Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

    With a trip to LSU next week to close out the season, you can almost with 100 percent certainty say that this is Arkansas' last chance to avoid a winless SEC season.

    With that in mind, the Hogs are going to try and do everything they can to make sure that doesn't happen against the Bulldogs. If Prescott plays, he is going to be a big challenge for the Hogs. The Razorbacks are going to have to do better tackling and fill holes in the defense, so he and Mississippi State don't run all over them like other teams have.

    The Bulldogs have a good front seven, but they were exposed against Alabama and some other teams. Expect Collins and Williams to get a lot of touches and try and eat the clock as much as possible. Arkansas has made some strides, and with it knowing this could be its most realistic shot to win a conference game, the Bulldogs should come out with a chip on their shoulder.

    A win here would spoil the Bulldogs chances at a bowl and give the Hogs something to build off of moving forward.

    Arkansas 24, Mississippi State 17