Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
ARKANSAS AT MISSISSIPPI STATE:
Starkville success has UA hopeful
STARKVILLE, Miss. If Arkansas intends to extend its streak of bowl appearances to four years, step one must take place today at noisy, raucous Scott Field against Mississippi State.
The cowbells will be rattling for the 11:21 a.m. kickoff as the Bulldogs (7-3 overall, 3-3 SEC) celebrate their senior day and try to snap a three-game losing streak to Arkansas (4-6, 2-4).
The Razorbacks are 6-4 against Mississippi State in Starkville since joining the SEC, and they’ll need to make it 7-4 today then beat LSU in Fayetteville next week to go to a bowl.
“I think everybody has pride ... to continue to fight, continue to represent the state, even though it’s not gone as good as we’d like it.” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said.
The Bulldogs were 7-0 and ranked No. 11 in the BCS standings before falling to SEC West powers Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in succession by a combined 113-37.
Arkansas was expected to be among those powers and continue a hazardous stretch for the Bulldogs before slipping from its preseason Associated Press Top 10 perch.
“It’s a big game,” said Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen, who is 0-3 against Arkansas and 4-15 against SEC West teams. “It’s a last home game for our seniors. This is my first recruiting class. I think they’re leaving as one of the most successful classes in school history.”
The group of Mississippi State seniors is 28-20, the best four-year record for the Bulldogs since the 2001 class finished 29-19. Arkansas’ senior group is 32-16.
Arkansas (15-4-1) has more victories over Mississippi State than any other SEC rival since joining the conference for football in 1992.
That includes three consecutive victories by a combined 124-69, one of which was a 38-31 double-overtime victory two years ago when the Bulldogs were honoring defensive end Nick Bell, who died two weeks earlier after a brief battle with brain cancer.
Bell’s senior class will be honored today, so emotions and the clanging cowbells will be at full throttle.
“Starkville’s a tough place to go into and play,” Arkansas Coach John L. Smith said.
Strong quarterback play has been a common thread in Arkansas’ three-game winning streak in the series. Ryan Mallett threw for 313 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-21 Arkansas victory in 2009, and Wilson completed 32 of 43 passes for 365 yards and 3 touchdowns last season.“Issue No. 1 is their quarterback always seems to light it up and have his career games against us,” Mullen said. “Three years they’ve been able to do that.
“You go into a game, and to their credit they have NFLstyle quarterbacks, and they have another one this year. We’re going to have to play our A game, because when he’s on, he’s probably one of the top picks in the NFL Draft, one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
Arkansas has struggled to convert its yardage into points this season. The Razorbacks rank No. 45 in total offense (422 yards per game), but they are No. 82 in scoring at 25.5 points per game.
“Since Day 1 we have been moving the ball,” Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton said. “We just have to do the critical things in critical situations.”
Hamilton (73 receptions, 1,149 yards) and the other Razorbacks receivers will match up against a ball-hawking secondary — cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay each have four interceptions.
“They also give up a big play here and there because they are aggressive, but they’re good players,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said.
“Each year when they’ve played Arkansas they’ve had a few things that have been different that they haven’t done all year long. That’s something we’ve got to get ready for and adjust to.”
Arkansas is one of 14 FBS teams without a touchdown on defense or special teams.
The Razorbacks defense will again be without indefinitely suspended senior linebacker Terrell Williams, giving freshmen Otha Peters and A.J. Turner another turn in the starting lineup.
“Every rep they take and every mistake that they make, they are going to continue to grow,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said of the freshman linebackers.
Sports, Pages 19 on 11/17/2012