State of the Hogs: Top 10 Keys to Victory for Mississippi State game

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, November 17, 2016
Mississippi State receiver Fred Ross runs away from Arkansas safety Josh Liddell for a touchdown during a game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Fayetteville.
( Ben Goff)
Mississippi State receiver Fred Ross runs away from Arkansas safety Josh Liddell for a touchdown during a game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Fayetteville.

— I've been asked a few times: how do you learn football?

The best advice I can give is to listen. There's not one man responsible for my knowledge of football. It comes from covering many great coaches through the years. You get something from everyone if you will listen.

Louis Campbell, my fishing buddy, taught me secondary coverages, along with blitz strategies. There were many nights in fish camp where we each took turns asking questions. He'd ask me about fishing the ruby midge. I'd ask him about how a secondary rolls to the field side or the way a blitz is hidden on the weak side.

I trust Louis on everything, including life questions. He learned more than football during his days playing for Frank Broyles, coaching for Bear Bryant and working in the Big 8, Southwest Conference, SEC and NFL.

Campbell retired from coaching two weeks ago after spending the last seven years as head coach at Sheridan High School.

Sometimes what you learn from a trusted coach is as simple as how you should watch a football game. Merv Johnson, perhaps the greatest offensive line coach I've known, taught me how to watch a game before there was a chance at DVR or replays. Johnson was line coach during national title runs at Arkansas, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.

“Put your field glasses on the center,” Johnson said. “Don't watch the ball. If you have your field glasses focused on the center, you'll also see the guard. You'll see the blocking develop and those three players will take you to the ball.”

Try it this week for Arkansas' game at Mississippi State. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. Saturday in Starkville, Miss.

It works like a charm. And with replays in the stadium, you can always watch the play again in a matter of seconds and see anything you might have missed. You'll see more than the others around you. Trust me.

You'll see the bulk of the action. You'll see things like I did last week when LSU center Ethan Pocic produced havoc on the interior of the Arkansas defense. Pocic won SEC linemen of the week for the fifth time in two years, this time with 11 knockdown blocks against the Razorbacks.

Pocic is one of the five finalists for the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman. I wouldn't be surprised if he won it, as well as the Rimington Trophy for the best center. Those are the two most coveted awards for a blocker.

Of course, Arkansas has a good center, too. Junior Frank Ragnow is the best player on a rebuilding offensive front. He's in the same category as Pocic. If you put your field glasses on Pocic and Ragnow, you are going to see similar stuff. They are long, quick off the ball and they get to the next level. Both pull and lead on outside plays.

Mississippi State does not have a Pocic or Ragnow, but they have a good one in senior Jamaal Clayborn, a 6-4, 315-pounder set to make his 23rd start. The Bulldogs have nominated Clayborn for the Rimington. He won't win, but he's a good player.

As most have figured out by now, it's about the offensive line each week. LSU was loaded up front and dominated the UA defense with superb blocking.

Mississippi State's O-line is not on the same level, but there are three seniors and solid players at both tackle spots. That's the strength of the team as quarterback Nick Fitzgerald executes the zone read with those tackles taking the end or the inside linebacker.

You'll still see all of that if you focus on the center. It's going to be a terrific ticket for both offensive sets, as the Hogs try to pull Ragnow and guards Hjalte Froholdt and Johnny Gibson to create some creases for Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley.

The key will be for Williams and Whaley to hit them, or see when the cutback is the perfect choice for a little jump cut and slash to the outside. They didn't see those holes last week, as big a reason as any for the lack of production in the run game against LSU.

Fitzgerald is a tailback type at quarterback. He's 6-5, 230 and has better speed than you'd guess. He pulls away from defenders in the open field and is not shy about running to contact, too. Paul Rhoads said he reminds him of a Kansas State quarterback the Hogs played against in the Cotton Bowl, gifted runner Collin Klein. It's a good comparison, but Fitzgerald is developing into an adequate passer, too.

While Johnson taught me to watch the center, Bobby Petrino gave me another key focal point while covering football. Maybe it's the key in the modern era with more passing, but Petrino said to watch the defensive ends. It's all about putting pressure on the quarterback in the passing game.

“Your defensive end has to hit the quarterback,” Petrino said. “If you hit the quarterback, you change his vision. You change the game. If you don't hit the quarterback, he's going to rip you to shreds.”

If you listen to defensive players talk each week, you'll get that. Arkansas linebacker Brooks Ellis was asked about stopping Fitzgerald. It comes down to hitting the quarterback.

“You have to do things to make him uncomfortable,” Ellis said. “We have to get to him and do things that take him away from what he wants to do. If you let him be comfortable, he can hurt you.”

Flip that around, it's about keeping Austin Allen comfortable in the Arkansas pocket. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos admitted this week that Allen has dropped his eyes of late, looking at the rush and not so much at his receivers. It's the product of too many sacks or hits on the quarterback.

“We've got to get back to being comfortable, being confident, being poised,” Enos said of his quarterback. “That's not just him, that's the whole group.”

The week was spent trying to simplify pass protection, with Enos noting there are a lot of first-time players on offense, including Brian Wallace, Froholdt, Gibson and Whaley. To make things tougher, communication will be a problem with Mississippi State's loud cowbells.

One of the keys in this week's Top 10 list has to do with communication. It's down the list, but it still is important as a young offense heads to Davis Wade Stadium.

1. The Sack

Austin Allen has absorbed 24 sacks. Sacks allowed isn't listed in the UA media guide. One of the biggest totals I could find came in 1997 when Clint Stoerner went down 33 times. I don't think Allen is going down that many times, but it's still been a bunch. Mississippi State has 21 sacks in 10 games and can apply pressure. Jonathan Calvin leads the Bulldogs with five. The Hogs have to be careful with their rush against Fitzgerald, an able scrambler. He's only been sacked 13 times. Is this the game that defensive end Deatrich Wise finds his game after battling injuries most of the season? He's practiced more this week than the last three put together.

2. The Zone Read

The Hogs know what they'll see from Fitzgerald, plenty of zone reads, much like what hurt them early this season against Texas A&M. The quarterback run has been the killer for this defense over the last two seasons, although that wasn't really a factor last week when LSU mashed them with the running game. Fitzgerald leads the Bulldogs with 854 rushing yards. He'll make sure the Hogs have shored up that part of the defense. If not, the Bulldogs won't ever call a pass. Arkansas has given up 29 touchdowns rushing, a modern-day school record. That stat first showed up in the media guide in 1947 and the previous record was 25 last year. So the Razorbacks have given up 54 rushing touchdowns in two years. The most in back-to-back years before that was 42.

3. Tackling

Mississippi State's best defender is middle linebacker Richie Brown. He is easily the teams' best tackler and leads with 82, including 44 solo. Arkansas middle linebacker Brooks Ellis is the team-leader with 69, of which 31 are solo. He will be heavily involved in the tracking mission against Fitzgerald's called quarterback runs, both draws and sweeps. How Brown and Ellis play might determine the success of each defense.

4. Ball Security

The Hogs have lost turnovers in big numbers in their four losses. Austin Allen has thrown 10 interceptions and lost four fumbles in losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn and LSU. He's got to play clean for the Hogs to win on the road. Enos said it will come down to getting back to basics and fundamentals. He said Allen looked “antsy” against LSU. He said the key will be playing the way he practices, on “instincts.” And that means protecting the football, too. The Hogs aren't good enough on defense to give up the short field after turnovers.

5. Exploiting the Matchup

Everyone knows the defense against the run is the problem for Arkansas. For Mississippi State, it's pass defense. The Bulldogs have given up 277.3 yards per game passing. The opposition has passed for 29 touchdowns. That might translate into a big game for Allen, who is averaging 268.9 yards with 20 touchdowns. The Bulldogs have had an awful time keeping its corners healthy. After seeing three great sets of corners against Auburn, Florida and LSU, the Arkansas receivers might like this matchup. Mississippi State plays a lot of man-to-man, so there is a chance to burn that secondary for big plays. Can the Hogs exploit the matchup?

6. Motivation

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema usually gets his team to play hard after losses, and often times well. The Hogs have won their last nine games following an SEC loss. Some of those are nonconference victories, but there have been some tough teams among those nine victories, too. Bielema tried something different after the LSU loss, asking strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert to address the team in the Sunday night meeting. Ellis said Herbert knocked it out of the park. The message was simple: play to their capabilities. Obviously, no one thought they did against LSU. Will the Hogs be motivated in Starkville? Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen asked his team to play like its back is to the wall. With only two games left, the Bulldogs have to win out to get to a bowl. Who will be motivated?

7. The Running Game

Who gets it going? The Hogs were stuffed last week and offensive tackle Dan Skipper said afterward, “We don't run the ball, we don't win.” They made just 81 yards on 24 carries and most came on two runs by Williams and Whaley. They both said they missed cuts against the Tigers, failing to see the good blocking when it was there. The Bulldogs have been up-and-down with the running game, but it was the main ingredient for a 35-28 upset victory over Texas A&M two weeks ago. They rushed for 365 yards with Fitzgerald going for 182 on 20 carries. Running back Aeris Williams added 140 on 24 carries as Fitzgerald executed the zone read to perfection.

8. Third Down

It has been a tough story for both defenses this season. Arkansas has a paltry 45 percent (56 of 124) on defensive third downs this season. Mississippi State isn't much better at 41 percent (63 of 155). There is a key number hidden there. Arkansas has not faced near as many third downs, meaning the Hogs have given up more first downs on first and second downs. Offensively, the Hogs convert at 39 percent (52 of 134), with the Bulldogs converting 38 percent (58 of 152). Again, there is a number hidden there, with Arkansas facing 28 fewer third downs. The Hogs have hit more big plays. The key men on third down are easy to spot. For Mississippi State, it's wideout Fred Ross, one of the league's best for three years. Everyone knows Allen likes Drew Morgan on third down. He's been solid for two seasons. Can either team take away those third down targets?

9. Fast Start

Bielema said two weeks ago before the Florida game that he told the team that one of the big keys was to “come out swinging.” He wanted a fast start. The Hogs have won the first quarter by 90-62. The Bulldogs have lost the opening quarter 72-59. In the last three UA losses, Alabama won the first quarter 14-7; Auburn jumped ahead 21-0; and LSU turned a 7-0 first quarter lead into 21-0 five minutes into the second quarter. So a fast start is important for the Hogs. How do you do that? Allen has to protect the football and the Hogs have to establish the running game. Those two areas will go a long way in determining success in Starkville.

10. The Line of Scrimmage

Which way does the line move at the snap? In its four losses, Arkansas did not control the line of scrimmage. Mississippi State has had similar problems this year in a 4-6 start. Arkansas has been battling some injuries up front over the last month, but might be more healthy for this game than any since September. Froholdt, Wallace and Jake Raulerson all seem to be close to full speed, although Raulerson is listed as a backup. Can the Hogs hold their own in the defensive front? It's been an issue of late, with linemen taking the wrong gaps in the run defense. Mississippi State's option game demands discipline play. So that's as much of a key as physical play. Mental preparation is critical this week. Bielema said there might be a reduction in calls up-front to prevent assignment busts and eliminate communication breakdowns because of the noise factor in a loud stadium.


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