Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Bulldogs, QB flying high into Fayetteville
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers (2) passes against Kentucky during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2021. Mississippi won 31-17. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
FAYETTEVILLE — There is one college football team that has beaten three opponents currently ranked in The Associated Press or USA Today coaches polls.
The answer might surprise you.
It’s an SEC team, but not Georgia — No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff poll released Tuesday night — or No. 2 Alabama.
Mississippi State, picked to finish last in the SEC West in a preseason media poll, comes into Saturday’s game at the University of Arkansas with victories over nationally-ranked North Carolina State, Texas A&M and Kentucky.
The Bulldogs (5-3, 3-2) beat the Wolfpack 24-10 on Sept. 11, won 26-22 at then-No. 15 Texas A&M on Oct. 2 and beat then-No. 12 Kentucky 31-17 last week.
North Carolina State is No. 19 in the CFP poll, Texas A&M is No. 14 and Kentucky is No. 18.
Mississippi State, ranked No. 17 in the CFP poll, outgained Kentucky 438-216 in total offense, had four takeaways without a turnover and held the ball for 41:10.
“They beat us in all phases,” Wildcats Coach Mark Stoops said. “I thought physically they played extremely hard.
“We didn’t match their intensity. I felt like we got pushed around. We weren’t able to run the ball. They ran the ball. They made competitive plays, out-coached us, out-played us.
“They kicked our butts.”
Bulldogs sophomore quarterback Will Rogers set an SEC record with a 92% completion rate (36 of 39) against Kentucky for 344 yards and 1 touchdown.
Rogers’ 327 completions are a Mississippi State season record, surpassing 316 by Dak Prescott in 2015.
“I thought he played well,” Bulldogs Coach Mike Leach said. “I thought he did a good job seeing the field, did a good job checking on the plays he was in a position to check.
“We had a slow start, but then we picked it up. I thought he did a good job elevating that.”
Leach said Rogers also benefited from good protection from the offensive line.
“They couldn’t effectively pass rush us with three guys,” Leach said. “They needed four to five, and we still protected. That makes them short handed on the back end.”
Rogers, who started six games last year and didn’t play in Arkansas’ 21-14 win in Week 2, has completed 327 of 435 passes this season for 2,890 yards and 19 touchdowns with 7 interceptions.
Some of Rogers’ top performances have been on the road this season. He completed 50 of 67 passes for 419 yards at Memphis, 45 of 59 for 408 at Texas A&M and 41 of 57 for 389 at Vanderbilt.
“Will is doing a really good job of running the offense,” Stoops said before Kentucky played Mississippi State. “You can see his comfort level going higher and higher and getting rid of the football and not putting them in such negative situations as you would in the first year in a program with a young quarterback.
“You see him playing at a very high level and getting to where they want to be.”
Running backs Joquavious Marks and Dillion Johnson, who have rushed for 252 and 248 yards, respectively, are also among the Bulldogs’ top three receivers.
Makai Polk leads Mississippi State with 63 catches for 603 yards followed by Marks (58 for 344) and Johnson (42 for 261).
“They’re very effective with it,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said of the short passing game. “I think every throw is a run. On third-and-2 [against Kentucky] and it was just a flare to the back and a first down.”
The Bulldogs are third in the SEC in total defense (313.0 yards per game) and rushing defense (89.4). They held Kentucky to 71 rushing yards.
Linebackers Jett Johnson and Nate Watson lead Mississippi State with 59 and 43 tackles, respectively. Watson also has two sacks.
Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes has 3 interceptions, 4 pass breakups and 37 tackles. Safety Fred Peters has 43 tackles and two interceptions.
Linebacker Tyson Wheat has three sacks for 21 yards in losses and defensive end Randy Charlton has three for 15.
“Our defense was real active up front,” Leach said of the Kentucky game. “We felt it was important to affect the line of scrimmage on defense. We wanted to affect the quarterback. I thought the defensive linemen were able to do both of those things.”
Lideatrick Griffin is averaging 37.7 yards on nine kickoff returns. He had a 100-yard return for a touchdown to open the North Carolina State game and a 70-yarder against Louisiana Tech to help Mississippi State rally to win 35-34.
“He can take it home any second,” Johnson said after the North Carolina State game. “Any time he touches the ball, he’s a home run hitter.”
Leach was asked how the Bulldogs can build on beating Kentucky — their third victory in the past four games.
“We need to keep it in perspective,” Leach said. “We need to be excited about this win, celebrate this win … But we need to be real honest with ourselves.
“There will be plenty of places to improve. Then we need to be dedicated to do that. Arkansas is a really good team, and we need to play really well in order to beat those guys.”
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