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Razorbacks' run game impresses Bulldogs

by Tom Murphy, Bob Holt | October 7, 2022 at 3:00 a.m.
An Arkansas football helmet sits on the ground prior to a game between the Razorbacks and Kentucky on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Lexington, Ky.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett is well aware of University of Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson's questionable status for Saturday's game, but he's not counting the rugged junior out.

"I don't know anything more than everyone else knows," Arnett told reporters Wednesday night. "I anticipate he's going to trot out there on the first snap and be just fine."

Jefferson suffered a head injury on a fourth-quarter sack in last week's loss to Alabama. The junior from Sardis, Miss., has started 18 consecutive games for the Razorbacks. He attended but did not participate in practices on Monday and Tuesday, and Coach Sam Pittman said he did a little Wednesday but had "a ways to go" to be cleared for participation.

"He's a heck of a football player," Arnett said. "It's amazing some of the things he does on the football field with the ball in his hands. You're talking about the ninth most productive rushing attack in football right now.

"They've [Mississippi State] gotten the better of us running the ball the last two times. Coach [Kendal] Briles does a tremendous job. They make you account for all 11 guys on every single play and make you defend every blade of grass the width and vertically. It's quite the challenge this week."

Arkansas ran for 202 yards in last year's 31-28 win over the Bulldogs. Dominique Johnson led the way with 107 yards and two touchdowns. Current lead back Raheim Sanders had 26 yards on eight carries, and Jefferson was limited to 14 yards on 11 runs.

Sanders has already surpassed his 578 rushing yards from last year with 609, an average of 121.8 per game that ranks seventh in the FBS.

"It's the stable of running backs," Arnett said. "[Sanders] obviously is leading it right now, but their ability in their zone run game to stretch you horizontally and then see a seam and get north and explode through the hole, tremendous job.

"They get downhill on you. Inside zone, counter, gap scheme plays, counter plays. There ain't a run play they have that they don't excel at running."

Half Watson

Mississippi State linebacker Nathaniel Watson will sit out the first half Saturday after being flagged for targeting early in the second half of last week's 42-24 win over Texas A&M.

Watson, who had the second-highest defensive grade in the FBS last week as rated by Pro Football Focus, ranks second on the team with 35 tackles. His stat line is full, with 4.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 quarterback hurry, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass breakup and 1 interception return for 51 yards.

The coaches

Sam Pittman and Mike Leach had good things to say about each other this week, beginning with Pittman's comments in his Monday news conference.

"Yeah, he's a great guy," Pittman said. "He's just a really quality, really good dude. Really great guy and obviously a great coach and wonderful offensive mind."

Leach talked about Pittman on Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference.

"He's had a great career," Leach said. "Just a good, hard-nosed football coach. Background wise, we're both O-line coaches. We both coached O-line for a lot of our careers."

Pittman is known throughout college football as a high quality offensive line coach and recruiter. Leach's past as an offensive line coach is not mentioned much.

As a 26-year-old first-year assistant, Leach worked with the offensive line at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1987. He was a combination offensive coordinator and O-line coach at Iowa Wesleyan for Hal Mumme from 1989-91 and held the same titles at Valdosta (Ga.) State in 1994-96.

Since joining Mumme's Kentucky staff and bringing the Air Raid offense mainstream in 1997, Leach has been an offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach or head coach.

Pittman was on the outgoing staff at Oklahoma in 1998 when Leach was coming in with the Bob Stoops regime and the two spoke briefly at that time.

Bad call?

Lack of field goals have proved costly for Mississippi State in its past two losses to Arkansas.

Coach Mike Leach elected to go on fourth down in the red zone twice in the fourth quarter of the 2020 game in Starkville, Miss., and the Razorbacks, who won 21-14, stopped them both times. KJ Costello threw incomplete on fourth and 2 at the Arkansas 13 with about 9 minutes left, then Grant Morgan and Joe Foucha combined to stone Jo'quavious Marks for a 2-yard loss on fourth and 2 from the Arkansas 7 with 4:39 remaining.

Last year, the Bulldogs went 0 for 3 on field-goal tries from 23, 46 and 40 yards. The last of those, on the final play, would've tied the score at 31-31 to force overtime.

Leach was asked about his field-goal kicking Wednesday.

"Well, obviously last year it was a big factor. It was one of the differences," he said. "There was another extra difference, and it'd cost me some money to talk about."

Leach was likely referring to a fourth-and-1 defensive holding call against the Bulldogs on Treylon Burks with a minute left in the game, which led to Dominique Johnson's 4-yard touchdown run and his two-point conversion with 21 seconds left.

KJ stands alone

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson is the only quarterback in the country with 1,000-plus passing yards and 300-plus rushing yards through five games.

Jefferson, whose status for Saturday's game is questionable, has 1,096 yards and 9 touchdowns passing, plus 312 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns. His streak of games with a rushing touchdown ended at five against Alabama on Saturday.

According to the UA game notes, Jefferson is one of six FBS quarterbacks with 1,000 or more passing yards, 9-plus passing touchdowns, 200-plus rushing yards and 3 or more rushing touchdowns. The others are Oregon's Bo Nix, the former Auburn player, Duke's Riley Leonard, Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei, UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Syracuse's Garrett Shrader, the former Mississippi State player.

Korte UA's legend

Steve Korte, an All-American guard as a senior at Arkansas in 1982, was announced Thursday as the Razorbacks' SEC Football Legend. He'll be part of an induction class honored in Atlanta during the weekend of the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2-3.

The class also includes brothers Peyton Manning (Tennessee) and Eli Manning (Ole Miss), 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) and Coach Gary Pinkel (Missouri).

Korte, a member of Arkansas' All-Century Team, helped the Razorbacks go 9-2-1 in 1982, capped by a 28-24 victory over Florida in the Bluebonnet Bowl. He was a second-round pick (No. 38 overall) by New Orleans in the 1983 NFL Draft and played eight seasons for the Saints.

Other SEC Legends this year are Ozzie Newsome (Alabama), Ben Tamburello (Auburn), Alex Brown (Florida), Thomas Davis (Georgia), Joe Federspiel (Kentucky), Todd McClure (LSU), K.J. Wright (Mississippi State), Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) and Allama Matthews (Vanderbilt).

Inside the series

Arkansas leads the series with Mississippi State by a count of 18-13-1.

The Razorbacks have won consecutive games in the series for the first time since taking three in a row under Bobby Petrino from 2009-11.

The series has been played at four sites, with Arkansas leading in all but one, Memphis, where the Bulldogs lead 2-0.

The Razorbacks hold a 4-3 edge in games played in Fayetteville, a 6-1-1 lead in Little Rock and an 8-7 advantage in Starkville, Miss., breaking a tie there with a 21-14 in the last meeting at Davis-Wade Stadium in 2020.

Arkansas' longest winning streak in the series was nine games between 1999-2007 under Coach Houston Nutt. Mississippi State had a four-game winning streak between 2012-15 under Coach Dan Mullen.

Big play breakdown

The Razorbacks had given up only one rushing play of longer than 40 yards through four games before Alabama hit the Hogs with three runs of 70-plus yards last Saturday.

Texas A&M's Devon Achane had a 63-yard run Sept. 24, the longest allowed by Arkansas since Cincinnati's Charles McClellan had a 35-yard run in the opener.

In a span of six offensive snaps, Alabama ripped off rushing plays of 77, 72 and 76 yards, the last two being touchdowns by Jahmyr Gibbs.

Print Headline: Run game impresses Bulldogs


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