November 14, 2017 10:33:17 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Just in time for the Mississippi State defense to prepare for it, the Arkansas offense is starting to settle in.
After injuries to the quarterback, offensive line and running back positions threw the Razorback offense into a frenzy for several weeks, No. 17 MSU (7-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference, No. 16 College Football Playoff) thinks it knows what it is up against as it goes to Arkansas (4-6, 1-5 SEC) 11 a.m. Saturday (CBS) at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
"They do as good a job as anybody in the country in combining the power run and the physical run game with their running backs with a great combination of playaction pass, screens and using tight ends all over the field," MSU head coach Dan Mullen said.
That certainty begins with quarterback Austin Allen, who made his return from injury in Arkansas' loss last week to LSU. At this point Allen is essentially Arkansas' only choice: Cole Kelley, who replaced him for five games, was arrested on suspicion of DUI and will be suspended for the MSU game.
"When he plays, they were really efficient on offense. I'm sure since he was able to play last week, he'll be a little more efficient this week," MSU defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Allen, a third-team preseason All-SEC selection. "When I watched him in the summer, I thought he was a dynamic player, he was a guy I had a lot of respect for in this league."
Arkansas is also settling in on the offensive line. Starting center Frank Ragnow entered the season as a prominent NFL Draft prospect, but suffered a season-ending injury; he's been replaced by Zach Rogers for the last three games. At the same time, the Razorbacks moved right tackle Johnny Gibson Jr. to right guard, where he's started the last four games.
"When you look at the guy that's replaced him at center, I think he's done a good job of getting movement at the point of attack," Grantham said. "I think their offensive line's got really good size and they do a solid job, so we know it's going to be a challenge."
In the face of that adversity, Arkansas has been a bit of a litmus test for defenses: good defense can contain its run game while bad defense can not. New Mexico State, Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina all allowed Arkansas to run for over 200 yards; all of them rank in the bottom half of the nation in rushing yards per carry allowed. Meanwhile, Arkansas ran for 27 yards against Alabama and 129 yards against TCU.
Mullen said wide receiver Gabe Myles will not play against Arkansas but fellow wide receiver Donald Gray might. Mullen said the training staff is optimistic about Gray's return but he wasn't as optimistic before seeing Monday's practice.
MSU won't know the status of linebacker Dez Harris (thigh bruise) until later in the week; safety Brandon Bryant, however, is expected to be good to go. Mullen said Bryant could have been cleared to reenter the Alabama game, but Mullen says coaches didn't allow it.
For a fleeting moment of the television broadcast from the Alabama game, it looked like quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was injured as he came back to the sideline and vomited. Mullen said that wasn't injury; that was fatigue.
"He was just tired. He's done that a couple of times," Mullen said.
The Alabama hangover
Mullen's formula for moving beyond the heartbreaking loss to the top-ranked Crimson Tide is simple: the achievements still on the table. For example, if MSU beats Arkansas and Ole Miss to finish the regular season before a bowl victory, it would be the second 10-win season of the Mullen era.
"It's a big deal for what type of team we are," Mullen said. "We have three losses to teams in the top seven, so hopefully we can finish the season strong and put ourselves as a top 10, top 15 program in the country."
More coaching rumors
With the second head coaching vacancy in the SEC came the second coming of Mullen coaching rumors. Tennessee's firing of Butch Jones Sunday came with an all-too-familiar surge of prospective lists of candidates that included Mullen.
"I love the one I have," Mullen said of the job. "I think what you see is what we've been able to build here at Mississippi State. I think everyone in the world has an opinion of what I should or shouldn't do; people that know me and friends that have known me for a long time know I like my own opinion and I'm not really interested in other people's opinions all that much."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson