Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher has a clear objective as his Aggies rebound from their first loss of the season Saturday against Arkansas.
“We can’t let one game become two,” Fisher said.
Mississippi State (2-2) is next up on the schedule for Texas A&M (3-1), the No. 15 team in the country in the latest AP Top 25 poll. The Bulldogs will play their first Southeastern Conference road game of the 2021 season against a highly motivated Aggies team at 6 p.m. Saturday at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas.
“It’s a great place to play,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said. “It’s loaded, it’s loud, and it’s pretty hostile. It’s a blast. College Station is one of the best stadiums to play in in the country.”
In front of Texas A&M’s “12th man,” Mississippi State will face a tough challenge if it hopes to snap a two-game losing streak. The Bulldogs lost 31-29 at Memphis on Sept. 28 and 28-25 to LSU on Saturday.
And the Aggies are superior to either opponent. ESPN’s Football Power Index places Texas A&M at No. 20 in the country, while LSU is at No. 22 and Memphis is No. 64.
The Bulldogs sit at No. 30, a testament to their ability to statistically outplay opponents. Mississippi State has put up more total yards in all of its first four games except a 24-10 win over No. 23 NC State in which the Wolfpack moved the ball quickly in garbage time.
But the past two final scores have belied MSU’s statistical superiority.
“They’ve had some really tough luck in some tough games,” Fisher said of the Bulldogs.
The Aggies had no such misfortune on Saturday against the Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas; they were simply outplayed. Arkansas outgained Texas A&M 443 to 272 in a 20-10 win that earned the Hogs the No. 8 ranking in the country and sent the Aggies down eight spots.
“We’re definitely frustrated,” wide receiver Ainias Smith said. “It’s not easy when you don’t have success.”
Arkansas took a 17-0 lead barely a minute into the second quarter, keeping the Aggies on their heels from the beginning. It’s something Texas A&M knows it can’t afford Saturday against Mississippi State.
“You just can’t allow the explosive plays and the big amount of yards from early on,” defensive back Demani Richardson said. “You just have to lock in and key in from the start.”
Against Leach’s Air Raid offense, Fisher knows his team will have to be stout on defense. He pointed to quarterback Will Rogers’ completion percentage of 75.1 — fourth best in the country — and the multiple offensive sets the Bulldogs deploy, including four wide receivers or split backs behind Rogers.
“Mike’s a shrewd guy,” Fisher said. “He knows what he’s doing. We’ll have some wrinkles. There’s no doubt.”
Fisher said the overall strength of Mississippi State’s offense — despite its recent struggles — is a reason for concern.
“Receivers are athletic and long, backs are good players, and line’s experienced,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough game.”
He also pointed to the Bulldogs’ “outstanding defense” through four games, particularly when it comes to stopping the run. Running back Isaiah Spiller has 52 carries for 345 yards, but MSU allows just 71.25 rushing yards per contest, eighth in the nation.
Spiller was 13th in the nation in rushing yards last season, totaling 1,036 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground for the Aggies.
“He’s kind of a big guy,” Leach said. “I think that he’s just physical. He tries to wear you down.”
Redshirt sophomore Zach Calzada will start at quarterback for Texas A&M with original starter Haynes King remaining out because of a broken tibia suffered against Colorado.
Despite some youth on the offensive line, the Aggies must do their best to lift up their young signal-caller, Fisher said.
“We’ve got experienced receivers, backs, tight ends and all that,” Fisher said. “We have to play well around him.”
That didn’t happen against Arkansas as Texas A&M averaged just 4.6 yards per play and gave up almost 250 passing yards and 200 rushing yards in the 10-point loss.
But it’s a game the Aggies are ready to put behind them when Mississippi State comes to town.
“I’m pretty sure this team is going to remember this feeling, and we’re going to come back a whole lot stronger than we ever have before,” Smith said. “It’s a sight to see.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.