Five biggest questions ahead of Arkansas’ game against Mississippi State

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — After dropping their last two games, the Arkansas Razorbacks (3-2, 1-2) are looking for redemption, this time on the road in Starkville, Mississippi, against the No. 23 Mississippi State Bulldogs (4-1, 1-1).

Arkansas has won the last two contests against the Bulldogs, but it faces its toughest test this year, as Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach has his air raid offense humming after a blowout win against Texas A&M last weekend.

Here are the five biggest questions we have about the Hogs Saturday’s of the contest, which is set to kickoff at 11 a.m. CT and will be aired on the SEC Network:

1. Who gets the nod at quarterback for Arkansas?

Arkansas starting quarterback KJ Jefferson left the Alabama game late in the fourth quarter after taking a shot to the helmet, and walk-on transfer Cade Fortin came in the game and finished the last two drives. Head coach Sam Pittman said afterward Fortin had been the backup for a while, not Malik Hornsby.

The extent of Jefferson’s injuries are currently unknown, but Pittman said Wednesday Jefferson will travel with the team to Starkville, although his status for the game is still unknown. He said he could see the team play both Hornsby and Fortin if Jefferson is unavailable.

Both options have different skill sets, with Hornsby being more mobile than Fortin, but if the Bulldogs can stop the run, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles will need to air the ball out to keep the defense honest.

There is also the possibility that Jefferson is ready and able to play come Saturday, but that question will likely remain unanswered until an hour or so before kickoff.

2. Can the Arkansas pass defense slow down the air attack of Mississippi State?

Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers has carved up most of the defenses he has faced this season, throwing for 1,715 yards, 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Now he will go up against an Arkansas team that ranks 124th in college football in passing defense.

The secondary has been thin for the Hogs this season, losing senior safety Jalen Catalon and corner LaDarrius Bishop for the remainder of the season. As a result, defensive coordinator Barry Odom moved wide receiver Sam Mbake into the fold at cornerback and Hudson Clark to safety in practice this week to shake things up.

Mississippi State throws the ball an average of 43 times per game, so while it’s likely Rogers will pile up big numbers in terms of yards, the defense will need to limit the big plays in order to have success.

3. How will the Hogs offensive line handle the Bulldogs blitz packages?

Pittman said this week Mississippi State’s defense is “one of the most moving defenses, blitzing defenses” he has seen, and it is expected they will keep that same style heading into the game with Arkansas’ question mark at quarterback.

For the season, the Bulldogs have sacked the quarterback 12 times, good for fifth in the SEC. The Arkansas offensive line, however, has only allowed nine sacks in five games.

Part of the battle will be game planning to diffuse the blitzing attack, so it is a multifaceted approach, but the plan starts up front.

4. Will Bumper Pool break the Arkansas tackles record this weekend?

In 2020, Pool earned Defensive Player of the Week honors for his play in the Razorbacks first conference win in two years, compiling 20 tackles and two pass deflections in the contest.

He comes into Saturday’s game with 395 tackles for his career, 13 shy of Tony Bua’s record of 408. Though he has struggled with missed tackles this season, he has a chance to lock in an secure the record this weekend. The Razorbacks’ defense will need him focused to stop the Mississippi State passing attack.

5. Is Ketron Jackson the guy who steps up at receiver for Arkansas?

Wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr. has caught touchdowns in the last two games, and has emerged as a playmaker in the wide receiver room. So far this season, he has compiled 151 yards on just seven receptions, and Pittman said this week he is impressed with how Jackson is coming along.

“I think he’s one of the most improved guys on our team,” Pittman said. “He’s playing with confidence now. There’s a little bit of that, because he was starting in fall camp and I think Matt beat him out, and it was a big lesson learned there. He didn’t go in the tank or anything like that, and now he’s playing even better ball than what I thought he would at this point and time. I think he’s got a lot of upside.”

With Mississippi State likely playing to stop the run on Saturday, Jackson’s playmaking ability could be called on to keep the defense honest.