QB-driven coach Mike Leach, No. 23 Mississippi State face Arkansas
Coach Mike Leach has Mississippi State back in the national spotlight.
For the first time since 2020, the Bulldogs are in The Associated Press’ Top 25, slotting at 23rd as they prepare to face Southeastern Conference foe Arkansas on Saturday in Starkville, Miss.
It marks the first time the Bulldogs (4-1, 1-1) have been in the Top 25 since Sept. 27, 2020.
In Leach’s first game the day before that ranking, his team steamrolled defending national champion LSU 44-34 behind an SEC-record 623 passing yards from transfer quarterback K.J. Costello.
Leach’s history of achievement usually involves the passing game, and the Bulldogs’ Will Rogers falls into the category of Leach passers who have had success in college or beyond.
Leach guided NFL No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch and Josh Heupel when he was an assistant at Kentucky and Oklahoma, respectively. As a head coach, he turned out Kliff Kingsbury and Graham Harrell at Texas Tech and Gardner Minshew at Washington State.
Rogers appears destined to join the list.
With his team scoring at least 39 points in four of its five games, the junior has completed 171 of 234 passes for 1,715 yards (third nationally). His 19 TD passes tie him for the top spot with North Carolina’s Drake Maye.
“He’s gotten better at utilizing the weapons around him more quickly, more decisively,” Leach said of Rogers.
Arkansas (3-2, 1-2) has dropped consecutive games to Texas A&M, 23-21, and Alabama, 49-26, and has no margin for error while occupying the SEC’s West Division basement.
Down 28-0 to Alabama on its home turf in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks battled to 28-23 on Raheim Sanders’ 3-yard TD run late in the third quarter. But the home side couldn’t keep up with Jahmyr Gibbs, who ripped off 72- and 76-yard scores in the fourth quarter to help the Crimson Tide vault past Georgia and into the No. 1 poll spot.
While Sanders is having an outstanding season with 609 rushing yards on 105 carries (5.8-yard average), coach Sam Pittman said his team needs to produce more through the air, especially against SEC talent.
“On offense we’ve got to throw the ball better. Right now, we’re one-dimensional,” the third-year coach said. “We can’t just turn around and hand the ball off and beat good teams.”
Saturday’s biggest concern for Arkansas is the health status of quarterback KJ Jefferson, who was hit in the head last week during the loss to Alabama and was replaced by Cade Fortin.
Pittman did not mention a concussion but said the passer suffered a head injury. Pittman added this week that the team is in “wait-and-see” mode with Jefferson’s progress.
Fortin, a redshirt senior, was 4 of 10 for 35 yards in relief. He is backed up by redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby.
“We’re very confident with (Fortin) in practice,” Pittman said. “He’s done really well in the two-minute situations. He’s a good quarterback and he has experience. We also believe in Malik.”
Arkansas holds an 18-13-1 all-time edge in the series and has won two straight.
–Field Level Media