FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas travels to face Mississippi State on Saturday evening inside Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss.
Both teams are hoping to bounce back from embarrassing defeats last weekend; Arkansas lost 38-10 to LSU and Mississippi State lost 51-3 at No. 1 Alabama. The Razorbacks haven’t beaten Mississippi State since 2010.
To help us preview the game, Mississippi State beat writer Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger joined the Borderline Erotic Podcast earlier this week. What follows is an abridged version of that conversation.
Jason Kersey: Mississippi State has left itself zero room for error when it comes to bowl eligibility. How much is that driving this team as it gets ready for these final two games?
Michael Bonner: Right now, it’s the only thing that they do have because the season has been … I don’t wanna say a disaster, but I think when you look at what they’ve established in the past and where they’re coming from, 19 wins the last two seasons, Dak Prescott and everything he’s done for the program, and one of his best friends, Fred Ross, is still on the team. And when you look at what happened this year, losing to South Alabama at home to start the season, then three losses on the last play of the game and sitting at 2-5 at one point for the first time since 2006, everything that could have gone wrong in this season has gone wrong. I really didn’t think a 4-8 season was a possibility, but it certainly, in the final two games of the season, is a possibility.
They’re trying to grasp that, hey, we make a bowl game, it’d be great. The seniors can go out with a bowl. They don’t want to end this streak. They’re at six straight seasons in a bowl and they want to make it seven to extend that school record.
Kersey: Where is this team mentally coming into the Arkansas game?
Bonner: It’s gonna be really interesting because I think they’ve played their best when they just realize that there wasn’t anything to play for. They said against Texas A&M, they just went out there, they knew everybody was picking them to lose, they didn’t feel any pressure. They felt almost like, hey, it can’t get any worse than this.
I think that A&M game changed everything. Now if they win out, they can make a bowl. I’ll be interested to see how they respond to it. At times when they’ve had pressure this entire year, whether it’s at Kentucky, at BYU, to begin the year in the second half when they were up 17-0 against South Alabama and then lost that lead … every point under pressure, they’ve kinda failed. Then they go into A&M and think there’s nothing to lose … no pressure, back’s against the wall and they played really well. Then they laid a tremendous egg last week against Alabama, not that that really says anything because Alabama’s just really good.
But they have something to play for now, and they haven’t really responded all that well when that’s been the case in the past.
Kersey: Mississippi State comes into this game having won several in a row in the series against Arkansas. Does that give this team any extra confidence?
Bonner: Three years ago, they were 4-6 and needed two wins to become bowl eligible. They beat Arkansas on the road and then beat Ole Miss at home with Dak Prescott coming off the bench in the fourth quarter, then went to the Liberty Bowl and he scores 5 touchdowns and then they experienced 2014, the best season in program history. I think the seniors are relying on that in that, hey, we’ve won two games before when we needed to. They’ve done it against Arkansas and they’ve done it against Ole Miss, the same two opponents they have at the end of this year.
So, yes, in a way they’re looking toward the past, but it’s a different past in the sense that, we can win these two games and leave you younger players in a better position for 2017 more than it is the specific recent success against Arkansas.
Kersey: What is it about Nick Fitzgerald that makes him so good, and where do you see his ceiling? Can he reach a Dak Prescott-like level?
Bonner: I’m not sure if anyone will reach Dak Prescott-like level at Mississippi State again, but I do think he’s gonna be a very good quarterback at Mississippi State. I think if he starts the next three years, there’s a possibility that he could at least challenge some of Dak’s school records here. He is that talented.
Right now, he’s probably about as good a runner as Dak Prescott. He’s faster than Dak Prescott. He runs just as hard as Dak, and he has a better arm. He’s a better athlete than Dak. So, when you consider all those things, you’d hope as a junior and a senior, he continues to improve and really hones those passing skills. Right now, he’s a really good running quarterback. When he passes well, it’s because he’s able to run the ball. In his terrible games, he hasn’t been able to run the ball at all.
If he can become a better passer — which basically was the knock on Dak for the first two years of his career — then I think he can at least put up similar numbers as Dak Prescott. It’s whether they have enough talent around him to reach those nine-, 10-win seasons. But he has a chance.
Kersey: What are your recollections of last year’s game and what was that like to cover?
Bonner: It was something that I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game like that. You’ve seen back-and-forth games, lead changes and such, but in that game, there was a scenario where each team was out of it. Each team had a double-digit lead, and you just thought, ‘OK, the game’s over.’ I’ve never been there when a game flips so many times.
And then Arkansas goes up late, and you think, ‘OK, this is it.’ Then Mississippi State comes back really, really late and you think, ‘OK, the game is now over.’ Then Arkansas somehow responds again and has this easy field goal attempt, and then Beniquez Brown blocks the kick.
There was so much certainty in the back-and-forth game, and then in reality, no one knew anything about what was going to happen.