Have to close season with successive wins to go to a bow.
FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas is set to welcome No. 17 Mississippi State to Reynolds Razorback Stadium today at 11 a.m. in a must-win situation if the Hogs hope to have a chance to go bowling.
The Razorbacks must beat Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3) and then top Missouri on Friday to get to six wins on the season. Anything short of that and Arkansas' season will end on Black Friday with the Hogs at home during bowl season for the first time since 2013.
Following the firing of Arkansas' Jeff Long, who was the vice-chancellor and athletic director, on Wednesday rumors have gained steam even more about Bret Bielema's future with the Hogs. Bielema is just trying to focus on getting his team ready for today's game and take it one contest at a time.
We got a good jump on Mississippi State yesterday, a team that everybody saw Saturday night go down to the wire with Alabama," Bielema said Wednesday. "They played very, very well during the course of the year. Probably have gotten better as good as anybody I’ve seen here down the final stretch. Offense, defense, special teams, their quarterback is a very, very accomplished player. (Nick) Fitzgerald has run for over 900 yards and has unique skills to run the football, throw the football, great composure. In Dan’s (Mullen) system it’s easy to see why he keeps getting better.
"Defensively they made a change out of season and their kids are playing better every week in that regards. They have got a lot of playmakers on defense. We have a tremendous task in front of us but one I think our kids will be wired into. We have an opportunity to come back home which I know is a big deal to our kids in an environment of a really good home crowd that will make it as exciting as possible and look forward to the opportunity."
Mullen is expecting a tough challenge of him when the Bulldogs take an Arkansas team that has its back to the wall.
"Our guys are coming through a good week of practice," Mullen said. "Obviously a huge challenge for us going on the road having to play in a tough environment against a very physical team that can score points offensively an explosive offense against Arkansas. I know Bret does a great job of coaching those guys up. We’ve been in a situation where they have been in before. You have battled through injuries.
"Their quarterback has missed most of the year. And I think coming into the season everybody thought he was the top quarterback in the SEC. Now he’s back healthy and kind of back against the wall and ready to finish strong trying to make a bowl game. And when you are getting your players back healthy on the field it can really be a lift for your team. So it’s going to be a huge challenge for us this week. We have to play hard and perform better than we did last week."
The Bulldogs are coming off a tough 31-24 loss to Alabama this past Saturday night in Starkville. Does Mullen expect his team to have an Alabama hangover following the close loss?
"I don’t know if we get any pats on the back to be honest with you," Mullen said. "They were pretty upset actually with not winning the game rather than pats on the back. But obviously it’s tough coming off a tough loss like that but that’s life in the Southeastern Conference. Whether you win or lose, whether we had won the game on Saturday night or we came up just a little short, in this league you had better buckle it up and get ready to play because you are going to have another great opponent on your hands.
"So I think our guys understand that. Especially the guys who have been in the league for awhile. They know you had better be ready to go buckle it up and play the next week because you can’t let a win or a loss affect you the following week. You don’t want a loss to cause two losses and you don’t want a great win to be ruined by you being too happy and don’t prepare for the next week. So you’ve got to put everything behind you and find a way to improve upon your next opponent."
One thing that Paul Rhoads has to have among the top concerns this week is defending Fitzgerald. How do you defend him?
“He is a great football player,” Rhoads said. “He has 800 or 900 yards rushing and 1,600-plus passing and he is fast. I think people don’t give him enough credit for that. They know he is big, they know he is physical, they know he churns it out, but he is fast in the process, too.
“Anytime you have to defend the quarterback run game, you are talking about an extra gap so you have got to change some things around to make sure you account for it on every single snap they have offensively. He provides us a great challenge and the running backs are no slouches themselves."
He has 13 touchdown passes, but also has thrown 10 interceptions. Rhoads talk about Fitzgerald's passing ability.
"He is throwing some balls - and I just said this to the staff here in a the last hour - he throws some outstanding balls, tremendous balls and he has full control of where he wants to put them," Rhoads said. "They put the big tight end in the flex position and he throws a back shoulder fade and the cornerback is up field enough and he throws the ball exactly where he wants to.
“I think he throws it with more consistent accuracy than he did a year ago and I think he has completely developed as a collegiate passer.”
Rhoads will face a coach in Mullen he's very familiar with and one he almost worked for.
“Dan and I became head coaches the same year,” Rhoads said. “Matter of fact, Dan had talked to me about going there with him when I was out of work at Auburn before I got the Iowa State job. Because of that I followed him his entire length of time there and he steadily built it to where he was number one in the country.
“I have full notice of what he has accomplished there. He has just done a great job of building it and now he is in a position to sustain it. A little bit of hiccup maybe last year although making it to the postseason. A lot of credit needs to be given for what they have accomplished, but they have been doing it.”
Bielema knows that his team will have to play a complete game to have a chance at a win today. He expects to get Mississippi State's best shot.
"The one thing about Dan and his crew, they kind of just stick to their way of doing things," Bielema said. "Even when he had Dak (Prescott) and obviously now with Fitzgerald, they're just very, very good at what they do. They understand sets. they understand looks. They try to get you in certain formations to get match-up issues. When their quarterback is playing well, they play very, very well. That's kind of been the case for them this year. Again, to be in our environment, to be in a crowd that will hopefully be a little bit loud and a little bit excited would be a good thing for us overall."