Jim Harris: Mississippi State Provides Chance for Morris, Hogs to Break Through

It would seem if Chad Morris were to get that long awaited first Southeastern Conference win, even that first win over a Power 5 team in his coaching career, it would come Saturday against Mississippi State. The reasons are many beyond that fact that this year’s Bulldogs have struggled mightily on the road and are a shadow of last year’s Outback Bowl squad.

Until Dan Mullen, now the head coach at Florida, finally solved Mississippi State’s puzzle of winning in Arkansas, thanks to a couple of late botches by Bret Bielema’s Hog teams in 2013 and 2015, the Bulldogs never won inside The Natural State. They had tied once, when Arkansas missed an extra point that led to a 13-13 deadlock before the NCAA instituted its overtime rules. But while Starkville was often a difficult but not impossible trip for the Hogs, the reverse was true for the Bulldogs.

Danny Ford was on his way out in 1997 when his last Razorback team began figuring things out in its final three games – two of those still were losses, but they showed a fight that had been seriously lacking through most of that season. Plus, sandwiched around two close defeats to Tennessee and LSU to wrap up 1997 was a solid win in Fayetteville over Mississippi State, helping deny the Bulldogs and Jackie Sherrill a share of the SEC West title. It also foretold what was capable of this talent Ford had assembled, and what we all saw come to pass under Houston Nutt’s encouragement in 1998.

Nutt and Bobby Petrino kept up the dominance of Mississippi State through the next decade-plus, whether it was that last great Sherrill squad of 1999 that was loaded with NFL defensive backs, or during Sherrill’s ebb tide and Sylvester Croom’s struggles to rebuild, and on through Mullen’s early struggles against Petrino.

Only when Bielema’s first Arkansas squad flubbed a late scoring drive in regulation, a fumble by freshman Alex Collins at the lip of the goal, in War Memorial Stadium did Mississippi State finally prevail in OT with a third-string quarterback in charge. Two years later, with Bielema’s program now on the plus-side ledger and riding a 4-game win streak after a shaky start to the 2015 campaign, the coach left a back-and-forth offensive shootout staged by Brandon Allen and Dak Prescott on the foot of his questionable field goal kicker. Who knows if the last-minute chip shot would have made it had the protection not let a Mississippi State defender have a clear shot in to meet the kick with his stomach, clinching a 51-50 Bulldogs victory.

Mississippi State had NEVER blown out Arkansas anywhere until Morris’ first team quit on him last year in Starkville in a 52-6 joke of a performance, with quarterback recruit Kelly Bryant getting to see it firsthand. But Nick Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs quarterback who engineered that runaway, is gone and so too are eight of last year’s defensive starters, including NFL players Montez Sweat and Jeff Simmons.

Moorhead tried to bring on board a grad transfer he knew from his previous time at Penn State while grooming a true freshman to eventually take over the role. That’s not worked out as well as hoped, though the Bulldogs did put 30 points on the board at Texas A&M last week in a 19-point defeat. It’s obviously the defense that has struggled, with tackling a major issue.

Last year, Morris’s squad was typically 14 points or worse against every SEC foe, with the exception of a competitive second half in the annual Arlington, Texas, clash with Texas A&M, where the Hogs lost by 8, and losing to a struggling Ole Miss by 5 in Little Rock. This year, they came up 4 points shy of the Aggies as well as 4 points shy the next week at Kentucky, where every defense that coordinator John Chavis tried could not slow the Wildcats’ wide receiver turned quarterback, Lynn Bowden. In both games, Arkansas had late drives led by quarterback Ben Hicks deep into opposing territory only to come up empty.

Arkansas has lost the past two weeks to the cream of the SEC by a combined 99-17 – a pair of 41 point losses to Auburn and Alabama. They’ll likely lose by around that same margin at No. 1 ranked LSU on Nov. 23.

In the meantime, however, the Hogs have opponents that are much better matchups in the skill and experience categories, starting with State on Saturday. It’s an opportunity Morris can’t afford to let slip. A 16-game SEC losing streak dating to Bielema’s last three league games can and should be halted in Fayetteville, though there doesn’t seem to be near the enthusiasm the last time the program faced a similar situation, just five years ago.

Bielema was seeking to end a 17-game losing stream when LSU game to Fayetteville on a freezing night. LSU had just lost the week before to Alabama; everyone figured the Tigers’ hearts weren’t in this one, and the air was bone-chilling to boot. LSU running back Leonard Fournette was good for only about five carries before he tapped out. LSU threatened only once. The Hogs’ defense, led by Trey Flowers at end, had some so heartbreakingly close in the run-up – a 1-point loss to Alabama on the same field, a 3-point loss to then No. 1 Mississippi State and Prescott in Starkville, an 14-point lead choked away in an OT loss versus A&M. The defense was relentless in shutting out the Bayou Bengals, and the offense put up 17, the coincidental ending of 17 straight losses by that score margin. 

They followed it up with a 30-0 demolition of Ole Miss on the same turf the next week. The 7-6 record at the end of the year earned Bielema a raise and extension and more years to a buyout that the Arkansas administration now refuses to honor. Think about it: Bielema in his third year, 2015, was within a bone-head field goal block and another blown lead and OT loss to A&M from going 7-1 in the SEC, the only loss a competitive 27-13 setback at the hands of eventual national champion Alabama, before the wheels of the program came rattling off, starting with the collapse of the heralded offensive line.

Morris hasn’t been able to put the wheels back on. The vocal irate portion of the fan base isn’t anxious to see much more of the goofy fake punt calls and what appears to be mismanagement of the quarterback position going on two full seasons, either. There won’t be near the crowd Saturday that saw that streak breaking win over LSU five years ago. It’s doubtful the students will storm the field this time if there is a win to celebrate. Most likely they will have stormed out of the stadium to whatever it is they do on a Saturday long before that.

But there needs to be a win to relish, nonetheless. Morris’s efforts to rebuild the program, to convince recruits he can win, and to quiet that vocal minority of angry fans on message boards and talk shows require it. It’s an opportunity these Razorbacks can’t let slip away.

They’ll have to manage it with the left half the regular offensive line out – in fact, four-fifths of the expected starters back in preseason are now sidelined by injury, including two tackles out for the year. Two guards are in concussion protocol – if the Hogs don’t lead the nation in concussions, they’ve got to be close. Fans keep waiting for Morris’s heralded offensive acumen to show, but he barely can get a practice day with a starting O-line in place, much less consistent quarterback play. His best offensive player is a true freshman at wide receiver, but they can’t find enough ways or enough arms to get him the ball.

But the fan base keeps expecting miracles. At least this Saturday, it should require less than miraculous level to compete with the opponent. Somebody on the Hog side just has to make a winning play for a change.

Mississippi State football 2019

Jim Harris is an award-winning writer who appears regularly on KTHV, Channel 11’s “Hogzone.” He has covered the Arkansas Razorbacks since 1976 for such news outlets as the Pine Bluff Commercial, the Arkansas Gazette and ArkansasSports360.com. Reach him at jim.harris@agfc.ar.gov.

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