|No. 16 Mississippi State moves on from Alabama loss|
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- No. 16 Mississippi State came oh-so-close to handing Alabama its first loss of the season last week. Beyond that heartbreak is the realization that the Bulldogs have plenty to play for the rest of the way.
They travel for their final road game Saturday at Arkansas.
"We have the opportunity to still have a great season ahead of us and do a lot of really good things," said coach Dan Mullen.
"We have three losses to teams in the top seven. We want to finish this season strong and hopefully put ourselves as a Top 10, Top 15 program in the country. If we can do that, we're going to have to be much better this week than we were last week.
"If that focus changes, then we won't have a special year. We won't be considered at the level we want our team to be at."
Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3 SEC) got blown out by Georgia and Auburn earlier this season but led Alabama in the fourth quarter before losing 31-24. The Bulldogs, who finish at home against rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving, could finish with nine regular-season wins for the second time since 1999. They also accomplished that in 2014 under Mullen.
For Arkansas (4-6, 1-5) -- which had its two-game winning streak snapped in a 33-10 loss at LSU last Saturday -- the Mississippi State game is a chance to keep its faint bowl hopes alive and ease some pressure on embattled coach Bret Bielema.
Bielema has come under fire for his 11-27 record in SEC games; he's 29-32 overall with the Razorbacks. He points to Mississippi State's ascension as evidence that the Razorbacks aren't necessarily that far away from similar success.
"Dan has done a tremendous job there," Bielema said. "The situation that we're in, we're a 4-6 team. Last year, they were 5-7, got into a bowl game, won it and that propelled them to where they are today. It's a sign those things can happen."
For Arkansas to upset Mississippi State on Saturday, the Razorbacks will have to find a way to slow down Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. A 6-5, 230-pound junior, Fitzgerald has thrown for 1,617 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He also has rushed for 867 yards and 13 TDs, including eight in the past five games.
Fitzgerald had a big game against Arkansas in 2016, completing 23 of 33 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns and running for 131 yards and four TDs in a game that Arkansas won 58-42 in Starkville.
With Fitzgerald running the offense, Mississippi State has averaged 32.9 points and 418.9 yards of total offense per game this season.
"They are very good at what they do," Bielema said. "When their quarterback is playing well, they're playing well."
Fitzgerald's counterpart, Arkansas senior quarterback Austin Allen, also had a big game when the Razorbacks and Bulldogs met in 2016. Allen completed 18 of 25 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns, part of a season in which he led the SEC in passing yards and threw for 25 touchdowns.
This season has been more difficult for Allen. He injured his throwing shoulder in a loss at South Carolina on Oct. 7 and missed the next four games. He returned last week to start against LSU, completing 13 of 23 passes for 140 yards before being relieved in the second half by redshirt freshman Cole Kelley.
Kelley was indefinitely suspended Monday after charged with suspicion of driving while intoxicated and careless driving.
Arkansas' passing attack has been limited to mostly screens and short passes for the past several weeks, but Bielema said he expects Allen to play better this week, which could lead to more downfield throws.
"We've got to connect on them when we've got them," he said. "If we've got to throw the ball more vertically Saturday, then we will. It was a little bit of both on Saturday. For us to loosen up the coverage a little bit, we've got to take those shots down the field."
Mullen is also bracing for Allen's best.
"This is the first game he's 100 percent healthy," Mullen said. "I know he played some last week. He was a preseason All-SEC quarterback. He's a top quarterback, if not the top quarterback, in the SEC. They're a different team with him back there."