No. 21 Mississippi State prepares to tackle Arkansas

Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay Jr (6) had nine tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception last weekPhoto Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead: "We’re battling to get to where we haven’t been since 1941"

Mississippi State is No. 21 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, but the Bulldogs are far from pleased with their season heading into Saturday’s home game against Arkansas.

Mississippi State is 6-4 overall and 2-4 in the SEC under first-year coach Joe Moorhead.

“I know there was an elevated level of expectation heading into the season for a myriad of reasons,” Moorhead said. “From a historical context, we’re battling to get to where we haven’t been since 1941 (when Mississippi State won its last SEC title).

“I understand the disappointment because of the expectation level, but reality is reality.”

The reality is that the Bulldogs have only scored 16 points and one touchdown in their four losses. They lost back-to-back games to Kentucky (28-7) and Florida (13-6) to close out September and lost 19-3 at LSU last month before being shut out at Alabama (24-0) last weekend.

“Certainly with the type of defense that we’re playing, I would’ve obviously been best to perform better and put more points up offensively in those games,” Moorhead said. “Part of it is being a first year, new offensive system that probably contributed to that.”

Arkansas (2-8, 0-6) is also not where it wants to be under a first-year coach. Despite the winless mark in conference play, coach Chad Morris says his team hasn’t stopped fighting for a victory in the SEC.

Arkansas rallied from a 24-3 fourth-quarter deficit last Saturday against LSU in Fayetteville, Ark., scoring two touchdowns to cut the margin to 24-17, but it was too little, too late as the Tigers hung on for the victory. It was Arkansas’ ninth consecutive SEC loss stretching over the past two seasons.

“I thought our team continues to fight and play extremely hard until the very end,” Morris said Monday. “That again was evident last Saturday night as we cut the lead to one score with five minutes to go and an opportunity to get the ball back.”

Arkansas’ offense has performed well at times this season — the Razorbacks scored 31 points against Alabama — but struggled against LSU. Arkansas had just 216 yards of total offense in the loss.

The offense faces an even bigger challenge this week. Mississippi State boasts the SEC’s leading defense, allowing just 281 yards per game.

In last week’s loss to Alabama, Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay Jr. was tied for the team lead and set a career high with nine tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception. Gay is just the second player to pick off Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa this season.

Defensive end Montez Swea has at least one sack in six games and has four games with multiple sacks this season. Sweat ranks second in the SEC and fourth in FBS with 9.5 sacks.

And nose guard Jeffery Simmons ranks second in the SEC among defensive linemen with 48 tackles. Simmons has 11.5 tackles for loss, which is fifth among D-linemen in the SEC.

“The defense is as good as advertised,” Morris said. “No. 1 in the SEC. It’s the fastest overall defense that we’ve seen.”

Arkansas sophomore running back Rakeem Boyd looks to get back on track after having his streak of four consecutive games with at least 99 yards snapped against LSU last week. Boyd gained 30 yards on 10 carries before leaving with an ankle injury as Arkansas ran for just 16 yards as a team.

He practiced in a green jersey Monday and is expected to play against Mississippi State.

Arkansas’ near upset of LSU, losing by only a touchdown last week, has Moorhead and his team on high alert because the Razorbacks figure to travel to Starkville, Miss., with confidence.

“Arkansas is playing way better than their 2-8 (overall) and 0-6 record in conference indicates. They are trending in the right direction,” Moorhead said.

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