LITTLE ROCK — Admittedly lame, guaranteeing a winning quarterback named Tyler is as good as it gets when one team is playing out the string and the other is angling for a Jan. 1 bowl game in Florida.
The surprising thing is that the stats of either-or quarterbacks Russell and Wilson are comparable and that the junior with limited experience is superior to the senior who was All-SEC in the preseason in a most important category.
MSU’s Russell has completed 60.5 percent of his 301 passes and Arkansas’ Wilson has been good on 60.9 percent of his 320 throws. Wilson is one up in touchdown passes, 18-17. The kicker is that Wilson has thrown 10 interceptions and Russell has thrown only four.
Of all the amazing numbers that Wilson recorded last season, the most impressive was his 24 touchdown passes vs. six interceptions. The first of two interceptions Wilson threw last week, when Cobi Hamilton did one thing and the quarterback read something else, gave South Carolina a 21-point lead. In defense of Wilson, he misses tight end Chris Gragg and wide receiver Brandon Mitchell and his offensive line has had problems protecting him.
Even though Mississippi State is 7-3, nailing the Bulldogs’ niche is difficult. Much like in-state rival Ole Miss, MSU has yet to record a victory over a top-notch SEC team. The Bulldogs are 3-3 in the league with Ws against teams that are a combined 0-20 in conference play and Ls against teams that are 15-5.
In fact, MSU’s 29-10 victory over Auburn in the second game of the year was the first time the Bulldogs had beaten an SEC Western Division opponent other than Ole Miss since Dan Mullen took over as coach almost four years ago. The teams that MSU has beaten are of such questionable quality that you could argue that 6-3 Middle Tennessee — a half-game back of Arkansas State University in the Sun Belt Conference — is the best of the lot.
Against Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU, the Bulldogs’ combined score is 113-37. The constant in those three losses is that the Crimson Tide, the Aggies, and the Tigers were dominant in time of possession, ranging from 32:10 for LSU to 34:14 for Alabama. Each of those three teams ran the ball more than they threw it, a philosophy that is counter to Arkansas’ approach.
Sometimes, the Razorbacks’ throw-first approach is dictated by the score, but even against Ole Miss, when Arkansas had the ball almost 33 minutes, the Razorbacks threw 43 times and ran the ball 37 times.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino didn’t ask for any advice, but I wouldn’t mind Arkansas saddling up Dennis Johnson and handing him the ball 25 times or so today. Only twice this year has Johnson carried more than 20 times — in the loss to Ole Miss and the victory over Tulsa.
A successful running game would make it easier to protect Wilson and keep the ball away from Russell, who is apt to have a big day against a secondary that made major gaffes at South Carolina.
Pitch and catch near the line of scrimmage is one thing, but South Carolina receivers were often wide open downfield, reflected by the 272 yards netted on Connor Shaw’s 14 completions. Wilson threw for 277 yards, but completed a dozen more passes.
Predicated on MSU getting to 8-3 with a victory over Arkansas, pundits have the Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl against a Big Ten team. The Razorbacks are going nowhere, and, other than missing out on extra practices for underclassmen, it’s just as well. For Arkansas fans, the only point of interest is the identity of the next coach.
The Bulldogs should complete a sweep of the Razorbacks by Mississippi schools.
MISSISSIPPI STATE 31, ARKANSAS 27.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.