Nov 24, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers (2) moves in the pocket while defended by Ole Miss Rebels defensive end Tavius Robinson (95) during the first quarter at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State rallies past No. 20 Ole Miss in second half

Will Rogers threw two touchdown passes and the Mississippi State defense shut down No. 20 Ole Miss’ running game in a 24-22 victory in the Battle for the Golden Egg on Thursday night in Oxford, Miss.

The Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) held the Rebels’ running back tandem of Quinshon Judkins and Zach Evans, who came in averaging a combined 208 rushing yards, to 87 yards and ended a two-game losing streak in the long-time rivalry.

Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4) led 16-14 at halftime. After a scoreless third quarter, Massimo Biscardi kicked a 34-yard field goal to give Mississippi State a 17-16 lead with 13:46 left in the game.

On a third-and-7 play, Rogers threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Rara Thomas to extend the lead to 24-16 with 7:58 left.

After a Rebels fumble, the Bulldogs had a chance to score again, but Rogers lost a fumble at the Ole Miss 1-yard line.

The Rebels drove 99 yards and Jaxson Dart threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Dayton Wade with 1:25 left, but a potential tying two-point conversion pass failed. Mississippi State recovered the ensuing onside kick to hold on.

On the first possession of the game, Ole Miss needed just three plays to drive to a first down at the Mississippi State 15. However, the Rebels stalled and Jonathan Cruz kicked a 32-yard field goal.

The Bulldogs responded quickly, driving 61 yards on the ensuing possession, which ended with Jo’quavious Marks running 1 yard for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead.

Ole Miss drove to a first down at the Mississippi State 18 on its third possession and stalled again. Cruz’s 33-yard field goal trimmed the lead to 7-6 at the end of the first quarter.

Cruz added a 49-yard field goal to give the Rebels a 9-7 lead early in the second quarter.

The Rebels drove to the Mississippi State 1, and on fourth-and-goal Dart threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to JJ Pegues for a 16-7 lead.

Rogers tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Lideatrick Griffin with eight seconds left, cutting Ole Miss’ lead to 16-14 at halftime.

–Field Level Media

Oct 15, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Lane Kiffin walks off the field during a timeout during the first quarter of the game against the Auburn Tigers at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Fast Lane? Kiffin drama spices up Egg Bowl

Ole Miss and Mississippi State are not where they wanted to be on Thanksgiving weekend, and it remains to be seen whether Lane Kiffin is coming to the party known in Mississippi as the Egg Bowl.

The Rebels (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) were ranked in the AP Top 10 after winning their first seven games, but they’ve lost three of their past four, and the defeats have come by an average of two touchdowns.

The Bulldogs (7-4, 3-4) were ranked No. 16 after starting the season 5-1, but they have lost three of their past five overall and three of their past four SEC games.

To add a dash of drama, reports Kiffin was on the verge of bowing out of his job at Ole Miss to accept an offer at Auburn surfaced Monday night. Kiffin himself replied to the report with a matter of fact “news to me,” to lead off a string of social media posts denying he’d be anywhere except the annual Battle for the Golden Egg on Thursday night in Oxford, Miss.

The winner’s season will look a whole lot better before the teams head off to their respective bowl games.

“It seems like there’s not a lot of love in the relationship, I guess is the positive, nice way of putting it,” Kiffin said of the rivalry. “It means a lot to a lot of people. We’ve been fortunate to turn it back our direction the last couple of years and trying to keep it that way.”

Kiffin and Mississippi State coach Mike Leach are both in their third seasons. The Rebels won 31-24 two years ago and 31-21 last season.

“I think we’ve come a long ways with the program,” Kiffin said. “I think we’ve turned over the roster, improved the roster. Obviously improved on-field production and made the program a lot more visible nationally to recruit to than where it was when we got here.”

Ole Miss took a 42-27 loss at Arkansas last Saturday.

Many of the Bulldogs, including record-setting junior quarterback Will Rogers, have yet to experience a victory in the rivalry game.

“It would mean everything,” Rogers said of winning Thursday. “That’s all I’m really worried about right now. Coach Kiffin has done a great job of getting their guys ready to play and getting them excited, so I know they will be ready to play.

“We have to answer the call and we have to be ready to go Thursday night.”

Leach has emphasized to his players the importance of avoiding getting caught up in the rivalry.

“The biggest thing is focusing on doing the best you can and being the best team that you can be and leave it at that,” Leach said. “Otherwise, if you distract yourself with a bunch of other stuff, you’re not going to help your approach or help what you’re trying to do.

“You just go out there, lock in, try to improve and try to get better this week to be the best team that you can be.”

But the players from Mississippi on both teams understand the importance of the game.

“This is the game that everybody thinks about every year,” said Rogers, who is from Brandon, Miss. “It doesn’t matter where we play it or who is ranked higher or what the records are. It’s the biggest game of the year, every year.”

–Field Level Media

Nov 12, 2022; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) runs the ball againstMississippi State Bulldogs safety Collin Duncan (19) during the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 Georgia thumps Mississippi State to clinch SEC East again

Top-ranked Georgia clinched the SEC East Division title with a 45-19 victory over host Mississippi State on Saturday in Starkville, Miss.

Stetson Bennett threw for 289 yards on 25-for-37 passing with three touchdowns and two interceptions and added a rushing touchdown for Georgia (10-0, 7-0 SEC). It’s Georgia’s fifth SEC East Division crown in six seasons.

Ladd McConkey had five catches for 71 yards and a score, as well as a 70-yard touchdown run, while Brock Bowers had five receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown. Darnell Washington had five catches for 60 yards and a score.

In the SEC title game, Georgia will face No. 7 LSU (8-2, 6-1), which clinched the West Division title earlier in the day, in Atlanta on Dec. 3.

Will Rogers went 29-for-51 passing for 261 yards and a touchdown, while Rufus Harvey had six receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown for Mississippi State (6-3, 3-4).

With Georgia leading 17-12 entering the second half, McConkey took a pitch and raced 70 yards for a 24-12 lead on the second play of the third quarter.

Bennett’s 17-yard touchdown pass to McConkey pushed the lead to 31-12 with 9:19 left in the third, before Rogers’ 6-yard scoring strike to Harvey trimmed the lead to 31-19 with 5:17 left in the period.

Bennett’s 2-yard scoring toss to Washington extended the lead to 38-19 with 14:55 left in the game, and Kendall Milton’s 34-yard touchdown run capped the scoring with 2:04 left.

Bennett’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Bowers capped a nine-play, 73-yard drive that gave Georgia a 7-0 lead with 9:50 left in the first quarter.

Georgia pushed its lead to 10-0 on Jack Podlesny’s 28-yard field goal with 11:57 left in the first half.

Massimo Biscardi’s 25-yard field goal made it 10-3 with 5:01 to go in the second quarter, but Bennett’s 4-yard touchdown run pushed the lead to 17-3 with 2:29 left in the half.

After Biscardi’s 36-yard field goal made it 17-6 with 51 seconds left in the second quarter, Georgia was forced to punt with 19 seconds left in the half. Zavion Thomas fielded the punt on a bounce and raced down the sideline for a 63-yard touchdown to make it 17-12 with three seconds left in the half after a failed two-point conversion.

–Field Level Media

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) warms up before the start of a NCAA college football game between Tennessee and Georgia in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.

News Joshua L Jones

No. 1 Georgia brings well-rounded game to Mississippi State

After taking the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings, Georgia will look to prove it belongs there against Mississippi State in Southeastern Conference play on Saturday in Starkville, Miss.

Georgia (9-0, 6-0 SEC), which was third in the initial CFP rankings, is coming off a dominating, 27-13 home win last week over then-No. 1 Tennessee, which fell to No. 5.

Mississippi State (6-3, 3-3) defeated visiting Auburn 39-33 in overtime last week to end a two-game slide.

Georgia can win its fifth SEC East title in the past six years with a win over Mississippi State or a victory next week at No. 24 Kentucky. Georgia also advances to the SEC title game if Tennessee loses any of its three remaining league games, beginning with Saturday’s contest against visiting Missouri.

While Mississippi State outgained Auburn 370-331 in total yards and squandered an 21-point lead against the Tigers, Georgia’s performance against Tennessee showed why it’s are regarded as the country’s most complete team.

Tennessee entered its game against Georgia leading the country in total offense (553 yards per game) and points (49.4 per game), but the Volunteers mustered just 289 yards and 13 points — with their lone touchdown coming in the final five minutes.

Georgia ranks second nationally in scoring defense (10.78 ppg) and is tied for fourth in total defense (265.6 ypg), sixth in rushing defense (86.4 ypg) and tied for sixth in first downs allowed (126).

On offense, Georgia is first in red-zone scoring percentage (.980), third in total offense (514.2 ypg), 10th in passing offense (320.2 ypg) and 11th in scoring offense (40.1 ppg).

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett has completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Tight end Brock Bowers has 34 receptions for 574 yards with three touchdowns for Georgia, while Ladd McConkey has 38 catches for 507 yards and three touchdowns. Kenny McIntosh has been a threat out of the backfield with 31 receptions for 322 yards and a score in addition to rushing for 384 yards and six scores on 79 carries.

Daijun Edwards is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, having rushed for 486 yards and seven touchdowns on 87 carries.

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, asked what it would take to beat the nation’s top-ranked team, said, “Focus on what you do and have discipline. The hardest thing is to get the message to everyone. It’s easy to say it, but everyone has to buy it and believe it. Just worry about what you do, worry about your job.”

Mississippi State’s defense, which features cornerback Emmanuel Forbes and his SEC-high five interceptions, has given up at least 24 points in five of six league games this season.

However, Mississippi State has been much better on offense.

Behind Will Rogers, who has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for an SEC-leading 2,912 yards and 26 touchdowns against just five interceptions, Mississippi State is eighth in passing offense (325.6) and 11th in red-zone scoring percentage (.926).

Rara Thomas has 36 receptions for 540 yards and five scores for Mississippi State. Dillon Johnson (71 carries, 406 yards, 3 TDs) and Jo’quavious Marks (77 carries, 357 yards, 7 TDs) lead an improved rushing attack.

“They’re really gashing people running the ball this year,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I think that’s the biggest difference — they are committed to running the ball and being physical up front.

“People have the wrong demeanor when they go to play this team that, ‘Oh, man, I’m going to go out here and pass rush and get all these sacks.’ They’re not going to let you do that.”

Georgia has won 12 of the past 13 meetings between the teams, including a 31-24 home win in the latest matchup, in 2020.

–Field Level Media

Nov 5, 2022; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Auburn Tigers quarterback Robby Ashford (9) is defended by Mississippi State Bulldogs safety Collin Duncan (19) during the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State edges Auburn in OT, 39-33

Jo’quavious Marks’ 5-yard touchdown run in overtime lifted Mississippi State to a 39-33 victory over visiting Auburn in Southeastern Conference play on Saturday in Starkville, Miss.

After Auburn’s Anders Carlson missed a 38-yard field goal wide right to open overtime, Auburn’s J.D. Rhym was called for defensive pass interference. The penalty gave the Bulldogs a first down at the 5-yard line, setting up the game-winning score.

Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers went 42-for-59 passing for 357 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. Rara Thomas had six catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns for the Bulldogs (6-3, 3-3 SEC), who stopped a two-game slide.

Auburn quarterback Robby Ashford went 7-for-22 passing with no touchdowns or interceptions, in addition to running for 108 yards and two third-quarter touchdowns on 18 carries. Tank Bigsby added 89 yards and a score on 13 carries as Auburn (3-6, 1-5) dropped its fifth straight game and suffered its 11th loss in its past 14 games dating to last season.

Mississippi State’s Massimo Biscardi tied the game with a 44-yard field goal with 29 seconds left after Auburn’s Jarquez Hunter gave the Tigers a 33-30 lead with an 8-yard touchdown run with 1:05 remaining.

Auburn had trailed by 18 points in the second half and by 21 earlier in the game.

After Biscardi’s field goal, Ben Raybon’s line-drive kickoff hit Auburn up-man Sean Jackson, with Jett Johnson recovering the loose ball on the Bulldogs’ 48-yard line with 26 seconds remaining.

However, Biscardi’s 56-yard field goal attempt fell short as time expired.

Trailing 24-6 at halftime, Auburn pulled to within 24-12 on Ashford’s 20-yard run less than two minutes into the third quarter before his 18-yard touchdown run trimmed it to 24-19 with 4:18 left in the quarter.

Bigsby’s 41-yard burst down the sideline gave Auburn a 25-24 lead after a failed two-point conversion with 6:36 remaining.

But Rogers marched the Bulldogs 65 yards in eight plays, punctuating the drive with his second scoring strike to Thomas for a 30-25 lead after the missed two-point conversion with 3:49 left.

Auburn countered with Hunter’s 8-yard touchdown run before Biscardi’s 44-yard field goal ultimately sent the game into overtime.

Mississippi State led by as many as 21 points in the first half after Lideatrick Griffin’s 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave the Bulldogs a 24-3 lead with 8:12 left in the second quarter.

–Field Level Media

Auburn Tigers quarterback Robby Ashford (9) throws the ball as the Auburn Tigers take on Arkansas Razorbacks at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. Arkansas Razorbacks defeated Auburn Tigers 41-27.

Auburn’s Cadillac Williams to make head-coaching debut vs. Mississippi St.

Auburn interim coach Carnell “Cadillac” Williams will hope to salvage the Tigers’ season, beginning with a game at slumping Mississippi State on Saturday night in Starkville, Miss.

Williams, who was in his fourth season of coaching the Tigers’ running backs, replaced Bryan Harsin after he was dismissed on Monday after less than two seasons on the job.

“I truly believe Auburn has the potential to be a championship program once again,” Harsin wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “The resources, financial support and fan base are in place.”

The Tigers (3-5, 1-4 SEC), mired in a four-game-losing streak, went 9-12 under Harsin, with losses in 10 of their past 13 games dating to last season.

Mississippi State (5-3, 2-3) is coming off a 30-6 loss at then-No. 6 Alabama, the Bulldogs’ second straight loss after opening the season 5-1.

The Bulldogs and Tigers play contrasting styles of offense.

Led by Will Rogers, who has thrown for an SEC-high 2,555 yards and 23 touchdowns with just four interceptions, the Bulldogs average 410.8 yards per game but have rushed for a league-low 713.

Auburn has struggled throwing the ball. Robby Ashford has completed 52.6 percent of his passes for 1,299 yards and five touchdowns with five interceptions. Auburn averages just 217.3 yards through the air, ahead of only Missouri and Vanderbilt in the conference.

However, Auburn has been successful running the ball. That’s a major reason why Williams — a former All-American running back at Auburn — was promoted while offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau and tight ends coach Brad Bedell were among several assistants who were fired on Monday.

Tank Bigsby has averaged 5.3 yards per carry, rushing for 587 yards and seven scores on 110 carries. Ashford has added 397 yards and three touchdowns on 93 carries.

“Auburn’s full of a bunch of players who had offers all over the conference,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said. “Us and everybody else wanted those guys on their team.”

–Field Level Media

Oct 12, 2019; Knoxville, TN, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs helmets on the sideline of a game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State OL Sam Westmoreland dies at 18

Mississippi State offensive lineman Sam Westmoreland died Wednesday, the school announced. He was 18.

No cause of death was immediately revealed. The Clarion-Ledger reported that officers responded to a call at 11 a.m. CT and found Westmoreland dead upon arriving at Blackjack Missionary Baptist Church in Starkville, Miss.

No foul play is suspected. The death is under investigation.

Westmoreland was a freshman. His 19th birthday would have been Friday.

Bulldogs coach Mike Leach was among the school officials who issued statements.

“The Mississippi State Athletics Family is heartbroken by the sudden death of Sam Westmoreland,” Leach said. “Sam was a beloved son, brother and teammate, and a tremendous young man with a limitless future. He will always be remembered and deeply missed by everyone who knew and loved him.

“The entire MSU Family mourns as our thoughts and prayers go out to the Westmoreland family. Our highest priority is the support of the Westmoreland family and our student-athletes during this troubling time.”

Westmoreland was a native of Tupelo, Miss., and attended Tupelo High before joining the Mississippi State program.

“One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned while leading this great university is that the tragic loss of one of our students diminishes all of our students — and all of us at Mississippi State feel the impact of Sam Westmoreland’s death,” university president Mark E. Keenum said in a statement. “My prayers are with Sam’s family and friends, with his MSU teammates and coaches, and with the Tupelo community during this most difficult time.”

Westmoreland hadn’t seen any action this season.

The No. 24 Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2 SEC) visit No. 6 Alabama (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday.

–Field Level Media

Oct 15, 2022; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban reacts during the first half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

No. 6 Alabama, No. 24 Mississippi State meet on rebound

Under coach Nick Saban, the Alabama Crimson Tide does not lose often, but when they do, they probably have a pretty good idea of who they will play in their next game.

Coming off tough road losses last weekend, No. 6 Alabama and No. 24 Mississippi State will meet in a Southeastern Conference contest Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, there have been six occasions when the Crimson Tide have lost and then faced Mississippi State the following week.

Alabama (6-1, 3-1) met the Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2) last year after losing at Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide also faced them after losing at home to LSU in 2019. Now, the matchup follows a road defeat vs. Tennessee — Saban’s first to the Volunteers in 16 career meetings as Alabama’s coach.

Alabama’s demise at Knoxville came down to a missed 50-yard field with 15 seconds left, multiple penalties and poor defense. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker passed for 385 yards and five touchdowns, all to wideout Jalin Hyatt.

“I don’t think the no-huddle offense was the issue for us,” Saban said after his squad’s 52-49 loss and a wild post-game celebration at Neyland Stadium. “It was covering their receivers and allowing way too many big plays. … Guys got to play with better focus, better leverage and got to cover people better.”

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Tennessee coach Josh Heupel when the latter played quarterback at Oklahoma in 1999.

Leach recognized a few plays the Volunteers ran in the Alabama upset from his Oklahoma days, saying: “I can think of a play in particular that we ran back in the day. (Heupel’s) got his quarterback running that play better than he ran it.”

Against Tennessee, the Crimson Tide committed 17 penalties for 130 yards — more than the 114 they rushed for.

Alabama’s fall to sixth in the latest Top 25 poll ended the team’s streak of 40 weeks inside the top five, an active streak currently owned by No. 1 Georgia (24).

The 52 points was the most scored against Alabama since Sewanee hung 54 on the Crimson Tide in 1907.

After losing to the Bulldogs in his first meeting in 2007, Saban has won 14 straight – with only two being one-score games (25-20 in 2014 and 31-24 in 2017).

The Bulldogs likely will be the lone ranked team to come to Tuscaloosa in 2022 — FCS Austin Peay and Auburn (3-4) will finish the home slate — but Leach’s group also is licking its wounds.

On Saturday at Kentucky, the Wildcats grounded the dangerous aerial assault of Mississippi State star passer Will Rogers. The junior quarterback, who started the game averaging 351.7 yards per outing, was held in check — completing 25 of 37 throws for 203 yards with a TD and an interception.

Rogers’ 70 career TD passes ties him with Dak Prescott (2012-15) for the most in school history. Rogers needs 338 yards to eclipse Prescott’s milestone of 9,376 total passing yards.

The Bulldogs failed to contain Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (30 carries for 196 yards, two TDs), who helped keep the ball out of Rogers’ hand as the Wildcats dominated the time of possession, 39:22 to 20:38.

–Field Level Media

Oct 1, 2022; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers (2) makes a pass against the Texas A&M Aggies during the fourth quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

No. 16 Mississippi State on fire entering clash at No. 22 Kentucky

No. 16 Mississippi State will visit No. 22 Kentucky on Saturday night after outscoring its last three opponents by a combined 127-55.

And if coach Mike Leach is correct, the Bulldogs have more left in the tank for the Southeastern Conference clash in Lexington.

“Quite a bit, because you’re talking about every position on the team where you can get a little bit more,” he said. “We’re finishing runs better than we did last year, but we can certainly do better. We’re blocking the second level better than we did last year, but we could certainly do better.

“We’re playing faster than we did last year, but we could certainly play faster. Then defensively, we do a lot of good things, and we are kind of explosive and powerful on defense, but some of the big plays we could definitely shut down, too.”

Some might see it as coach-speak, but Leach knows this is no time for Mississippi State (5-1, 2-1 SEC) to bask in the glow of a dominant stretch. With No. 3 Alabama looming on the road next week, the Bulldogs certainly can’t get caught looking ahead to its SEC West neighbor.

If quarterback Will Rogers continues to execute as he has this year, Mississippi State should be in good shape. Rogers is completing nearly 72 percent of his passes through six games for 2,110 yards with a 22-3 touchdown-interception ratio.

In last week’s 40-17 rout of Arkansas, Rogers completed 31 of 48 passes for 395 yards with three touchdowns. The Bulldogs finished with 568 total yards, including a 100-yard game on the ground from Dillon Johnson to give the offense balance.

Meanwhile, Kentucky (4-2, 1-2) has fallen out of the Top 10 after consecutive SEC losses. The Wildcats struggled offensively for the second straight game last week in a 24-14 home defeat against unranked South Carolina.

Starting quarterback Will Levis (ankle/finger) watched that defeat from the sideline in a walking boot after suffering multiple injuries in a 22-19 defeat at Ole Miss the previous week. In his place, Kaiya Sheron hit 15 of 27 passes for 178 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Gamecocks, but he also tossed a late interception and absorbed six sacks.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said Levis is a day-to-day proposition for Saturday. Stoops said Sheron’s teammates could have played better around him.

“Obviously, when you lose one of the top players in college football, it doesn’t help your football team, but that’s still no excuse for the way we played,” Stoops said. “There are certainly things we could do better. That holds true after watching the film.”

The Wildcats’ defense allowed the Gamecocks to roll up 179 yards on the ground and South Carolina broke up a 7-7 halftime score by scoring 17 consecutive points in the second half before UK scored late.

Mississippi State owns a 25-24 lead in the series, which dates back to 1914. The Bulldogs posted a 31-17 victory over Kentucky last October in Starkville as Rogers completed 36 of 39 passes for 344 yards with a touchdown.

–Field Level Media

Oct 1, 2022; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers (2) makes a pass against the Texas A&M Aggies during the fourth quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

QB-driven coach Mike Leach, No. 23 Mississippi State face Arkansas

Coach Mike Leach has Mississippi State back in the national spotlight.

For the first time since 2020, the Bulldogs are in The Associated Press’ Top 25, slotting at 23rd as they prepare to face Southeastern Conference foe Arkansas on Saturday in Starkville, Miss.

It marks the first time the Bulldogs (4-1, 1-1) have been in the Top 25 since Sept. 27, 2020.

In Leach’s first game the day before that ranking, his team steamrolled defending national champion LSU 44-34 behind an SEC-record 623 passing yards from transfer quarterback K.J. Costello.

Leach’s history of achievement usually involves the passing game, and the Bulldogs’ Will Rogers falls into the category of Leach passers who have had success in college or beyond.

Leach guided NFL No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch and Josh Heupel when he was an assistant at Kentucky and Oklahoma, respectively. As a head coach, he turned out Kliff Kingsbury and Graham Harrell at Texas Tech and Gardner Minshew at Washington State.

Rogers appears destined to join the list.

With his team scoring at least 39 points in four of its five games, the junior has completed 171 of 234 passes for 1,715 yards (third nationally). His 19 TD passes tie him for the top spot with North Carolina’s Drake Maye.

“He’s gotten better at utilizing the weapons around him more quickly, more decisively,” Leach said of Rogers.

Arkansas (3-2, 1-2) has dropped consecutive games to Texas A&M, 23-21, and Alabama, 49-26, and has no margin for error while occupying the SEC’s West Division basement.

Down 28-0 to Alabama on its home turf in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks battled to 28-23 on Raheim Sanders’ 3-yard TD run late in the third quarter. But the home side couldn’t keep up with Jahmyr Gibbs, who ripped off 72- and 76-yard scores in the fourth quarter to help the Crimson Tide vault past Georgia and into the No. 1 poll spot.

While Sanders is having an outstanding season with 609 rushing yards on 105 carries (5.8-yard average), coach Sam Pittman said his team needs to produce more through the air, especially against SEC talent.

“On offense we’ve got to throw the ball better. Right now, we’re one-dimensional,” the third-year coach said. “We can’t just turn around and hand the ball off and beat good teams.”

Saturday’s biggest concern for Arkansas is the health status of quarterback KJ Jefferson, who was hit in the head last week during the loss to Alabama and was replaced by Cade Fortin.

Pittman did not mention a concussion but said the passer suffered a head injury. Pittman added this week that the team is in “wait-and-see” mode with Jefferson’s progress.

Fortin, a redshirt senior, was 4 of 10 for 35 yards in relief. He is backed up by redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby.

“We’re very confident with (Fortin) in practice,” Pittman said. “He’s done really well in the two-minute situations. He’s a good quarterback and he has experience. We also believe in Malik.”

Arkansas holds an 18-13-1 all-time edge in the series and has won two straight.

–Field Level Media