Arizona had a relatively easy first game of the 2023 season, but there will be nothing easy about the next opponent. Mississippi State brings back a lot of a team that went 9-4 last season and beat the Wildcats by 22 in Tucson.
Yet in other ways this is a completely different team due to the sudden death of MSU coach Mike Leach, whom UA fans were well-versed in from his time at Washington State.
To help understand how this Bulldogs team is built, we reached out to Evan Ertel of Fansided.com’s Maroon and White Nation. Here are his incisive answers to our rambling questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: Mississippi State went through an unexpected change last December with the sudden passing of coach Mike Leach. How has the program been able to move on following that tragedy, and what are the plans to honor Leach’s memory this season?
Evan Ertel: “It’s obviously the most prevalent storyline surrounding the program, but I think the team has done a great job of recognizing the loss, celebrating the legend, and now moving into the new era that we have been thrust into by fate. I think a massive piece of the smooth transition from the loss and into this new season, was the promotion of Zach Arnett from DC to HC. Keeping a coach around who knew the team, having recruited many of them, and knew the presence that was being left behind first-hand. Arnett isn’t trying to fill Leach’s shoes, he’s simply trying to be the next pair behind the podium that reads ‘State’ in beautiful script writing.”
New head coach Zach Arnett looks to be cut from a very different cloth than Leach. In what ways has he changed the makeup of the program and the style of play, and do you think he’s the right choice for the long term?
“In many ways, he hasn’t really changed much outside of press conferences being a lot less entertaining. Arnett did a great job of listening to those around him and letting their input guide the future of the program. From bringing back past assistants to putting former players on staff, he took the burden off of himself and allowed the culture of the program to gel organically.
“We saw last week that there would be less shift in the offense than there was believed to be. While the wrinkle of a wildcat QB and a more featured running attack are things we didn’t see in the Air Raid system, Will Rogers is not being asked to do anything too tremendously different than his last three years. As for the future, I am excited to see what he can do with a full recruiting calendar and an AD who’s not afraid of NIL money.”
Like Arizona, MSU has a veteran quarterback returning in Will Rogers, and his first-game numbers were solid, as expected. How does he fit into the current system?
“Pretty damn well because it was a system that was built around him. Receiver depth and versatile TEs are still a centerpiece of this team, making it very easy for Rogers to keep doing exactly what he does in simply finding the open man in space. A heavier run game to take down the number of times he’s putting the ball in the air should limit mistakes, which is an area he still is showing the need for improvement.”
The Bulldogs had their most rushing yards in almost four years, and their first 100-yard rusher (Jo’Quavious Marks) in about the same time span. Do you expect this to be a regular thing this season?
“Absolutely. He’s a star, how could he not shine? It actually makes me think about a conversation that I had with a buddy of mine while we were watching the game. We both grew up Bulldogs fans, and we started thinking back and it seemed that for a large part of the 2000’s and 2010’s MSU seemingly had a 1,000-yard rusher every year.
“It finally seems like we are back to that. The Air Raid was a very strange thing for most MSU fans to get used to watching because of our years of conditioning, so I would be lying if I told you it didn’t bring me a level of comfort to know we have Woody Marks on our squad.”
Who are the defensive standouts that Arizona fans need to be most concerned with?
“Linebackers Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson. Both are fifth-year seniors in the SEC and are leaders on the field as well as the sidelines. You can see guys gravitate to them for their knowledge and experience, and to have them both back this season was a major win for a defense that may have been left in a pretty tough spot otherwise. Also, they finished 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the SEC in total tackles in 2022.”
Prediction time. Can Arizona beat an SEC team for the first time since 1976, or will MSU hold serve and sweep the home-and-home series? Give us a score pick.
“Looking at the lines as of Tuesday afternoon, the total is at 60 and MSU is favored by nine. As much as I want this to be an easy evening watch before the first NFL Sunday of the year, I have a feeling it is going to get close late after the Dawgs fail to stop Arizona on multiple possessions. Going with the under and Wildcats to cover, MSU wins a close one 27-23.”