November 19, 2010 8:36:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Having unlimited playmakers is a luxury not too many coaches can claim.
But that''s what Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz sees when he watches the University of Arkansas'' high-powered offense.
The No. 13 Razorbacks (8-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) boast the league''s top passing offense for the second straight season. They feature five players who have 25 or more catches, excluding leading receiver Greg Childs, who is out for the season with a knee injury, and average 13 yards per reception.
The missing link last season was an explosive ground game, but Arkansas has found a go-to running back in Knile Davis. The sophomore, who has battled two ankle injuries in high school and college, has 844 yards and leads the SEC with 7.2 yards per carry.
That balance creates a game-planning nightmare for Diaz, who admits Arkansas will present a greater challenge at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) than Auburn did earlier this season. The Tigers, who are now No. 2 in the nation, beat the Bulldogs 17-14 on Sept. 9.
"What a good offense would want is they''re all just Xs -- no matter who they throw the football to they all have a chance to make a play," Diaz said. "It''s a testament to their skill."
The Razorbacks have won four of their last five games, averaging 45.8 points a game in that span.
The cornerstone of the offense, Ryan Mallett, leads the SEC and is seventh in the country with 2,967 passing yards. He completes 21 passes per game at a 14-yard average.
Diaz''s first order of business is to guard against the big play, which MSU (7-3, 3-3) failed to do last week when it allowed three consecutive scoring plays of more than 45 yards in a 30-10 loss to Alabama.
Diaz believes the difference will come in the red zone, where the No. 22 Bulldogs have surrendered 12 touchdowns in 30 tries. Arkansas'' offense is just as efficient, having scored a touchdown or field goal in 37 of 40 trips inside the red zone.
"We''re usually pretty hard to score on in the red zone, and when Alabama got in our red zone they had a hard time scoring touchdowns," Diaz said. "With a guy like Mallett, whose gonna complete some passes and is gonna get some yards, if we just tackle the catch at a minimum, sooner or later they''re going to end up in our red zone where the field gets constricted and offenses are limited in terms of what they can do."
The Razorbacks will have a lot working in their favor in the red zone showdown with Davis and tight end D.J. Williams, a finalist for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation''s top tight end.
Williams has 14 catches and three touchdowns since Childs went down three weeks ago against Vanderbilt.
MSU coach Dan Mullen said Arkansas uses Williams much like the Bulldogs used injured tight end Marcus Green. Whereas Green was still honing his skills as blocker, Williams provides Arkansas a dual-threat.
"He''s very athletic as a receiver but also has the ability to block," Mullen said, "so you put a a DB on him and he has the ability to be more physical than a DB but then has the ability to be a tough matchup problem for a linebacker. He''s a guy that can create a mismatch for you."
Said MSU middle linebacker Chris White said, "He''s definitely a good tight end, probably one of the best in the league. I remember playing against him last year. He''s hard to bring down and makes a lot of catches."
Eliminating Williams and the rest of Arkansas'' playmakers from the game will start with limiting Mallett''s opportunities to get them the ball. Alabama and Ole Miss have been the only teams to have tangible success against Mallett. Alabama intercepted three Mallett''s passes, while the Rebels held him to 13 completions and 196 yards.
Dialing up pressure can backfire because of Mallett''s uncanny ability to sidestep pressure and to make accurate throws. Give Mallett time and he''ll pick apart a defense.
"They (Arkansas) do a bunch of boots with him and stuff like that, so you can''t just have to get a good pass rush on him," White said. "They do a lot of offensive schemes to move him around -- he can move for being 6-7."
Diaz hopes his defensive line can turn in a performance similar to the one it delivered against Alabama because disrupting Mallett''s rhythm is the only way to contain him. Diaz faced Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino once while the former was at Middle Tennessee
"There''s many ways of doing that, but none of them are guaranteed to work," Diaz said. "You can do that with maximum coverage. You can do that with trying to blitz. You can do that with disguising coverages, hanging coverages. If there was an answer, they wouldn''t be scoring 40 points the last couple of weeks."
NOTE: Chick-fil-A Bowl representative Chad Richardson will visit Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday to scout the Arkansas-Mississippi State game. Both teams are being considered as representatives in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31.
The Atlantic Coast Conference and SEC team selections for the 43rd edition of the Bowl will be announced Dec. 5. The Chick-fil-A Bowl is the oldest guaranteed ACC vs. SEC matchup in the bowl business.