Why Mississippi State football's Zach Arnett should keep 'no fear' mindset vs. Arkansas

STARKVILLE — There’s a special gamesmanship that goes into college football. It’s one where coaches such as Arkansas’ Sam Pittman spend Monday press conferences gushing over their upcoming opponent while also making the foe's life tougher.

For Pittman, that opponent is Mississippi State on Saturday (11 a.m., SEC Network). That means part of the equation is trying to throw off MSU defensive coordinator Zach Arnett.

“They’re going to cause you problems on offense if you’re not ready for all this movement and all the blitzing that they do,” Pitman said.

“There’s no fear in (him),” he later added.

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If Arnett is as good as Pittman claims — LSU interviewing him for an open defensive coordinator job two years ago suggests he is — making MSU’s preparation easier does little good.

So Pittman, regardless of what quarterback KJ Jefferson’s status actually is, made sure Arnett didn’t have the answer.

“(Jefferson) has some mild symptoms,” Pittman said. “Those are things that our doctors look at. Each kid is a little bit different with how they react. We've had guys back within 3-4 days. We've had guys out for 27 days. He's kind of a wait-and-see, to be honest with you."

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett coaches his unit during the game against Texas A&M on Oct. 17, 2020, in Starkville, Mississippi.
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett coaches his unit during the game against Texas A&M on Oct. 17, 2020, in Starkville, Mississippi.

Luckily for MSU, coach Mike Leach thinks Arnett’s week won’t depend on who’s under center for the Razorbacks.

“I don’t think they’re going to change their whole offense,” Leach said Monday. “It’s difficult to do in a week no matter who you’re playing.  It’ll be pretty similar to what they do already.  They can’t re-teach everything.”

Whether it’s Jefferson or Cade Fortin starting, Leach’s approach bodes well for Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs have allowed more than 30 points only once (31 at LSU) this season. They’re coming off a season-best performance with four sacks against Texas A&M. With Arkansas relying heavily on the run, it helps for MSU to sit in the upper half of SEC rush defenses after finishing third last season.

Arnett can be aggressive in his play calling because of the experience he has on defense. Even with senior linebacker Nathaniel Watson out for the first half, Mississippi State can slide J.P. Purvis between senior Tyrus Wheat and junior Jett Johnson.

“They’re all really good players and they use them well," Pittman said of the MSU linebackers.

The chess match has already ensued between the coaching staffs, which is a sign of the high-stakes matchups MSU thinks it can partake in. The next step is playing in meaningful games for an extended stretch.

MSU is ranked in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll for the first time since Sept. 27, 2020. Leach said he ignores the polls. He can, but recruits don't.

Falling out of the rankings immediately after jumping in would fit the mold of what many expected when Leach was hired: Mississippi State would be a program with big wins but not consistently enough to compete at a high level.

He’s 2-1 against Texas A&M and Jimbo Fisher, but Leach has yet to beat Pittman or Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin who were hired at the same time. From his roster to his coaching staff, SEC foes clearly think Leach has the tools in place to change the narrative.

“They’re hot right now,” Pittman added.

Stefan Krajisnik is the Mississippi State beat writer for the Clarion Ledger. Contact him at skrajisnik@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter @skrajisnik3.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Sam Pittman says Mississippi State football's Zach Arnett has no fear