Mississippi State Football: Rogers heads back to the starting point

STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI - OCTOBER 08: Will Rogers #2 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs looks to pass during the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Davis Wade Stadium on October 08, 2022 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)
STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI - OCTOBER 08: Will Rogers #2 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs looks to pass during the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Davis Wade Stadium on October 08, 2022 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images) /

Will Rogers trotted on to Kroger Field with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter.

Predictably, the freshman signal-caller’s first snap was a pass play, a 5-yard completion to Austin Williams.

In fact, Rogers’ first 12 plays of his college career consisted of passes. The 11th of those was an interception, his first of two that he would throw in the fourth quarter of a painstaking 24-2 loss to winless Kentucky.

Mississippi State had considerably more first downs (18-10) and total yardage (295-157) than the hosts. However, six interceptions, eight quarterback hurries, seven pass breakups, and two sacks crippled the Bulldogs.

Two weeks earlier, Mississippi State shocked the nation by opening the COVID-19-delayed 2020 campaign with what was then viewed as a 44-34 upset of defending national champion and sixth-ranked Louisiana State University in Death Valley.

LSU was less than nine months removed from defeating Clemson in the national championship game to cap an undefeated season, led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and 1,500-yard receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson.

However, in the 2020 opener, senior quarterback K.J. Costello – a graduate transfer from Stanford – received multiple national player of the week awards by shredding the LSU defense for 623 passing yards and 5 touchdowns.

However, that win proved to be a bit of fool’s gold as the Tigers followed up their fourth national championship by limping to a 5-5 record during the ensuing campaign, a season that consisted of all of the SEC teams only playing conference foes during the regular season due to COVID-compromised scheduling.

Additionally, it was all downhill for Costello – and for the Bulldogs – from there as the Mississippi State quarterback followed that up by tossing three interceptions in the following week’s 21-14 loss to visiting Arkansas.

Costello then threw four more interceptions against Kentucky before he was benched in favor of Rogers.

Finally, in the following week’s 28-14 loss to 11th-ranked Texas A&M, Costello garnered his last start as a Bulldog before he was benched after he was sacked and fumbled on Mississippi State’s first possession of the second half, with the Bulldog offense still scoreless at that point.

It was the second consecutive week that Costello was benched in the second half, and Rogers was handed the keys to Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. He still steers that ship.

Rogers went on to complete 15 of 18 passes for 120 yards and his first career touchdown pass, a 32-yard toss to Malik Heath in the fourth quarter.

Following that season-opening win over LSU, Mississippi State lost four consecutive games and dropped seven of its next eight before ending Leach’s first season as the head coach with a 51-32 win over Missouri and a 28-26 victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl to finish 4-7.

Rogers will trot back on to Kroger Field on Saturday night in the same place that his career began on Oct. 10, 2020, but also in a much different place … both personally and team-wise.

“I knew he needed quite a bit of time and reps and work,” Leach said of Rogers at Monday’s press conference. “Also, with that said, I felt like the people around him were going to improve too.”

The junior broke the Southeastern Conference (SEC) record for career pass completions in last Saturday’s dominating 40-17 victory over visiting Arkansas, eclipsing former Georgia standout Aaron Murray’s previous mark of 921. It took Murray 52 games to compile that total. Rogers reached it in his 28th contest.

STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI – OCTOBER 08: Will Rogers – Mississippi State Football
STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI – OCTOBER 08: Will Rogers – Mississippi State Football /

The Brandon, Mississippi, native is also among the top 10 in SEC history in pass attempts (1,311), and after throwing three touchdown passes last Saturday, he pulled to within one of Dak Prescott’s program record for touchdown passes (70).

The numbers that Rogers – who was named the SEC Co-Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts last Saturday (395 passing yards and 3 touchdowns) – is compiling this season are eye-popping, having completed 72 percent of his passes through 6 games for 2,110 yards and 22 touchdowns while throwing just 3 interceptions.

“Will’s gotten bigger and stronger over the years,” Leach said.

Rogers’ numbers dwarf the rest of the SEC quarterbacks as he leads the conference by 366 passing yards, 64 completions and eight touchdowns … though he has also attempted 83 more passes than any other conference signal-caller.

With all college athletes who played in 2020 receiving an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-compromised season, Rogers could still play for two more seasons after the 2022 campaign is complete. If he returns for those, Rogers could shred almost every conference passing mark. He’s currently 21st in career passing yardage with 8,825 and could climb into 18th place with a 300-yard effort on Saturday. Rogers is tied for 22nd in career touchdown passes.

Rogers is hoping that trend continues against a 22nd-ranked Kentucky squad that opened the season with four consecutive victories – including a 26-16 win over a 12th-ranked Florida squad at the time – before dropping its last two contests (a 22-19 setback at 14th-ranked Ole Miss and last Saturday’s 24-14 loss to visiting South Carolina).

However, the Wildcats (4-2) played without starting quarterback Will Levis last Saturday. Despite missing last week’s contest and having been sacked a league-high 19 times, Levis – who boasts a quarterback rating of 174.91 (better than Rogers’ 158.10) – has completed 69 percent of his passes, resulting in 1,405 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The senior standout returned to practice on Tuesday and is expected to be back in action against the Bulldogs.

“Their quarterback looks very much like a quarterback,” Leach said of Levis. “He’s good at running their unit. He’s a big, statuesque guy. He does some good things.”

Levis has experienced a wealth of success at Kroger Field, helping the Wildcats win their first four games in order to garner a No. 7 national ranking for the first time in 45 years.

Mississippi State avenged the 2020 loss to Kentucky last season, claiming a 31-17 victory when the two teams met in Starkville. Rogers displayed impeccable accuracy in the rematch, completing 36 of 39 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown. Conversely, Levis was intercepted three times in the loss.

Rogers is hopeful that his return to Kroger Field results in a more similar performance to last year’s effort, rather than the team’s 2020 ineptitude.

"“It’s a great atmosphere,” Leach said of Kentucky, where he served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 1997-98. “It’s a packed tailgate that starts from about Thursday. At that time, from my office, you’d walk right through the tailgate section, which was easy to get distracted from time to time. It’s a great place to have a game.”"

The Bulldogs (5-1) enter Saturday’s game – which kicks off at 6:30 p.m. CST – ranked 16th, and the program will be seeking its first four-game winning streak since 2017, when Mississippi State reeled off wins over Brigham Young, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Massachusetts.