Mississippi State Football 2014: Game 4

Mississippi State (3-0) stays on the road but begins conference season with a trip to #8-ranked LSU (3-0). Game time is 6:05 for ESPN at Tiger Stadium, with the MSU Network pregame show airing at 4:00. Both teams have won their last six games dating back to November 2013.

*This is the latest SEC opener for Mississippi State since 2003, when those Dogs also kicked off league play in game-four and against LSU.

*State has never beaten LSU in the month of September, not that there have been many such early meetings.

*State is playing for its first win over a ranked (AP) opponent since 2010 (@ #22 Florida), with losses in the last 15 such matchups. The last Bulldog win over a top-ten team was in 2000, also Florida then #3 at Scott Field. The last road win against a top-ten ranked host was 1986 at #8 Tennessee.

*Dan Mullen is #3 in all-time victories at Mississippi State, with a 39-28 record in his sixth season. He already ranks first in bowl victories at 3-1. And his winning percentage is best by a Bulldog coach in over a half-century.

*State has scored 131 points through three games this season, the best such start since the 1944 team. Going back to the Liberty Bowl, Bulldog teams have scored 178 points in four games. That’s better than the 2010-11 teams did in a four-game run (two each) of 176 total points.

*The 1,580 yards compiled by the MSU offense is the fastest three-game start in program history.

*Mississippi State’s last victory over LSU was in 1999, at Scott Field. The last victory in Tiger Stadium was 1991 (at night) with the Tigers winning their eleven home games since by day or dark.

The Opponent: Honestly, just about any intro written in the past decade would still serve with little more than changing the names and numbers. And even the latter doesn’t fluctuate all that much whether it be the sizes, statistics, and yes season records. The Tigers will be big on both sides of the line, fast and not exactly small behind either, and play the game their own way whether you like it or not. Since Les Miles is two wins away from #100 in Baton Rouge, who can argue? In fact the only real debate here is, couldn’t we consider LSU the league’s most consistent club of the past dozen years?

Offense: So, maybe 2013 was just a slight deviation from the Tiger norm. It was understandable given a big-armed passer and two 1,000-yard receivers. 2014 though looks a lot more familiar to foes…depressingly so. Through three games LSU has rushed the ball 157 times to just 59 throws thanks to the latest rotation of running backs. Kenny Hilliard had to be content with #4 status last season, now he’s top cat and with 215 yards already isn’t far from his entire 2013 output. He’s also knocked-out 5.2 yards each touch so far…but so has touted freshman Leonard Fournette, while Darrel Williams is slacking at just 4.9 per-rush. Oh, and that trio has lost just seven combined yards on 93 carries; they just don’t go backwards. Speaking of waiting his turn, soph Travin Dural (12 catches, 370 yards, 4 TD) has already doubled his rookie stats as the new go-to target. That average gain of nearly 31-yards-per is what happens when the secondary is concerned as much with supporting the run-defense and leaves isolated matchups. John Diarse (6, 116, 1) balances the coverage from the other end, and of course the running backs can run routes also. Summer concerns about quarterback battles didn’t last long as true soph Anthony Jennings put his freshman experience (forced by injury) as winning bowl starter to good use. He’s thrown five touchdowns already against a lone interception and will only improve on current 52% completions. The blocking averages close enough to 320 pounds as to make no difference, except of course to the guys trying to move any of ‘em aside. The star power is on the left side with tackle La’el Collins and guard Vadal Alexander nominated for national honors. Oh, and that end can be even more over-loaded by 295-pound tight end Dillon Gordon. Some suspect the Tigers haven’t entirely set their 2014 ‘identity’ just yet, but this sure seems an easy unit for outsiders to ID.

Defense: Start with 600 pounds of interior attitude, flank them with long and strong ends; reinforce the front with linebackers ranging sideline-to-sideline; and back it all up with explosive athleticism in the secondary. Hmmm, as that 80s ditty said so well, ‘same as it ever was…’ An even better, or worse from an opposing perspective, is to not that there are eight LSU defenders nominated for or receivers of some sort of award. One wonders how the other three feel about being ignored. Two are the starting tackles, both underclassmen with chances to grow into stars; they’ve already grown more than enough of body. They tie up enough blocking so veteran ends Danielle Hunter (second in stops at 15) and Jermauria Rasco (2.0 sacks) can do the fun stuff. The outside ‘backer spots have shuffled through three games but the constant is mike-man D.J. Welter, about to make his 17th start. What ought really get attention is talk that this might be the best all-around secondary of Miles’ tenure in Tigertown. And if nobody has the p.r. flash of some predecessors these guys may not need to be spectacular to get the job(s) done. Safeties Jalen Mills (Lott nominee and a 24-game starter at cornerback before moving) and Ronald Martin both have a pick already in the early going, as does alternate Rickey Jefferson who’d likely start in many a program. Mills moved so junior Jalen Collins could take the left corner; the right has been Tre’Davious White’s preserve and where he’s played at an all-American pace. The stat sheet isn’t much use right now in rating individual prowess. It’s what the squad had done in toto, shaking off a rough start against Wisconsin to post nine consecutive scoreless quarters with the first back-to-back shutouts in Tiger Stadium since before Pearl Harbor. The event, not the movie. Oh, and getting ‘behind the chains’ against this bunch is not a good gameplan. LSU has allowed just 11 conversions in 43 third downs.

Specialists: Beloved of live-graphics staff and editors everywhere, Colby Delahoussaye has picked up where he left off with 13-of-14 field goaling as a freshman. He’s hit all three this season, long of 47, though there’s been a missed PAT too. It’s everywhere these days. Jamie Keehn is in year-three as the punter and averaging a career-best 44.4 this season. Cornerback White fields the punts and is netting 8.7 each return; while freshman Fournette takes the kickoffs and is bound to burn somebody soon.

Bulldog Team/Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls has started all 42 career games and leads this roster in starts. The career record is 52 by Gabe Jackson. OC Dillon Day is second in starts with 37.

*Eulls, Day, WR Jameon Lewis, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 42 career games played.

*Every remaining member of the 2013 signing class which reported has played except WR Shelby Christy, out for another season with injury.

*WR/KR Jamoral Graham is the only 2014 scholarship signee freshman to be activated so far. 2008 signee TE/ST Rashun Dixon has played in two games and walk-on freshman PK Westin Graves has played as well.

*The 527 yards being averaged by this Bulldog offense is #20 in the country this week.

*DE Preston Smith has written a piece of program history. The senior has been named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for all three chances this season, the first Bulldog to earn a conference honor three-straight weeks. DT Fletcher Cox (2009-11) did it four times in 2011 including thrice in a four-week stretch, but not consecutively. OT Derek Sherrod also had four such awards during the 2010 season.

*So far Smith has ‘only’ nine total tackles in three games. His honors came on big plays: an interception and blocked field goal against Southern Mississippi; an interception returned for touchdown against UAB; and another deflected field goal along with two sacks with a forced fumble at South Alabama.

*Other active Dogs with blocked kicks are DE Nelson Adams (2013, punt Alcorn State) and S Kivon Coman (2014 field goal UAB.

*Smith’s block in game-one was scooped and scored by S Jay Hughes. There is no other recorded instance of a blocked field goal for touchdown ever by a Bulldog.

*That was State’s first special-teams touchdown of any sort since a kickoff return by Jameon Lewis in the 2012 Egg Bowl.

*Also on special teams, LB Richie Brown has recovered an on-sides kick (UAB).

*Frequent rotation of the defenses has cut into most starters’ tackle totals. But MLB Benardrick McKinney has regained the unit lead with 20 total stops in three games. He had a career-best 12 tackles in the UAB game, besting his previous high of 10 (Kentucky 2013).

*Junior McKinney is closing in on 200 career tackles. He now has 193, split as 98 primary and 95 assists in two-plus seasons.

*After ‘just’ two turnovers forced on UAB, the Psycho Defense returned to more familiar form at Mobile with a fumble forced and recovered, two interceptions, and the deflected field goal. Through three games State has created eight total turnovers. And going back to last November, Dog defenses have forced 22 turnovers.

*State is tops in the SEC in passes broken up; and first among all ‘power five’ teams in tackles for loss.

*QB Dak Prescott heads to his home state with a healthy head of statistical steam. Through three games he has accounted for an official 969 yards of total offense (rushing and passing). But add in his 24 yard touchdown catch last week and he’s at 993 net yards.

*Prescott has thrown nine touchdowns against just two interceptions. He averages a scoring play every 4.8 caught passes.

*Prescott has passed for 200-plus yards all three games this year, eight times in his career.

*Prescott rushed for 100-plus yards four times last season; he’s done it back-to-back games this year.

*His 40-yard touchdown rush was just the second running score for the quarterback since he’s making more plays with the arm than the feet, as instructed.

*Prescott is a game, even a good half, from becoming the 11th Bulldog quarterback with 3,000 passing yards. He goes into this game with 2,830 yards.

*And in the main category for quarterbacks, Prescott is already tied for 9th in career touchdown passes with 23, with MSU coach Rockey Felker. His next TD tossed with tie Tommy Pharr (1967-69) for eighth place.

*In ‘touchdowns responsible for’ which is rushing and throwing only, Prescott now has 42 which ties for fourth with John Bond (1980-83). He’s three behind former teammate Tyler Russell (2010-13) at 45.

*That TRF stat does not count touchdown catches, of which Prescott now has three in two seasons.

*At South Alabama, State failed for only the third time in Prescott’s ten starts to score a touchdown on the first possession.

*All three of Prescott’s touchdown catches were thrown-back to him by WR Jameon Lewis; against Troy and Kentucky last season, and now South Alabama this year.

*But senior Lewis has four TD throws, with the one caught by WR Joe Morrow at Texas A&M last year. So the wideout is 4-of-4 on these gadget plays, all for touchdowns…which produces a ludicrous ‘quarterback rating’.

*In his usual job, Lewis returned to tops in the receiving chart with a six-catch day at South Alabama. He now has ten grabs on the senior season for 107 yards, but is yet to find the end zone himself.

*Lewis has caught a pass in 15-straight games now.

*Lewis is up to 91 career catches and just moved into the MSU top-ten. He’s tied with former teammate Arceto Clark (2008-12) in 10th place.

*He has 1,281 receiving yards and needs 1,520 for top-ten ranking.

*And now Lewis is closing in on 3,000 all-purpose yards, with 2,931 on catches, runs, and returns.

*He didn’t get in the USA game until after two teammates had taken their series. But once inserted, RB Josh Robinson made instant impact with a 39-yard catch-and-run.

*Robinson made his presence known running as well at Mobile, with the first two-touchdown rushing day of his career.

*Robinson is up to 288 yards with a 6.3 per-rush average as State keeps alternating backs. On 46 rushes so far this season, Robinson has lost only seven yards. He has also caught a pass each game this season.

*RB Nick Griffin has drawn the last two starting assignments but only rushed two and five times respectively.

*Besides Lewis, three more Dogs have caught a ball in each game of 2013: WR Robert Johnson, TE Malcolm Johnson, and the newer kid in the rotation WR Fred Brown.

*R.Johnson has been regarded as a ‘possession’ target his career, but thanks to a 68-yarder against UAB he’s averaging 23.8 on his catches this season. Johnson now has 59 career grabs.

*M.Johnson is up to 55 career catches, and just scored his ninth touchdown too.

*WR DeRunnya Wilson didn’t score at Mobile but still leads his corps with three TD grabs on the year. That equals his three-touchdown output of all last season.

*State has started the same offensive line for three games so far. The second line is getting its turns too, though they were short a member in the last two contests when OG Jamaal Clayborn was excused after the death of his grandmother. He is back for this week.

*P Devon Bell trumped the best punter in CUSA two weeks ago with his 45.2 yard average. Then he out-did himself a week later at Mobile with a 46.2 average. That included a career-long 70-yarder against South Alabama.

*Eight of his 18 punts have ended up inside the other 20-yard line.

*Bell now stands third in career punting average at State, with a 42.62 rate on his 42 career punts.

*And Bell has averaged 63.6 yards on his kickoffs. Four of his kicks at Mobile went into the seats, giving him seven official touchbacks with a bunch of others returned out of end zones.

*Nobody really knows what State would do in a field goal situation this week; the only three-point attempt of the season (by PK Westin Graves) was in week-one and missed.

*But since each PK missed a PAT in the UAB game, they’ve both been perfect. PK Evan Sobiesk is 14-of-15 and Graves 3-of-4.

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