Bulldog Football 2014: Game Five

#12 Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0 SEC) resumes the season after a bye-week, and opens a two-game home stand by hosting #6 Texas A&M (5-0, 2-0). Game time is 11:01am at Scott Field. The pre-game broadcast begins at 8:00 with J.T. Williamson in the Junction, followed by the full Network broadcast starting at 9:00.

*Mississippi State jumped into the AP poll following a victory at then-#8 LSU with a #14 ranking; and improved two places during the open date. This is the highest poll ranking for a Dan Mullen Bulldog team, though the 2012 team stood 11th in the BCS calculations in October.

*Going back to November 2013, State is on a seven-win streak which matches the previous best stretch under Mullen (November 2011-October 2012). This is the third-longest active win streak in the FBS behind Florida State (20) and Oklahoma (8).

*The Bulldogs have won their last three SEC games as well.

*In six seasons now Mullen teams have been ranked for 17 game-weeks counting this one, as well as following the 2010 Gator Bowl. Those teams have gone 9-8 when playing with a number in front of the name.

*This is the first matchup of top-15 teams on Scott Field, since a 1986 meeting with Auburn. State lost that one, and hasn’t won such a matchup regardless of location since…the 1941 Orange Bowl, over Georgetown.

*But these Bulldogs have already beaten history trends in such situations. Their victory at #8 LSU before open date was the first win over a top-ten team since, also, 1986 (at Tennessee).

*Mullen is the third Bulldog coach to win 40 games in the program and is 40-28 in six seasons. He is already first in bowl victories with a 3-1 record, and his overall winning percentage is best here in over half-a-century.

*Through four games State has put up 165 points, the most productive such start ever. The best five-game total ever? The 1944 club scored 185 points albeit the victims included Jackson AFB, Millsaps, and Arkansas A&M. More recently the 2012 team scored 175 points in its first five contests.

*As for a five-game stretch during any season, the 1994 Bulldogs had a run of 221 points. The best such in-season stretch for a Mullen team was last year with 194 points in five games.

*The Bulldog offense has compiled 500-plus yards all four chances, also a record start.

*This is Texas A&M’s second ever trip to Scott Field, after winning here in 2012. Aggie Coach Kevin Sumlin has won on the field twice though, with Houston in 2009.

*The provided Aggie roster shows 90 of the 112 listed players having Texas home addresses. For Mississippi State, 63 out of 106 listed Bulldogs are from the home state.

*Mississippi State will commemorate the legendary career (1953-2011) of Jack Cristil this week, after the six-decade Voice of the Bulldogs passed away September 7. The players will bear a special decal on their helmets for the remainder of this season.

The Opponent: Just in case anyone expected a ‘take a breath’ sort of season from the folk in Aggie-land…newp. No rebuild necessary and really not much reloading either as Kevin Sumlin plugs the pieces present into a familiar format and just keeps going. Sure, all sorts of factors are, well, factoring into A&M’s rise to preeminent status in their state, from demographics and economics to missteps by old rivals and of course conference transformation. All count, but only if the right regime is running things. Which is why after enjoying several separated success stretches, something of much more permanent potential is taking shape here. And don’t think neighboring West programs aren’t concerned.

Offense: No, nobody is saying seriously Johnny Who. And really who should be surprised if Sumlin comes up with yet another top-flight quarterback? Kenny Hill is off to his own thrilling soph-season start, throwing (literally) up amazing numbers. Like, 66% completions for 17 touchdowns and just two turnovers so far. And if Hill isn’t the same sort of scrambler/gambler as his predecessor he can scoot as needed with a net 6.2 yards each carry. Nor need he run nearly as often, not with a pair of treys to throw down. Trey Williams gets 6.2 per rush himself and Tra Carson 5.8, each with four TDs already. The tricky aspect of evaluating this attack is how A&M apparently im-balances the run and pass, since through five games the ratio is about 60% throws (with more called passes that turn into keepers, obviously). But caution is required because lots of the pass plays are, as Dog defenders have said, basically extended handoffs. With good reason; what sharp coach wouldn’t want to get the ball into these hands in-space early and often? No less than nine Aggies have scored on a passing play already, none of them the three listed running backs by the way which speaks to how the wealth gets spread around. Somebody has to be first and senior Malcolme Kennedy (33 catches, 378 yards, 2 TD) is he but there are five teammates with double-digit grabs behind him and two—Edward Pope and Speedy Noil—have five and four TDs to their credit(s). They don’t just turn short throws into big gains either as Hill has a true vertical-bomb arm and guys who can streak open deep. Wait, we’re not through…four of the starting five linemen of ’13 are still here. No surprise the star is left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi who will be the next Aggie blocker drafted. The overall ability here and Hill’s quick release means just four sacks have been allowed in five games.

Defense: By no means is this a dominating unit, if based only by the two SEC tests (let’s ignore those other three scrimmages for now). That’s not the point. The Aggies needn’t try to shut anyone down much less out with all their offensive support. Plus, it really does appear to be an improved unit able to maximize the pressure put on opponents watching the scoreboard light up. The base is nominally a 4-3 but that’s subject to matchup adjustment as seen, depending on whether A&M bias to muscle or speed in the middle. There are no seniors in the starting front but that’s also deceptive as these underclassmen got thrown into action early on and are ahead of schedule so to speak. Such as soph nose-man Hardreck Walker, already seeing his 15th career game this week and 300 pounds of mass in the middle. Not that 296-pound tackle Alonzo Williams (24 tackles, 1.5 sacks) is any lightweight alongside. He isn’t listed as starting but freshman Myles Garrett is very much in the gameplan with 5.5 sacks (!) already off the rush-end. The linebacking has been shuffled for ’14 so some still-young veterans can go to a more ‘natural’ position and others can get into the rotation. Soph Jordan Mastrogiovanni has stepped in at middle, and after a game-one injury to the starter old hand Justin Bass took over the weak side. The results? 30 tackles, second on the squad. A&M used a nickel-set the first four games, then went to three linebackers against run-heavy Arkansas last week. Either way, defensive backs account for three of the first four places in total tackles led by Howard Matthews (34, 2.0 for losses) as the strong guy with Armani Watts (25 tackles, 1 pick and four breakups) floating free. It looks curious at first when noticing just two interceptions so far in the season…then check out 17 sacks and 35 total stops behind the line. Meaning if a pass gets off in the first place that’s a win of sorts. It’s also dangerous to the Aggies because completed throws tend to go big, and the ground defense still isn’t overpowering. But again, they don’t have to be.

Specialists: It was a surprise last Saturday when Josh Lambo missed before halftime, because he had hit all six previous tries this year and was 14-of-16 career coming in. So don’t look for many more misses. Punter Drew Kaser is just an all-American y’know, averaging a school-record 47.4 yards last year. The rate of 41.1 this season likely has more to do with field position. And want to put more pressure on an offense? Punting it to this bunch is trouble with a net-average over 16 yards for whoever fields the kick.

Bulldog Team/Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls has started all 43 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, but will miss this week’s turn as he serves a one-game SEC suspension for actions at LSU.

*Until then, Eulls, Day, WR Jameon Lewis, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 43 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 ST Rashun Dixon, now a freshman, and walk-on freshman PK Westin Graves have played.

*No Bulldog defender is among the league’s leading tacklers this season, thanks to regular rotation of everyone in the front-seven. MLB Benardrick McKinney rates tops on the team with 27 total stops, tying him for 17th in the SEC stats.

*McKinney did reach the 200-tackle benchmark, exactly, when he made seven stops at LSU. And his tackles are just about split evenly with 99 solos and 101 assists for the three varsity seasons. His career-high came against UAB this year with a dozen tackles.

*DE Preston Smith is using this senior season very well. He made SEC history by winning league Defensive Lineman of the Week in three-straight games. Smith is also the first Bulldog to win a SEC weekly honor of any sort in three-straight chances. Now he is trying to catch DT Fletcher Cox (2011) and OT Derek Sherrod (2010) with four OTW awards in one season.

In four games Smith has only 14 total tackles. But he makes his chances count, big, with three sacks, two interceptions and one touchdown return, a forced fumble, and two blocked field goals; one of those returned by a teammate for touchdown.

*Smith is the third active Bulldog with a blocked kick, along with 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. And the Dogs are #3 in this week’s NCAA statistics for blocked kicks of any sort.

*DT/DT Chris Jones is certainly an impact player when taking his turns. He has two sacks and two hurries as pass-rush squad standout.

*OLB Beniquez Brown is already over half-way to his entire 2013 tackles total of 39. The soph has 22 stops in four games, 3.5 for losses as a starter.

*The Dog defense forced just one turnover at LSU, but it was a biggie as CB Will Redmond came down with an interception on the Tigers’ last-chance throw to the goal line. Junior Redmond now has two picks on the year, tied with Smith for the team lead.

*State has created nine turnovers in four games, and 23 in the last nine games.

*Of the seven touchdowns scored on State this year, five have been on throws.

*QB Dak Prescott has made the fastest statistical start ever by a Bulldog quarterback. His 1,342 yards rushing or throwing is over 200 yards better through four games than any of his predecessors. In fact, Prescott’s four-game total yardage is higher than his nearest competitors of the last four decades through their first five games!

*What counts more than yards is points, and here Prescott’s pace is even more special. He has accounted for 14 touchdowns in four games (11 pass, three rush); and that doesn’t include the touchdown he caught on a throwback play at South Alabama. For perspective, only once in all MSU history up to this year had a Bulldog QB totaled ten touchdowns, Kevin Fant in 2003.

*Prescott averages a scoring play once every 10.6 snaps, his receiving TD included. As a passer, he throws a touchdown once every 5.3 completions.

*Prescott has thrown for 200-plus yards and rushed for 100-plus yards in three-consecutive games, something done before only by SEC quarterbacks Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and Johnny Manziel…all Heisman winners.

*And what counts most of all? Prescott is 8-3 as a starting quarterback.

*In career charts, Prescott now ranks third in TDs-responsible-for at 45. One more ties him with Anthony Dixon (2006-09) for second place, and now Don Smith’s 1983-86 record of 52 is within junior-season reach. And remember, this does not include Prescott’s three TD catches!

*The most accurate passer in MSU history (59.2%), Prescott is seventh in TD passes, 10th in yardage, and 8th in offensive yards (rush and pass) at 4,400 even. Oh, and tied for 10th in rushing touchdowns.

*All three of Prescott’s touchdown catches were thrown 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 would make for a ridiculous ‘quarterback rating’.

*Defensive focus limited Lewis’ early-season chances at catches, but he’s come on fast as other wideouts draw attention. Lewis has eleven grabs in the last two games and a team-best 15 total for 223 yards. He has caught a ball in the last 16 games now.

*Lewis also got his first TD of the senior season at LSU with a 74-yard play.

*A big Saturday will make Lewis the 10th Bulldog with 100 career receptions. He already ranks 10th all-time with 96 grabs in four seasons. With 1,397 yards, he is just outside top-ten status needing 1,520 to catch Fred Hadley (1984-88).

*Lewis is 10th already in career all-purpose yards with 3,047 on catches, rushes, and returns.

*RB Josh Robinson turned a trip to the home state into a statement game, running for a career-best 197 yards at LSU. He did it on just 16 carries too, and if not for some subbing in the fourth quarter a 200-yard night was there for the taking.

*Robinson had the most rushing yards by a Bulldog since Boobie Dixon (252 at Kentucky 2009). His previous career high was 101 yards at Texas A&M last season.

*J-Rob also had a career long run in the last game, a 66-yard burst.

*Robinson has carried 62 times this junior season, and lost only seven total yards.

*In four games this season Robinson has 485 net yards, more than the 459 yards of his entire 2013 season.

*WR De’Runnya Wilson is why Lewis doesn’t get as many balls this year. The sophomore has caught just ten passes so far, but four of them went for touchdowns including the first State score at LSU.

*Wilson averaged 13.5 yards on his catches as a rookie; his soph rate is 17.5 yards per grab.

*Besides Lewis, TE Malcolm Johnson is the only Dog with a catch every game this season. Johnson is up to 56 career catches with nine touchdowns.

*That’s behind the ‘other’ Johnson in the offense, as WR Robert J. has 59 career catches but did not get a ball at LSU.

*Day’s absence means State has to start a different offensive line the first time this season, with OG Ben Beckwith expected to open at center. He last snapped in a real (not scrimmage or spring) game as a high school junior.

*After a two-game absence and not playing at LSU the next week, OG Jamaal Clayborn is expected to return to action this week.

*PK Evan Sobiesk knocked through his first field goal of the season a week ago, and added another for good measure. The 27- and 28-yarders at LSU were also the first made three-pointers by a Bulldog this season. Though, there had not been an attempt at one since opening day, a miss by Graves.

*But since each PK missed a point-after in the opener, they have been perfect with Sobiesk now 18-of-19 on the year.

*P Devon Bell is hitting his kicks at a 43.5-yard average, over two yards better than his 2013 rate and sixth-best in the SEC.

*Only five of Bell’s 24 punts have been returned.

*And State leads the SEC for the overall season in kickoff coverage with a ‘net’ average of kick-vs.-return yards of 42.4.

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