*State’s perfect season has ended, but the 9-0 start was the best ever for the program. And with a win this week, these Bulldogs will be the first to win ten games in a regular season. The 1940 and ’99 teams won ten games including a bowl victory.
*Mississippi State is 6-0 in home games this season. A win will mark only the second 7-0 home campaign in program history, along with 1999. It will also successfully conclude the fall-long celebration of Scott Field’s 100th season.
*State is now 7-4 all-time playing with a top-ten ranking, 4-1 when top-five and 3-1 as #1. Coach Dan Mullen’s teams are 14-9 playing with any sort of ranking.
*Mullen is the third Bulldog coach to win 40 games and is 45-29 in six seasons. He is already first in bowl victories with a 3-1 record, and his State career winning percentage is best in over half-a-century.
*In the ten seasons before Mullen arrived, Bulldogs teams had 47 total wins.
*Mullen is 11-4 in games with SEC East opponents. His first such win was in 2009, at Vanderbilt.
*State and Vanderbilt have only played 21 times, the least games against any of the ‘original SEC’ lineup…a source of perennial annoyance to Bulldogs even if they only lead 12-7-2. The programs didn’t play at all from 1942-70 when State could really, really have used the opportunity.
*Vanderbilt has only won once in Starkville, in 1971; and lost the other six trips.
The Opponent: Vanderbilt loyalists will admit they hit the right time/team/schedule trifecta in 2013 within the context of today’s underwhelming SEC East. The Division is not a lot better this year but the Commodores are struggling after graduations of hard-to-replace talent and experience. James Franklin timed his own jump well too, and successor Derek Mason has walked into a bigger rebuild job than he likely expected. Per NCAA figures Vanderbilt has the most first-year starters (26) in the FBS level, with 31 total frosh playing some part(s). This ought bode better for the future since some of the new kids are doing good things under duress. That really depends on whether Mason can recruit at Franklin’s level, and adapt to the realities of rebuilding in a merciless league. The East won’t be down forever, after all.
Offense: Any change of approach isn’t easy at this level, but Mason has been fitting personnel recruited for trendier spread offenses into his own style. Of all the worrisome numbers one which must stand out is how this team is a combined 10-of-56 on third downs in first and third quarters. Nope, not a fast-starting squad either half. At least Mason has settled on a quarterback after essentially two months of live tryouts. Redshirt Johnny McCrary has started the last three chances and put some life in the air game again. In just his five games he’s thrown for nine scores, six picks, and at a 54% rate. Still soph Patton Robinette returned to duty last week in relief at Florida and threw reasonably well. He’s also more a threat to keep and carry. The best ball-hauling is by another redshirt, as Ralph Webb just set the season rookie rushing record in Nashville with 843 yards so far. He’s a pounder more than breaker with a long run of 28 yards, and has three rushing touchdowns. The rest of the team has just three more, though. Yet another redshirt is the long threat in the air as C.J. Duncan nets 16.2 yards per touch with four scores, balanced on the other end by Latevius Rayford with 29 catches. Not surprisingly in a WCO the top target is tight end Steven Scheu with 33 balls, 442 yards and three scores, most at his position in the whole SEC. The most seasoned aspect on this side is the line, with 32-game starter Joe Townsend at center and both guards boasting 27 starts each. Which makes it all the odder that this team doesn’t run the ball better.
Defense: Before any further comment, note this: they just don’t get much support from the SEC’s lowest-rated offense in points and yardage (league play) alike. So a measure of wearing-down is inevitable. At the same time this unit is just about equally vulnerable on the ground or in the air based on balanced yardages allowed and over 6.0 each SEC snap. It’s a 3-4 sort of set and doesn’t lack for bulk with 312-pound nose Vince Taylor and 305-pound tackle Adam Butler. They’ve combined for 55 tackles and a couple of sacks. The real threat to throwers comes from 255-pound end/tackle Caleb Azbike with 4.0 sacks, while big outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly works off an edge for 3.5 sacks. It’s a tall front group too, reflecting the recruiting by the previous staff to upgrade a traditional weak link. Inside ‘backer Nigel Bowden is far and away the top tackler with 74 stops, only two for losses though. Second on the stops chart is cornerback Torren McGaster with 55, whose also broken up five throws. Freshman Taurean Ferguson has taken over from two other contenders at the other corner these last four games and intercepted two of the team’s four picks, while junior Jahmel McIntosh was promoted at strong safety. Lack of interceptions or forcing fumbles only compounds the turnover problem on the other side too, with twice as many balls lost as taken away by Vanderbilt. And this entire team has issues with penalties, drawing 52 yards-worth of flags each week. We could get into red zone defense, but the picture is clear enough by now.
Specialists: Not great here considering all the practice they get, but not bad either. Darrius Sims ran back a pair of South Carolina kickoffs for touchdowns to set a SEC record. Colby Cooke is punting at a 42.7-yard rate but poor coverage leaves VU next-to-last in net punting in the league. Tommy Openshaw won the placekicker job in his first year and is 7-of-9 with a long of 48 yards.
Bulldog Team/Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls has started all of his 49 career games and leads this roster in starts. Barring problems he will at least tie the career record of 52 by Gabe Jackson in this regular season, and surpass it in post-season. OC Dillon Day is second in starts with 42.
*Eulls, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 49 career games played.
*Three true 2014-signed freshmen have played; LB/ST J.T. Gray, KO/P Logan Cooke, and WR/KR Jamoral Graham.
*Last year the Bulldogs were among the league’s leaders in turnover ratio. Things aren’t going so well this year. State has lost the ball 21 times and taken it away 18 times. The recent trend is worse with seven turnovers in the past three games and just one takeaway, a last-play interception against Arkansas.
*State has not scored a point off a turnover since the Kentucky game, with a field goal that day.
*The most drastic drop-off is in fumbles with only six recovered this season.
*But State has drawn the second-fewest penalties of any SEC squad, 47 in ten games.
*Even after allowing all three Alabama touchdowns from inside the ten-yard line, this Dog defense still ranks 1st in SEC red-zone rate. Opponents have reached the 20-yard line 36 times, with just 13 touchdowns to show for it and 14 field goal attempts (nine made).
*This season has seen marked progress as far as bagging quarterbacks. After just 20 sacks in 13 games a year ago, this defense has 33 in ten games and ranks 2nd in the league.
*After scoring just 20 sacks in 13 games last season, pressuring passers was a ’14 priority. It’s showing as the Dog defense has 32 sacks in nine games and 65 total stops for losses.
*Even in defeat the Bulldog offense out-gained Alabama by a sizable yardage margin, which keeps State 1st in SEC yardage at 513 each weekend. Four games this season have produced enough yards to rank in the all-time top 20 at MSU.
*The current rate will destroy the previous season record set only last season, of 434 yards per game.
*And the season scoring record of 426 points set last year? It ought not last long as this team has 378 points already, fourth-most by a Bulldog team so far.
*Eleven Bulldog offenses have scored 300 or more points, but all six of Mullen’s teams have reached that mark.
*State is only average in SEC red zone offense. But they’ve scored 19 touchdowns on plays beginning from beyond the 20-yard line. And that does not include six-pointers produced by special teams.
*Just how insistent is Mississippi State on alternating defenders? This: the team’s top tackler, MLB Benardrick McKinney, has 58 stops…which ranks him just 26th in the SEC individual totals. OLB Beniquez Brown (54 tackles) is 38th.
*McKinney still should get to his 2013 tackles total of 71 with the remaining games. For his career the junior has 231 tackles, split almost exactly with 117 solos and 114 assists.
*McKinney and Brown have a combined 14.0 stops for losses, and 5.0 sacks.
*McKinney has accounted for half of the team’s six recovered fumbles.
*Benefitting most from the rotation is OLB Christian Holmes. Taking his 1B turns, ‘Turtle’ has 48 tackles this senior season after 40 tackles the previous three seasons combined.
*DE Preston Smith hasn’t won any individual honors since making MSU history with three-straight SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week awards to begin the season. What he’s done is make plays. His 12.5 tackles for losses and 8.0 sacks are most on the squad by-far, out of 35 total tackles.
*Smith also has a team-best 15 hurries, and has a sack in four of the last five games.
*And two passes that did get thrown ended up in Smith’s hands, including a pick-six against UAB.
*CB Will Redmond and MLB Richie Brown are tied for the team-lead in interceptions with three each. Two of Redmond’s picks were game-clinchers at the goal line, against LSU and Arkansas. Brown got all three of his picks in one day, at home against Texas A&M.
*The under-appreciated part of State’s defense though is OLB Matt Wells, doing something of almost everything. He has 2.5 sacks and six hurries rushing passers, but has broken up eight passes in coverage to tie for the team lead with CB Jamerson Love.
*His reputation is for run-stopping, but with blockers focused on Smith at one end DE Ryan Brown is getting after quarterbacks. Brown has 3.5 sacks and ten hurries, second-most on the squad. Brown has more tackles this season than his previous two years, 31 to 28.
*The Bulldogs have blocked four kicks, three field goals and a punt, and rank 8th in the NCAA statistics. One of those, when Smith swatted a Southern Miss field goal, was turned into a touchdown return by S Jay Hughes. The 68-yard play is believed to be the first blocked placekick scored by State.
*Also on special teams, Holmes returned a Kentucky on-sides kickoff 61 yards for a touchdown. It was the first KOR score for State since the 2012 Egg Bowl.
*It says so much about his high standards that 290 yards and two touchdowns is a ‘bad’ day for QB Dak Prescott. The three interceptions were the day’s downer, but Prescott still has thrown twice as many touchdowns (20) as picks this junior season.
*Prescott still had his 10th 200-yard passing day, in as many chances, to extend his season record.
*He also is setting a MSU season standard with 61% completions. Only Chris Relf before him reached the 60% season mark, in 2011.
*Prescott goes into this week just four touchdowns behind Tyler Russell’s 2012 record for touchdown passes, 24. He needs 366 more passing yards to set that season record, too.
*Prescott is the first-ever Bulldog to account for over 3,000 yards total offense in a season. The 4,000-yard mark seems within reach before the campaign ends, too.
*Add in his 11 rushing touchdowns and Prescott has 31 TDs-responsible-for this year, which is a MSU record already. And it doesn’t count his touchdown reception at South Alabama.
*Turning to career marks, while remembering he is still just a third-year player and in his first season as the full-time starter. Only two Bulldogs have produced more career yards than Prescott’s 6,489. The record is 7,097 by Don Smith (1983-86); and John Bond had 6,901 (1980-83).
*Prescott already owns the TD-responsible-for record with 62. He has 34 passing scores (3rd-most) and 28 rushing (also 3rd). And again, the statistic doesn’t include touchdown catches, which Prescott has three of so far.
*Prescott is 13-4 as a starter, having just suffered his first loss since last year’s South Carolina game. He had won ten-straight starts.
*QB Damian Williams got his first SEC snap of the season on a fluke at Alabama. When Prescott’s helmet came off after a tackle, the sophomore had to hurry onto the field. He successfully executed a handoff, then returned to the sideline.
*He didn’t have a great day in Tuscaloosa. But RB Josh Robinson did reach a milestone, becoming the tenth Bulldog to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He has 1,021 in ten games.
*There have been 13 1,000-yard seasons by Bulldogs, never by two in the same season. That’s possible this year though as Prescott has 861 rushing yards.
*Robinson is netting 6.5 yards per rush, best by a Bulldog since Michael Haddix averaged 6.7 in 1982.
*Only four Bulldogs have averaged over 100 yards in a season; Robinson can become the fifth as he’s gaining 102 per game this year.
*Robinson has 11 rushing touchdowns already, and needs one more to tie for top-ten status; which is tied with Prescott. The season record was set by Ballard in 2010 with 19.
*Robinson has become a regular part of the passing game, too. He has a career-best 25 catches for 347 yards, a 13.9 average. He had 15 total catches the first two State seasons.
*WR Jameon Lewis was able to play a full game again last week, catching five balls for 42 yards and a touchdown in his return to the starting lineup. It was his first touchdown since a 74-yard play at LSU and only his second score of the season.
*Lewis is the tenth Bulldog with 100 career catches, now tied for 9th at 102.
*Lewis also rushed three times at Tuscaloosa for 18 yards, though 16 of it came on one carry.
*Lewis is responsible for all three of the touchdown passes caught by Prescott these two seasons. Add in an option-throw to WR Joe Morrow last season and Lewis is 4-of-4 on such plays, all for touchdowns.
*WR De’Runnya Wilson celebrated a return to his home state with eight catches for 91 yards, both matching his sophomore season highs. This was a week after Wilson went catch-less against Tennesee-Martin.
*Wilson doesn’t make the SEC’s top-ten in catches per game (league play only). But his catches count as he’s 6th in yardage per league game.
*Wilson nets 15.6 yards each SEC-game catch, which is a bit better than his full-season rate of 15.3.
*TE Malcolm Johnson has been on a receiving roll lately, with 16 catches and 227 yards in the last five games. This was after he had no catches in the A&M game.
*Johnson just surpassed 1,000 career yards, with 1,070 in his four seasons (42 games) on 72 catches.
*Classmate WR Robert Johnson has 66 career catches and 798 yards.
*WR Fred Ross was thriving as slot receiver in Lewis’ absence. Return of Lewis means moving or sharing snaps, but Ross still had an impact at Alabama with a four-yard touchdown catch. Ross has four scores in just 18 catches.
*Eleven Dogs have caught a touchdown pass this season, most of any club in the NCAA so far.
*OL Ben Beckwith has started three interior line positions this season; seven at right guard, once at center and once at left guard. He has been named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week twice this year, as a guard (LSU) and center (A&M).
*Beckwith is nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, given to a player who made his team’s roster as a walk-on.
*Soph Devon Desper has the other two RG starts.
*Blaine Clausell and Justin Senior are the only Dogs with ten-straight starts in the same spots, left and right tackles respectively.
*He’s yet to hit anything from long-distance or even medium-long for that matter. But PK Evan Sobiesk has become automatic on the short ranges, making his last five field goals and 8-of-9 on the season. His longest make is 37 yards, against Arkansas, one yard short of the career-long 38 at South Carolina last year.
*State’s other two kickers have each missed their only tries, from 40 and 42 yards respectively. State has not had a 40-yard field goal made since P Devon Bell hit from that exact distance in the 2013 opener against Oklahoma State. All seven attempts from that range or longer in the 20 games since, by four kickers, have missed.
*Last week Bell had a completely uncharacteristic afternoon averaging 33.8 yards. He is still punting at a 42.8-yard clip for the season with eight kicks of 50 or more yards.