Mississippi State visits Auburn for a renewal of their annual SEC series (6:30, ESPN2). Both bring matching 2-1 overall records to the field, and equal 0-1 conference marks. The losses are even to the same foe, further reason prognosticators are struggling to select between the two.
All those pickers will be out guessing wrong is pride and cash. One team is going to fall two games out of the Western Division race. While two-loss squads have won the West before (re: Mississippi State 1998), and this year’s Division race should produces upsets and upstarts, a 0-2 hole probably pushes fortune too far.
“You don’t want to fall that far behind,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “We both in conference play are back-against-the-wall.”
For Mississippi State, the past three trips have run into a wall and especially gut-twisting defeats. Auburn stopped Chris Relf’s fourth-and-short run at left end in 2011 to preserve a 41-34 win. Then in ’13 as Dak Prescott tried to move the chains one more time, which would have clinched a Bulldog upset, the first-time SEC starter was dropped about five feet short. Auburn stormed back for the first win in what became a season full of magic.
Mullen doesn’t blame any sort of Jordan-Hare hex. “It’s hard to win in the SEC on the road,” he simply says. This just happens to be State’s first league road test, too. At least the Bulldogs did take a solid if not spectacular victory at Southern Mississippi to begin the season. Every bit of successful experience helps, he figures.
For their part Auburn is at home only the second time, returning to the scene of their overtime survival against Jacksonville State. The Tigers couldn’t take their act to Baton Rouge successfully. However the results of that trip have brought reported and suspected changes to how Auburn is lining it up for State.
A new starting quarterback, for one thing. That alone forces State to get more general in gameplanning for an unknown triggerman of rumored great arm but unscouted action so far. It’s unlikely Sean White will throw the same sorts of passes, much less interceptions, that the beleaguered Jeremy Johnson has. Yet State still has to prepare for season-starter Johnson all the same
This also negates early statistical trends. True, the Tigers rank a startling 112th in NCAA passing and 113rd in total offense. But they haven’t played slouch defenses in Louisville and LSU either, so such numbers are dangerous. There are excellent athletes in the backfield for a different sort of running attack (#78 NCAA) than State has seen so far, which the presumed drop-back and deep-strike potential of White will magnify. Plus, Bulldog tackling has been a surprising early-season concern.
For Mississippi State the tempting point of attack would be a Tiger run defense giving up 270 yards a week. But…the Bulldogs haven’t exactly steamrolled anyone so far, netting 174 yards per game. Now there is one very good reason for this; State is the SEC’s second-best passing offense so far. Mullen has even called more pass plays through three games than rushes.
Dak Prescott has mostly made good on the added opportunity, too. He’s completing 65% with five touchdowns, and hasn’t thrown an interception this year. Or in his last 150 passes going back to December, for that matter. Even his two freshman backups put up big stats in last weeks rout, showing the future is fine at quarterback. Already 13 Dogs have caught a pass, three in double-digits; and seven have scored touchdowns in the process.
But…is attacking by air what will get State back in the SEC win column? Or more directly, is this the week Prescott puts his play-making skills to more ground-bound use? He has only carried 24 times, and several were scrambles and sacks. Only Prescott and coach know if this is intentional to avoid long-season damage; or a genuine shift in offensive emphasis for 2015 to take advantage of a deep and gifted receiver corps. And, a not-yet-proven backfield in the public mind.
Though it came against lower-level competition, the second-half runs of Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams suggest the freshmen are pushing juniors Aston Shumpert and Brandon Holloway harder. Mullen likes the quartet’s talents, it’s just none have stepped to the forefront so far.
“I always said unless someone just flat-out separates themselves from everybody else I think you’re going to see all of them play. All four are playing pretty well and it allows us to put them in the game.”
Whether State puts them or any other non-regulars in this game is a better question. The Bulldogs know they have to win this one. More to the point, remembering slow starts in ’11 and ’13 they also know State has to set the tone immediately. The ’12 and ’14 teams did and won home games.
Or put a better way, if Mississippi State does not want another road trip to Auburn to end in last-second frustration, they must be the faster starters for a change.
And, change a whole season? “We can even this record out in the SEC, and we will be in the right position,” Prescott said.”
BULLDOG NOTES ‘n NUMBERS
*Mississippi State’s last win in Auburn was 2007. Before that, 1999.
*Auburn sits 25th in the Coaches poll. That was the position State held in the AP poll before the LSU loss.
*Dan Mullen’s teams are 5-26 against ranked opponents in seven seasons, though this is based on the AP polling.
*Last week’s home win over Northwestern State made Mullen 26-5 playing outside the conference, 23-3 in regular-season games.
*The Bulldog defense leads the SEC in holding on third downs, 9 out of 43 chances.
*Mississippi State has yet to recover a fumble (opponents have lost the handle just once in three games).
*And only two of the 74 passes thrown against State have been intercepted. LB Richie Brown caught a ricochet and CB Will Redmond picked a pass cleanly.
*Brown was limited in game-three snaps, stopping his two-week streak of double-digit tackles. He still ranks 9th in the SEC with 26 total stops.
*Four true freshmen have played this season, and all of them got into last week’s game: WR Malik Dear, TE Justin Johnson, S Mark McLaurin, S Jamal Peters.
*With QB Elijah Staley, DT Grant Harris, and OG Ronald Cochran getting snaps last week, all of the 2014 redshirted freshmen have now played.
*OT Justin Senior owns the active games-started streak at 16.
*There were no first-time starters in week-three.
*PK Westin Graves missed his only field goal attempt of 2014. Now he has made all four attempts of the sophomore season, as well as all 11 PAT kicks.
*A knee injury has put SN Winston Chapman on the sideline for the rest of his senior season. His place has been taken by SN Hunter Bradley.
*Because State punted only once in the NW State game, the lead in kickaways now belongs to P Logan Cooke with seven. He is averaging just under 38 yards. P/KO Devon Bell did not get a chance to punt last week and is still netting 40.7 yards on his six punts.
*Bell has kicked off 19 of the 22 opportunities so far this season.
*State has kicked off twice as many times as opponents this season. And the 14 returned kickoffs have netted just 19.1 yards.
*WR Fred Ross only added one catch to his season total in a short work-day. But he still leads the roster with 15 grabs. Ross has yet to score a touchdown.
*WR De’Runnya Wilson is four catches behind Ross, but his 14.4 average is four yards better. Wilson also has a touchdown, 13th of his career. He is tied for 5th on the MSU career list.
*Of the 72 total catches on the team, 35 belong to Dogs lined up in either slot; as inside receivers or true tight ends.
*A hamstring issue slowed juco transfer WR Donald Gray the first two games. He made up for it last week with four catches, 140 yards, and his first senior college touchdown.
*Sophomore WR Gabe Myles finally got in an end zone, scoring on a receiver rush last week.
*Dear scored his first college touchdown in only his third game. Of course classmate Johnson did it in the first game of the season and his career.
*DE A.J. Jefferson is 4th in SEC tackles for loss at 5.5.
*The Bulldog offense is coming off a record-setting day, when they produced 647 yards against Northwestern State. That topped the 645 yards totaled in the Orange Bowl.
*State has incurred the fewest penalties among SEC teams through three games, with just 13 flags enforced.
*That 100-yard touchdown runback got him off to a great start. RB Brandon Holloway is still leading the NCAA in returns with a 49.0 yard average, though he has only been given two more kicks to return since.
*QB Dak Prescott has thrown touchdowns to 18 different Dogs in his four seasons. In the process he has blown away the program record for career TD passes, now with 46.
*Last week Prescott sailed by the career yardage record, in just one half of play. He now has 6,382 yards.
*Throwing 10-of-11 last week upped Prescott’s career completions average to 61.0%, well ahead of #2 Tyson Lee’s 58.8%.
*That is not yet a record of course with much of the senior still to play. But Prescott’s list of standards is unmatched in MSU history, with 21 game, season, or career marks.
*Next record to fall? It will be passes thrown. He is at 793 going into Saturday. Kevin Fant threw 866 balls, and Wayne Madkin 887.
*When, not if, Prescott begins running more, he can resume his chase of Anthony Dixon for rushing touchdowns. Boobie had 42, Prescott has 33.
*And Prescott is tied for #2 in Bulldog points behind, yes, Dixon again; the margin is down to 276-218. Kicker Brian Hazelwood also had 218 points.
*Prescott is now 15th in SEC touchdowns-responsible (running and throwing). He has accounted for 79 touchdowns, only one behind Alabama’s A.J. McCarron for now. It will take 83 TDs to crack the top-ten. But then if the TD-R stat counted receiving touchdowns, Prescott would already be 11th.
*Prescott is only the 5th SEC quarterback to rush for over 2,000 yards. He has 2,038. Next-up is Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel at 2,169.
*Prescott has a touchdown pass in his last 17 games, behind only TCU’s Trevone Boykin at 18 games.