After scoring a SEC West win at Auburn, its back on the road for #21 ranked Mississippi State. This time they are visiting #14 Texas A&M in the only Division game of the weekend. A potentially pivotal one, too. The unbeaten Aggies (4-0, 1-0) want to stay in the front rank of the West race. The Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1) try to carry fresh momentum into October and position themselves for the second half of the season.
“We’re going to have to play excellent team football to find a way to win,” Mullen said. “But that’s what we have to do. We have to go into a tough road environment, stick together, play great team football, and find a way to win.”
Mississippi State did that a week ago. With the defense keeping Auburn out of the end zone and the offense taking control with two first-half touchdowns, as well as all-around fine specials teams play, the Bulldogs knocked off the #25 Tigers. In the process they evened the league record, got back into the polls themselves…and earned major emotional momentum.
“It gave us a lot of confidence going on the road to a hostile environment,” WR Fred Ross said. “To know we can go into Texas A&M and do the same thing.”
But the Aggies are not the same thing as Auburn. Unlike the shaky Tigers, this is a much more poised A&M squad. It showed a week ago on a sorta-neutral field when the Aggies overcame double-digit deficits to force overtime and beat Arkansas 28-21.
Coach Kevin Sumlin did not lead the transformation of the perceived-stodgy SEC West from trench combat to air raiding. Most Division teams at some point in the past decade have featured firepower, including a couple of Mullen’s clubs at State. Still Sumlin has taken things to a different level, much like his Houston years. Where by coincidence Mullen took his 2010 team and came back with a high-scoring win.
Aggie personnel simply give this offensive coach more ways and plays to move a football. This week’s SEC statistics are a bit deceptive. Arkansas’ clock-killing approach limited A&M chances and are largely why this offense is ‘just’ third in scoring and yardage alike. That, and playing a good early schedule.
Under time pressures to produce last week, quarterback Kyle Allen still hit 21 of 28 passes for 358 yards including the game-tying and –winning throws. He has a first-class collection of targets to toss at, with Christian Kirk perhaps the finest freshman receiver in the country and star junior Josh Reynolds…someone Bulldog defenders are too familiar with already.
There’s more to the Aggie attack than air though. Tra Carson forces fronts to respect the rush before chasing after Allen. As Dog defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said, “Job-one is still to stop the run. Because everything they do in the throwing game comes off the running game.”
What makes this team a genuine contender though is a more proficient defense. A&M has always had individual talents as NFL drafts have shown. The difference is Sumlin invested on this side of the squad by hiring SEC veteran John Chavis to run the defense. They still aren’t a shut-down group, such as allowing 60% completions. But the Aggies lead the league with 17 sacks.
“They have an extremely explosive offense, and probably the best defense that we’ve faced so far,” said Mullen. “With speed on the field.” They even return punts productively, if any other edges were needed.
The Bulldogs aren’t exactly slow, though. In fact this offense is off to a faster yardage start than last year’s record-smashing squad. To be clear, two-touchdown evenings with LSU and Auburn do leave remaining uncertainty about sheer scoring potential.
Quarterback Dak Prescott isn’t a doubting Dog though. “I know this is a high-power offense,” he said. “So long as we get going early we have to continue to go, and just be fast.”
And, go to the air. That’s the other topic of most MSU discussion these days. Even in 2012 and ’14 with quarterbacks piling up numbers and throwing touchdowns at unprecedented paces, the core to Mullen offense has always been a power ground game. September did not show one. Instead State has run (scrambles and sacks included) 112 times against 151 passes.
This is not really by preseason design. It is just how the offense has been forced to develop for various reasons. The running back order is biased to a blocker/receiver like Ashton Shumpert, with speedster Brandon Holloway changing the pace. Maybe a back emerges this month as the complete package, and Mullen said late in the week Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams continue learning everything involved in this offense…which is a heckuva lot more than taking a handoff and taking off.
Really three other reasons loom larger. The strength of this offensive roster is obviously Prescott, more so now that he has developed into a true ‘progression’ passer and not running nearly so often. That’s contributes to a less-productive ground game by the way. Secondly, as Mullen often notes, State has outstanding receivers playing in groups of three and four each snap. Not using their talents would be nigh-criminal scheming.
Besides, Mullen said, “You know one thing that hasn’t been brought up in an offensive meeting? Balance. What is brought up is how do we get first downs, how do we move the ball, how do we get the ball in the end zone. Whatever is working, I want to go with it.”
Throwing, and catching and running, has worked for over 300 yards each week so far. There’s one other reason to look to the air. State has had the ball fewer minutes than any SEC squad, and by a sizable margin. But the Bulldogs are solidly mid-pack in scoring and yardage with their fewer and shorter turns.
The flip-side is how much pressure is put on the defense with such imbalanced possession time. It hasn’t bothered these Dogs, who are third in scoring defense and seventh in yardage. That reflects how stout Diaz’s bunch has been defending the red zone, forcing field goals. The unit would benefit by forcing more turnovers, which would in-turn give the offense more minutes and snaps and scoring chances.
On the whole though the only real concern defensively has been tackling, which last week was much improved. Just in time, to Mullen.
“Obviously we’re going to have to be a great tackling team this week. With the athletes they put in the open field if they make you miss they can score in a hurry.”
So can Mississippi State. Which means this fourth chapter in Mississippi State’s newest West rivalry should follow a familiar script: lots of snaps, lots of plays, lots of points, and a long game. Even with a 6:30 start time, that 2:00am return might be a little optimistic.
BULLDOG NOTES ‘n NUMBERS
*Bulldogs and Aggies have played eight times with a 4-4 deadlock. Though as SEC opponents Texas A&M has a 2-1 lead.
*Mississippi State is seeking a second win in College State in over a century. Of course MSU has only been there twice, winning in 1913 before losing in 2013. There were just six points scored the first time; a hundred years later it was 92 points.
*With a win, Dan Mullen will become the third Mississippi State coach to reach 50 career victories.
*This is the 28th time a Mullen Bulldog team will play while ranked. State is 15-12 when ranked going into a contest.
*After last week’s win at Auburn, ranked #25 in the Coaches poll, Mullen is 6-28 against ranked opponents.
*Mullen is 24-3 in non-conference games, including bowls.
*Last year the Bulldogs averaged 5.1 penalties a game. This year’s rate is only 4.3.
*Mississippi State yet to recover a fumble, and has lost the ball five times that way.
*The Bulldog defense continues to lead the league in third-down defense. They have allowed 13 conversions in 57 chances, under 23%.
*Only Georgia has a better percentage defending the red zone. But those Bulldogs have been tested just eight times and five of those gave up touchdowns. State has surrendered a touchdown in just four of 14 situations.
*With a dozen sacks in four games, this defense is slightly ahead of last year’s pace.
*The Bulldogs have three interceptions in four games. Two of them are by CB Will Redmond, giving him five career picks.
*LB Richie Brown has posted three double-digit tackles games in four chances, with a personal-best 13 stops last week at Auburn. Brown is tied for 4th among SEC tacklers now. He also has the squad’s other interception.
*Brown was SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his work at Auburn. It was his second time to earn the recognition. The first was after his three-pick day against Texas A&M last year.
*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. The latter two did special teams duty only at Auburn.
*CB Taveze Calhoun returned to the starting lineup for the first time this season. He missed the USM game entirely and came off the bench the next two weeks; though early each time.
*OT Justin Senior owns the active games-started streak at 17.
*There were no first-time career starters in week-four.
*PK Westin Graves missed his only field goal attempt of 2014. Now he has made all five attempts of the sophomore season, as well as all 13 PAT kicks. State only made 12 field goals all last season.
*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.
*State and Ole Miss are the only SEC squads which have allowed less than ten total yards of punt returns.
*WR Fred Ross continues to pace the offense in catches, now with 22. But he is also still looking for his first touchdown of the junior season.
*WR De’Runnya Wilson has caught a touchdown this year, two of ‘em, for 14 career scores. That ties him for fourth on the MSU list with Bill Buckley. He needs three to move into a three-way tie for second with Eric Mounds and Justin Jenkins.
*DE A.J. Jefferson has had a tackle for loss in the last five games. This season his 7.5 TFLs rank him third in the SEC. He is 6th in sacks with 3.5.
*State has incurred the fewest penalties among SEC teams through four games, with just 17 flags.
*QB Dak Prescott has thrown touchdowns to 18 different Dogs in his four seasons. Neither of last year’s touchdown targets, Wilson and WR Gabe Myles, were first-timers.