After a routine home win over Troy, now Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2 SEC) steps up the competition another level or two this week by hosting Louisiana Tech (4-2, 2-1 CUSA). It’s a battle of Bulldog teams on Scott Field with an 11:00am kickoff for SEC Network needs.
It is also the second in a three-week home stand for Coach Dan Mullen’s team. But since next Saturday brings Kentucky to town, this is Mississippi State’s last tune-up before beginning a five-game SEC stretch. Then again, Louisiana Tech is not your typical visiting victim for Homecoming Game.
“Louisiana Tech is a good football team,” Mullen said. “They have a lot of talented players.”
The CUSA’s Western Division co-leader usually does have a roster ready to take on teams from the bigger conference. Mullen’s own 2011 Bulldogs needed an end zone interception to deny Tech a chance to kick for the win in regulation, before completing their own touchdown pass for a 26-20 survival. Bulldog fans of longer memory recall, against their will, losses in 2008 (Ruston) and 1996 (Starkville).
This generation is not taking Tech for granted, if Mullen’s tone is true. The visiting Bulldogs rank second or third in their conference in major offensive categories…and are even better on defense, with half that roster apparently nominated for most of the post-season awards.
Offensively, “It starts with their quarterback, who I think is a big-time player,” Mullen said of Jeff Driskel. The former Florida triggerman already has thrown for more yards in a half-season at Tech than any of his full seasons in Gainesville. “He’s got a great arm, an accurate passer, can make all the throws,” Mullen said.
The 230-pound Driskel can also run for gains as needed. Most of the ground game though is capably carried by Kenneth Dixon, one run away from 4,000 career yards this week with 59 touchdowns to his account in 41 games. And as Mullen noted, Dixon was sidelined last week so he should be rested for this matchup. The other-Bulldog receiver corps has had its own injury issues so the rotation isn’t predictable this week. At the same time backups have had live competition to get ready for this week, and scouting is more challenging.
Defensively, Tech has more than enough size up front with a pair of Lombardi Award nominees. The secondary is maybe even more recognized with players up for Thorpe, Nagurski, and Senior Bowl status. The linebacking group has been rebuilt around senior sack specialist Nick Thomason in the middle. This is a rushing defense allowing only 111 yards a week, and 3.4 yards each carry.
Plus, “They play hard with a lot of confidence,” Mullen said. “Combine that with all the great talent they have, it makes it a real challenge for us.”
Solving the defensive challenge should seem a little easier as the Tech system builds on what current State coordinator Manny Diaz installed last season in Ruston. How the Bulldogs choose to attack…that’s the question. Tech’s strength in rushing defense meshes too well with MSU’s lack of a productive ground game. In six games, the two veteran running backs have netted 305 yards. They and the two redshirt runners have just two rushing touchdowns between them. Both Bulldog quarterbacks have three apiece.
But more to the point Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway have averaged just 4.1 per-carry in SEC action. An offensive line still settling its identity must be acknowledged. Still none deny this team is not up to Mullen’s rushing standards and certainly not ready to resume conference play.
So then, does State use Louisiana Tech’s sound ground defense as a test of personnel, plays, schemes? Or dare the Dogs risk short series, quick punts, and giving Tech more turns? Which gets to one side-effect of an ineffective rushing attack, a wildly imbalanced time of possession. Opponents average 13 more minutes with the ball than do the Bulldogs. That only increases the snaps-strain on State’s defense over four quarters.
Of course nothing happens in isolation. The possession time also reflects how productive Dak Prescott and a superb receiver corps have been throwing and catching. This is the SEC’s best offense at producing 40-yard plays for one thing, nine of the dozen coming on passes. They have moved the chains and piled up statistics…but not scored touchdowns quite as often as they should, especially in SEC games. Fortunately PK Westin Graves has been money on all seven field goals attempted.
Mississippi State would rather have fixed these facets after six games. Working on fixes this week is risky because Louisiana Tech is entirely capable of winning on their own initiative. But that’s the situation State faces.
Because, before Homecoming clean-up is finished, attention turns to SEC season.
*This is the last non-conference game scheduled, and a chance to extend a couple of streaks. Mississippi State has won its last 14 home non-conference games in regular seasons, in the 2010-to-present years. And since a neutral site loss to open 2013, State has won all ten non-conference games in regular seasons.
*Dan Mullen’s teams are 27-5 playing outside of conference including a 3-2 bowl record. And he is 9-0 against current members of Conference USA, including this year’s opening night win over Southern Mississippi.
*State has won its last 15 games against unranked opponents.
*Mississippi State should be just about healthy for this home game. Holding LT Rufus Warren out last week means he should be close enough to 100% by now. Though, LT Elgton Jenkins played well enough as starter against Troy that the freshman should get more rotation snaps with senior Warren.
*State only used six offensive linemen last week anyway, with OG Deion Calhoun the backup at both guard positions. With just 48 snaps against Troy the starting blockers weren’t over-worked.
*Health questions left from Texas A&M injuries are WR Gabe Myles (ankle) and WR Joe Morrow (arm/shoulder). Both should be available this week but may not be needed. TE Gus Walley has missed two entire games with a hand injury and is uncertain this week as well.
And starting MLB Richie Brown only played a half-dozen snaps last week before standing down with a undisclosed issue. He has practiced this week but Thursday coordinator Manny Diaz said Brown’s status wouldn’t be certain until Saturday. MLB Gerri Green played most of the game in Brown’s place and led the entire team with 11 tackles.
Brown still leads the team, and is 4th in the SEC, in tackles with 54.
*S Brandon Bryant moved up to the #1 safety job left by season-ending injury to senior Kendrick Market. Bryant responded to his first start with four tackles, one of them a sack that forced a fumble recovered for touchdown.
*The Bulldog defense ranks 2nd in NCAA tackles-for-losses, with 49.0 through six games. They got 15.0 of them last week against Troy.
*DE A.J. Jefferson is setting the pace there. He has a tackle for loss or sack, or both, in his last seven games. With 10.5 this season Jefferson is 9th nationally, and on pace for a program record in TFLs. The mark is 21.0 by Willie Evans in 2005.
*Moving from split end to slot receiver has doubled WR Fred Ross’ touches. OK, not exactly. But after five games the junior had already exceeded his entire 2014 total catches. Now Ross has 35 grabs in six games, and is tied for 1st in the SEC in per-game receptions.
*Ross is a routine catch from reaching 1,000 career yards. He has 990 going into Saturday. Ross needs 13 more grabs to reach the career top-ten.
*And last week Ross not only got his first receiving touchdown of the season. He returned a punt 77 yards for his first career kicking-game touchdown.
*Ross and WR/KOR Brandon Holloway have given State touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns for the first season since 1998.
*Of the team’s ten rushing touchdowns, only two have been scored by running backs: Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams both against Northwestern State.
*A very short day, due to illness, kept QB Dak Prescott from adding much to his career totals. He was only 3-of-6 throwing…but the second toss of the day was turned by Ross into a 49-yard touchdown. That was Prescott’s 8th throwing score of the season, and his 49th career.
*Prescott is at 83 career TD’s responsible-for which is 10th in SEC history and one out of 9th place. But it doesn’t seem right that his three receiving scores can’t count in this category.
*Prescott has now thrown 231 passes, going back to last season, without an interception. That is the nation’s longest such active streak, and #3 in SEC history.
*Prescott hasn’t run nearly so often this year, so he’s not added to his eight 100-yard games (last one, Auburn 2014). He does have three running touchdowns this year and 34 career. That leaves six regular-season games and a bowl for him to catch Anthony Dixon’s record of 42.
*With 18 rushing yards, Prescott (2,151) will catch Johnny Manziel for 4th place in SEC quarterback rushing yards. Third place belongs to John Bond at 2,280 by the way.
*WR De’Runnya Wilson’s touchdown catch last week was his 15th career, putting him alone in 4th place. He needs two more to tie for 2nd place with Eric Moulds and Justin Jenkins.