Mississippi State (5-2, 1-2 SEC) hosts the Wildcats (4-2, 2-2 SEC) in the annual inter-Division contest for both clubs. It’s been a good series for the Bulldogs, at least since Dan Mullen arrived in Starkville. His teams have won all six meetings with Kentucky and in the process evened the all-time record for State at 21-21.
But no Bulldog assumes anything about this renewal. “SEC ball, you never know what’s going to happen,” LB J.T. Gray said. “You can have any type of team come in and win.”
Kentucky certainly could. Their program has trended in a better direction under Mark Stoops with increasingly competitive clubs on the field. “You can just see that he has recruited a bunch of talent,” Mullen said.
“They have a lot of playmakers on the offensive side, led by a quarterback (Patrick Towles) that had a big game against us last year. You watch the guys that just understand their defense, how hard they play on defense. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us this week.”
Fact is, Kentucky has challenged all of Mullen’s teams despite the streak. Bulldog fans recall too well how after last year in Lexington. Playing for the first-ever time as the nation’s #1 team, State had a four-quarter fight not settled until Christian ‘Turtle’ Holmes returned an on-sides kickoff for touchdown and the 45-31 final.
The two-touchdown margin was deceptive, as have been most of the final scores during the win streak. For whatever reasons—matchups, timing, location, trends—Kentucky has been a tough nut for State to crack. 2015 sets up tougher, too.
Mullen had a higher opinion of Patrick Towles before the now-junior earned respect from most opponents. A 62% passer averaging 12 yards per caught throw, Towles can tuck and tote on his own call and move the chains. Most throws are directed towards Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson, also underclassmen in a roster with its best games yet to come.
They are balanced, usually, by big back Stanley Williams at 7.2 yards each rush. So for Kentucky to rank 12th in SEC rushing is curious…until noticing they are just one notch behind a Bulldog offense still struggling for its own ground game gait. In fact the Wildcat defense allows not many more rushing yards on average than State musters weekly. There is nothing to choose between the teams in such a key stat as turnover margin, too.
What MSU offensive coaches did watch, closely, was how Auburn came out throwing with consistent results; then went to a mixed ground game with the quarterback keeper key in the second half. The Wildcats have also had their third down defensive issues, with 40% conversions both overall and in league play.
The over-arching story to this weekend though is a couple of clubs already measuring post-season possibilities. Kentucky hasn’t been bowling since 2010, yet was agonizingly close after starting 5-1 last fall. The Wildcats can, if need be, look past October to at least two November matchups that should be Ws. They also get good shots at other vulnerable East peers, so holiday football is well within their reach.
Meanwhile, a win makes the Bulldogs eligible for a record sixth-straight bowl trip. That would be a fine piece of business to get done before taking a break, setting State up for a closing stretch to settle exactly which bowl they will visit.
And, to get some Bulldog bodies completely healthy again. One won’t be able to. Starting CB Will Redmond is done with a practice knee injury, though Mississippi State has not formally said so. Redmond has two of the team’s five interceptions and takes a senior out of the lineup. The regular rotation of cornerbacks will ease this a little. Cedric Jiles and Tolando Cleveland have gotten lots of snaps this year, though neither has shown Redmond’s big-play potential yet.
The more encouraging news is WR Fred Ross is expected back after going out last Saturday with a first quarter shoulder issue. Ross is the team’s receiving leader, and his immediate backup Gabe Myles (ankle) has missed two whole games. Mullen said Monday Myles should be available, along with split end Joe Morrow.
TE Gus Walley is iffier after two terrific shots by Louisiana Tech. The second should have brought a targeting flag and did send Walley to the locker room. Mullen said he was a late-week decision. Starting RB Ashton Shumpert missed a week with a tight back, and backup S Jamal Peters with a practice concussion. Both are possible this game.
What are some Dog definites? Certainly State needs to solve a first quarter trend of falling behind by a touchdown or double-digits or something. Mullen doesn’t shovel blame on the defense, or equally the offense. He also points out that after slow starts this team has gained speed and played excellent halve or even three quarters.
But spotting Kentucky a couple of scores is a sure fail. Coaching theories abound why State struggles so to start strong. Coordinator Manny Diaz sees his defense playing too cautious, trying too hard to avoid mistakes and thus not making plays.
Mullen sees it the other way on both sides, that much of the lineup and especially the backups aren’t hitting the field “ready to go 100 miles per hour” as he said. “It is just getting out there, getting into the flow of the game immediately.”
It is a tantalizing image, of a State squad that finishes fast to start a game in the same speed. Or, just putting the pressure on the opponent from, Mullen said, “the foot hitting the ball.”
Naturally both sides of the squad will look to QB Dak Prescott to set some sort of tone. Even the defense pays attention when #15 gets intense, and last Saturday afternoon Mullen said he saw a look on Prescott’s face that didn’t bode well for the opponents. Or, any Dog not doing his own job.
Prescott’s career against Kentucky has been generally productive. In three years he’s rushed for 153 yards and a couple of touchdowns; and though he didn’t throw anything in the 2012 game he has since then been 41-of-77 for 484 yards and three scores. But, the last two starts in this series have taken a toll. Each year Kentucky sacked Dak three times and hit him more times.
Auburn did damage with a dual-threat quarterback. Might Prescott, a far more seasoned runner, look for the same opportunities? Prescott downplays the need for him to run more often, as long as the passing game is working so well. Besides, Prescott said, he now holds and throws later where as a young quarterback he’d default to footwork faster.
“It’s just something you feel and learn. Basically just having a time clock in my head of when to get out. Also, when I watch film certain covers they give you, if they are going to give you lanes to run.” Which is to say, Prescott will decide what the situation suits as presented.
The overall Mississippi State situation is after two months Mullen expects to know what the Bulldogs are. Players, starters and alternates alike, should have enough experience to be comfortable by now. Their coaches in-turn should understand what everyone is capable of, or not. So game-eight could show everyone what Mississippi State has for November.
“We look at what is working within our package, what we are executing at a high level to utilize our talents,” Mullen said. “We’re going to have a little more identity of what our team is this year.”
As for this week? “You’ve just got to be mentally ready, locked-in,” Gray said. “We really control our own outcome in this game.”
*Mississippi State has won its last 16 games against unranked opponents regardless of location. Dan Mullen’s teams have won the last 27 home games against unranked visitors, since 2009.
*This six-win streak over Kentucky is Mississippi State’s longest against any SEC member since 1941-48 with seven-straight wins over Auburn.
*Kentucky’s last win in the series came on Scott Field, in 2008.
*Over one-quarter of Mullen’s 23 SEC wins at State have come against Kentucky.
*State is the SEC’s least-penalized team along with Auburn, with 27 flags; though Auburn has played one less game.
*The Bulldog offense has possession of the ball less than anyone else in the league, averaging 23:43 minutes per game. For comparison, Arkansas has 34:08 time of possession to lead the SEC.
*Mississippi State and LSU are the only SEC teams which have not thrown an interception this season.
*But MSU has recovered just one fumble in seven games. At least that one went for a touchdown as DT Nelson Adams fell on the ball in the Troy end zone.
*State has a better than two-to-one ratio of sacks to sacks taken, at 19 to 9.
*Bulldog special teams have scored two touchdowns this season and very nearly a third. RB Brandon Holloway returned a kickoff 100 yards against Southern Miss; WR Fred Ross returned a punt 77 yards against Troy. And last week WR Donald Gray blocked a Louisiana Tech punt that was recovered on the two-yard line by S Brandon Bryant.
*PK Westin Graves remains perfect for his season, making all eight field goals and 27 PATs.
*LB Richie Brown is 7th in SEC tackles per game, and would rank higher if not for taking a seat early in non-conference games with Northwestern State and Louisiana Tech when he had four stops each time.
*DE A.J. Jefferson had his streak of games with a tackle-for-loss snapped last week. He still has 10.5 on the season, third-best in the SEC. The season record is 21 (Willie Evans, 2005).
*Before he was knocked out of the Tech game, WR Fred Ross had added three catches to his team-leading total. He has caught 38 balls, but only one for a touchdown after five sophomore scores.
*Ross just topped 1,000 career receiving yards. He is now at 1,026 in three seasons.
*WR De’Runnya Wilson has made up some ground on Ross. The junior split end has 29 catches and averages 14.9 per grab to Ross’ 11.1. Also, Wilson has five touchdowns already.
*Wilson is at 1,464 career yards now.
*Wilson has caught 17 career touchdowns, and is in a three-way tie (Eric Moulds, Justin Jenkins) for second in program history. The record is 24 by Chad Bumphis (2009-12).
*Of those 17 touchdowns to Wilson, 14 were thrown by QB Dak Prescott.
*Prescott now has 52 touchdown passes, and has rushed for 35 more. Add in his three receiving touchdowns in previous years, and his 90 total touchdowns-responsible tie for 7th in SEC history. He needs 93 to catch Johnny Manziel in sixth place.
*With just his running and catching touchdowns counted, Prescott has 230 career points (passes thrown don’t count). That’s still a lot of scores short of Anthony Dixon’s record 276.
*Prescott just did pass Manziel for SEC rushing yards by a quarterback. His 2,185 put him in fourth place, right behind John Bond at 2,280.
*Prescott’s no-interception streak continues, now at 274 throws in 26 quarters. It is the NCAA’s longest active streak and third-longest in SEC history.
*Of State’s 12 rushing touchdowns just three have been scored by a full-time running back. RB Aeris Williams has two of them (Northwestern State, La Tech), and RB Ashton Shumper the other (Northwestern State).
*Only four true freshmen have played this season, with no activations since the LSU game. Those are S Jamal Peters, TE Justin Johnson, S Mark McLaurin, WR Malik Dear.