Mississippi State (6-2, 2-2 SEC) will spend this open week listed 25th in the latest Associated Press poll. The Bulldogs have been ranked twice already this season, and each time lost to a ranked opponent to fall back out.
Breaking into the top-25 was not a certainty at all this week. Not because a six-win State team isn’t deserving, but because most everyone in the lower reaches of last week’s polls managed to win again. Room was made when both #15 Texas A&M and #20 California fell out, barely. They are directly behind State in this poll.
The Bulldogs would be #27 in the Coaches Poll this week.
State can’t lose its ranking on the field this week, what with the open date. If they are still in the polls going to Missouri it would be a 37th week with a ranking in Dan Mullen’s seven-season tenure. The record, unofficial, for games-played as a ranked team was 45 times during Jackie Sherrill’s 13 seasons.
BYE, BYE: It’s the usual, even necessary question. It also has no real answer. But it was asked anyway: does Mississippi State’s only open date of the season come at a ‘good’ time for the Bulldogs?
Dan Mullen half-shrugged, half-joked. “If we beat Missouri, it came at a great time. If we don’t…” leaving the audience to figure it out themselves. Of course everyone knows what the real benefit to any off-week is. Injuries have extra healing time. Though in State’s current situation all the injuries are either on schedule for next week already, or permanent.
The real benefit should be giving Mullen and staff time to mid-season evaluate everything. Lineups, rotations, run-to-pass (or in this team’s case, pass-to-run) balance, defensive schemes and packages, everything. And, with coaches about to begin making recruiting evaluation trips, yet another look at the 2015 roster after play and injuries for how signing needs have changed. Or, not.
So, “We’re going to take advantage of it,” Mullen said.
It isn’t a normal open date either, since State plays a week from Thursday at Missouri. What the Dogs lose this week, they get back with a post-trip weekend. Mullen has practices Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week.
WILL POWER: The mid-week knee injury to and loss of CB Will Redmond was finally confirmed by Mullen on the SEC Network’s game-day show. The senior cornerback’s career ended in a fluke practice injury, a non-contact incident at that. A torn knee ligament did not keep Redmond from serving as team captain.
But having his co-starter sidelined made Calhoun hurt inside. “It affects me as a friend more than anything.” The main effect was ramping up his own game to both honor his friend and set the entire secondary’s tone.
“That just motivated me to play like it was my last because you never know. When he went down I raised my level of intensity.” Speaking of ‘never know’, Calhoun of course had a bad moment in the second quarter when he landed badly and had to be helped off by two trainers, right leg hanging loose.
Fortunately it was just a painful bruise, and Calhoun came back to score his first two-interception game at State. Redmond’s next chance to pick a pass though will come in the NFL. Before the injury he was rated one of the top two cornerback prospects for 2016’s draft by one analyst.
“He’ll start his rehab right now,” Mullen said. “When he gets the swelling down he’ll have the surgery done. We’ve met a bunch, hopefully he’ll be clear by mid-April before the draft.”
***Also on the injury front; WR Gabe Myles missed a third-straight game and was wearing a boot on his left foot/ankle again. TE Gus Walley was also sidelined after the helmet hit of a week ago.
WR Fred Ross returned to action as expected. He was put out in the first quarter last week with a banged-up shoulder. RB Ashton Shumpert missed last week with back tightness; he played on special teams this week.
STEPPING IN AND STEPPING UP: Starting is no longer new to Darrion Hutcherson. He has begun three of the last four games when Walley was sidelined by separate injuries. Catching passes? Yeah, that’s new-for-2015 to the big tight end.
After not getting a ball in his hands as a ’14 transfer, Hutcherson now has eight grabs for 90 yards as a senior. That includes his first senior college touchdown, in the fourth quarter when Prescott saw Hutcherson about to come clear at the goal line. So the quarterback waited…and waited, and waited some more.
“Just waiting for him to clear that window,” Prescott said. “The ‘backer, we had a little high-low play there and he jumped Fred Ross but didn’t quite get down there. I had to move him a little more and let Hutch open up. He did and made a good catch.”
A 13-yard catch for State’s final touchdown. Hutcherson had two previous catches as well, as he continues to capably replace Walley’s contributions as a tall target in middle-ground. Why the sudden break-out by a big, physical, and fast athlete?
“He’s just comfortable in the offense,” Mullen said. Which Hutcherson was not in 2014. Mullen even said that ideally he would have been redshirted as a transfer to learn this offense. “Hutch got throw in in a bad situation last year, had to go play some.”
Keeping Walley on the side isn’t a great situation of course. But having Hutcherson blossom mid-way of his senior season is a great development, and not just for himself. When Walley comes back, State can go with a two-tights set and not give up anything in the air game.
***As for Shumpert, his snaps might not have been diminishing before the back issue cropped up; but his touches have. Holloway has had mixed results as the #1 running back, able to thrive in some matchups. Kentucky was a good one for the smallest back, despite having a very big defensive line that made interior totes iffy at best. Outside, Holloway did just fine.
What keeps State fans talking though are small signs each week of increased duty for RB Aeris Williams and RB Dontavian Lee. Williams had 37 yards on eight runs; Lee seven yards on five tries. The numbers don’t show it but the chances do: these are the future, just one that’s not here yet.
“You’ve got those young guys, we’ve been rolling them through,” Mullen said. “They did pretty well. It was good to see a bunch of guys getting carries, making catches, working in protection.”
***There is one unofficial stat that ought to earn the freshmen more respect. In the three-game homestand they combined for 30 carries, averaged 4.5 yards…and had just one of those runs lose ground. A single yard, by Lee yesterday.
TURNING ‘EM OVER: Despite losing interceptions leader Redmond, the Dog defense was able to pick off three Kentucky passes. Two were by CB Taveze Calhoun (see sidebar story posted) for his first multi-pick game of his career. The other was a career first as TD Cory Thomas snagged a short throw from the backup Kentucky quarterback as DE Jonathan Calvin hit him.
Actually there were four interceptions. LB Beniquez Brown caught an under-throw by Pat Towles and ran it into the end zone for a pick-six. Or it would have been if not for a flying flag. Calvin was called for roughing Towles, negating both turnover and touchdown.
“I really didn’t know until I turned around,” Brown said. “Just wipe it off, come back and play another play and try to get another one.”
Turnover margin has been a sore point to the season. State was a minus-one after seven games, so getting on the plus side is literally positive. Strangely, all but one of the turnovers forced and recovered by Bulldogs are interceptions. Opponents have fumbled seven balls but just one ended up in Dog paws. That was the blitz/sack/fumble forced against Troy by first-time starting S Brandon Bryant, that DT Nelson Adams fell on for a touchdown.
Yet Mullen has been oddly relaxed about this slow pace. “I told our guys they’re going to come, and when they do they’re going to start coming in bunches,” Mullen said. “They can’t start getting uptight about it, relax, they’re going to come and in bunches for us. You’re starting to see that.”
ALL STREAKS MUST END: The one Bulldog turnover this game was the most unlikely. Or, was it?
Non-sports statistics professionals can argue about ‘odds’ of things happening, or not. Football folk know better, that when a quarterback keeps putting passes in the air eventually one will end up in the wrong hands. Dak Prescott’s unprecedented State streak finally ended after 288 un-intercepted passes. Kentucky’s Chris Westry did the trick in the second quarter.
So, was Prescott annoyed to lose his streak or relieved of any emotional burden to keep it going? “More annoying. I never want to throw an interception. I wish I could have went the whole season without throwing one. But now that’s out of the way, let’s move on.”
And he did, tossing 20 more balls without a pick and for two more touchdowns. But the highest quarterback ‘rating’ belonged to…a receiver. WR Fred Ross got to use one of Mullen’s preferred gimmick plays, taking a toss behind the line and heaving it downfield. Where WR De’Runnya Wilson made a merely-outstanding catch of a slight over-throw.
“He did a good job,” said Prescott of Ross. “I always give him heck about it at practice, he thinks he’s a quarterback. But he did a good job. So credit to him, and to Damian Williams for coaching him up!”
RECORD RACKING: If Prescott’s streak was snapped, he still set a program record for unintercepted passes. It will also stand as third-longest in SEC history.
Prescott also kept climbing other conference record lists. With 96 touchdowns-responsible in four seasons he passed Johnny Manziel for sixth in SEC history. And by posting his first 100-yard rushing game in over a year, Prescott now is third among SEC quarterbacks for running gains. The man he passed? Why, none other than 1980-83 State predecessor John Bond. With 2,302 yards now, next up is former Arkansan Matt Jones at 2,535. Catching Tim Tebow’s 2,947? Well…
With every week Prescott is setting or raising, and maybe even creating, some sort of career record. OK, he won’t during an open date. Still he has just matched a mark few knew about, and fewer could have possibly seen.
Prescott now joins the immortal Jackie Parker as the only Bulldogs to account for six touchdowns in one game. Parker did it in 1952 against Auburn, with three rushing scores and three more passing. Which is exactly the breakdown for Prescott against Kentucky, coincidentally.
Prescott now has nine 100-yard rushing games, tying with Don Smith (1983-86) for 9th place at State…and everyone ahead was a running back. Related to that, with 38 rushing touchdowns Prescott can still catch Anthony Dixon’s program record of 42.
For those trying to keep count, Prescott now holds or shares 26 Bulldog offensive records. With more to come, of course.
BEAR TRACKS: One of Prescott’s touchdown passes naturally went to Wilson. Inevitably, even. Because of Wilson’s 18 career touchdown catches, 15 have been thrown by Prescott.
Wilson is now alone in second place for career TD grabs, having broken his tie with Eric Moulds (coincidentally at the game as part of M-Club hall of fame ceremonies) and Justin Jenkins. Only Chad Bumphis is ahead now, with 24 touchdowns in 2009-12.
Wilson now has 1,555 career receiving yards. That pushed him just past Jameon Lewis (1,554) for 10th place career at MSU. And his 106 catches rank 9th all-time now.