Mississippi State opens its intense November stretch with a new conference opponent and a rare Thursday evening matchup. The Bulldogs (6-2, 2-2 SEC) challenge Missouri (4-4, 1-4) in the first meeting of these programs as SEC competitors. Kickoff at Faurot Field is 8:00 for ESPN’s midweek slot, which begins an hour later than usual per the host school’s request.
Both teams were off last weekend. The break didn’t keep MSU from improving one notch in the AP poll, to #24. State also appeared in the first College Football Playoff rankings released this week, at #20.
Those listings reflect how stakes have shifted now that bowl eligibility is secured. The Bulldogs are playing to improve their post-season position, perhaps even work all the way up into another ‘New Years Six’ situation just like last year.
Any such ambition would crash and burn--or melt given the latest local forecast—with a loss this week. Missouri is a club capable of doing more than just playing spoiler, too. Though the Tigers have lost three-straight East Division games and not scored a touchdown since October 3, they still have their own bowl hopes.
They also have a stout defense that has held its own against a variety of SEC styles, an offense that has had enough close calls to be encouraged, and the home field advantage. A home field which is almost certainly going to be soggy and thus play to Tiger strengths on both lines of scrimmage.
Especially on the defensive side. Missouri might not score much so far but they give points grudgingly if at all. They lead the SEC and are third nationally in scoring defense, and are sixth in NCAA passing and total defense yards allowed.
The key is a front-four build around over 630 pounds of middle-muscle to snarl up any running plays, and a pair of defensive ends with 25.0 combined tackles for losses. It’s all the more impressive they get to the ball at all. Because weak-side linebacker Kentrell Brothers leads not just his team, not just the SEC, but the nation in total tackles with 103 already.
None deny the offense has struggled badly this year, not helped by quarterback confusions. That’s out of the way now though. The job is Drew Lock’s alone. The freshman’s 51% passing requires perspective, too. It isn’t lack of arm or targets, just lack of experience and timing together. H-receiver Nate Brown is an inside threat with 12.6 yards per catch and four touchdowns, and as the season progresses so have split ends Westley Leftwich and J’Mon Moore. Tailback Russell Hansbrough isn’t having a huge senior year but 2014 showed what he can do if the whole offense starts clicking.
Missouri also has a placekicker with 61 career field goals to his credit, and a punter averaging almost 45 yards…as a freshman. So Mississippi State has been warned, repeatedly, not to take record and scores nearly as seriously as watching what the Tigers are capable of under the right circumstances.
Speaking of which, it has been long, long since a Bulldog team played on a really wet field for any length of time. Faurot Field does have a good reputation for handling rain, fortunately. Still conventional wisdom requires increased reliance on ground games in soggy conditions…and Mississippi State has not been strong on this front.
The Dogs did rush for over 200 yards last time out, against Kentucky, but more than half those gains came from QB Dak Prescott alone. State would rather not rely on running the quarterback into these Tigers’ teeth any more than necessary since November stacks-up as a physically brutal month. Early-arriving fans will watch warmups for how Bulldog backs handle (footle?) the turf, as well as for clues of how the quartet take turns.
165-pound Brandon Holloway has started the last three games as big back Ashton Shumpert first struggled with production and then with back issues. Shumpert played kick coverage only against Kentucky. Planned or not, freshmen Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee got a few more turns that day which might be a sign of shifts in the late-season script. Or, not.
Because the plain facts are A) Prescott is the best running threat on the roster; and B) the passing game remains State’s true strength. If anything the receiver corps just gets deeper and better. WR Gabe Myles is expected back after a three-game break to heal an ankle, and TE Gus Walley might be returning this week as well. Add to that the emergence in Walley’s absence of big TE Darrion Hutcherson, along with increased use of freshman WR Malik Dear in a receiver/runner role, and Prescott has a wealth of weapons to select from.
Led by, of course, H-WR Fred Ross and split end WR De’Runnya Wilson with their combined 73 catches and 957 yards. They stretch defenses both wide and deep, freeing room for throws to tight ends and, increasingly, backs. Since these plays are essentially long handoffs this might be one way Prescott trumps any wet field challenges.
The Bulldog defense should be fine wet or dry. State hasn’t lacked for physical play on this side, it is their aggression coordinator Manny Diaz is trying to bring out for the last month. That, and more consistent tackling. Both these areas have shown improvement the past two games. The final piece would be forcing more and bigger turnovers, which also likely relates to Diaz’ emphasis on not playing so cautiously as in the first six weeks.
Related to that is one more and maybe key item. Mississippi State has not been a fast-starting squad on either side in SEC action this year, or most games for that matter. Mullen is not exactly asking his team to blow things open in the first quarter, though that’d be a welcome change.
He does want the Dogs to come out sharp and assertive. That could count more than usual Thursday, because giving Missouri any sort of early momentum might just let the Tigers put things together at last. The Bulldogs have gotten comfortable coming from behind. The worry is they get too comfortable once too often, and that things like a lopsided season time-of-possession (nearly 12 minutes) or uncharacteristic turnovers dig a really deep hole.
November 2015 is full of opportunity. Thursday is first chance for Mississippi State to show itself up to it all.
*Mississippi State has won its last 17 games against unranked opponents regardless of location.
*This is not the first time Bulldog and Tiger teams have clashed. But, it’s been a long while and for Missouri a couple of conference-switches ago. The Tigers upset State 14-3 in Jackson back in 1981, then took a 47-30 shootout when MSU visited Columbia in 1984.
*In their three-game win streak the Bulldogs scored 45, 45, and 42 points. It was the first stretch of 40-or-more points in three games since 1992. And, by topping 42 points each time, this team set a program record.
*State is the second-least-penalized SEC team with just 33 flags assessed so far.
*The Bulldogs might be slow starters. But they are fantastic finishers. State has out-scored opponents 62-12 in fourth quarters and not allowed a touchdown all season in the final period.
*State is flat-last in SEC possession time. But that is in no small part due to an offense that has scored on 19 drives lasting under two minutes.
*State has recovered just one fumble this season. It was a good one though, as S Brandon Bryant forced the Troy turnover and DT Nelson Adams recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
*The Bulldog defense also has scored on an interception return, again by Bryant against Louisiana Tech.
*And Bryant fell on a blocked (WR Donald Gray) punt on the Northwestern State two-yard line to set up another touchdown, though that did not go to the credit of either defense nor special teams.
*Kick returns though have proved two more State scores. RB Brandon Holloway ran back the season’s first touchdown with a 100-yard kickoff at Southern Mississippi. Then WR Fred Ross returned a Troy punt for touchdown.
*PK Westin Graves had his perfect season end in the Kentucky game as he missed a 26-yarder. Graves was 8-of-8 to that point on field goals, and has still made good on all 33 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.
*DE A.J. Jefferson had his streak of games with a tackle-for-loss snapped but still has 11.5 on the season to rank 20th in the NCAA. The season record is 21 (Willie Evans, 2005).
*WR De’Runnya Wilson has six touchdown catches on this junior season. That gives him 18 career scores which is second all-time at State. He needs six more to catch Chad Bumphis’ record.
*Wilson now has 1,555 career receiving yards on 106 catches, which rank him 10th and 9th in MSU history respectively.
*WR Fred Ross needs eight more catches to reach a single-season top ten at State. He has 40 through eight games.
*Of Wilson’s 18 touchdowns caught, 15 were thrown by QB Dak Prescott. That makes them the second-most-productive scoring tandem ever at State, behind only Tyler Russell-to-Bumphis (17, 2009-12).
*With all his records—36 of them now whether game, season, and career—the news for Prescott his last game was a mark he tied. He became only the second Bulldog on record to account for six touchdowns in a game, matching what Jackie Parker did against Auburn in 1952. And fittingly, both split their scores with three rushing and three passing each.
*He is making a charge at the State scoring record as well. Prescott has 248 points on his 41 touchdowns, trailing only the 276 points on 46 touchdowns by Anthony Dixon.
*Prescott did have his school-record for passes without an interception end last game, though. The streak stopped at 288, third-longest in SEC history.
*Prescott has now won 20 of his 28 starts. That is topped only by Wayne Madkin’s 25 and John Bond’s 24.
*Prescott is closing in on 100 career touchdowns (passing, running, receiving) which only five SEC players have done. He has 96.
*His 2,304 rushing yards are third-most for a SEC quarterback.
*Prescott can also soon become only the 10th SEC quarterback with 10,000 yards total offense. He goes into this game with 9,935 which is 12th in league history.