Steve Robertson -

Belk Bowl Victory Can Ease Sting of Regular-Season Finish

CHARLOTTE -- They hit the mall this evening for a banzai bonanza, a two-hour, $500 shopping spree allowing Bulldog players to pick their own Belk Bowl booty. Call it a second Christmas, or just a well-won bonus to another successful season.

But. How successful Mississippi State really regards 2015 can come down to how it ends in post-season. Bulldogs need to bring home a bowl winner’s trophy again.

Coach Dan Mullen and team went through their final real practice of the ’15 season and of Belk Bowl preparation Monday. Like previous practices here in Charlotte this session was moved to another high school due to wet fields. Given Wednesday’s forecast for thunderstorms it’s just as well Mullen work his men on soggy turf anyway. There will be a walk-through Tuesday afternoon.

Both these last practices were closed to observation. So media will have to wait for Tuesday’s morning bowl press conference to ask updates on health, particularly center Jamaal Clayborn after his Sunday warm-up ankle sprain. But only the coach and trainers really know if the 12-game starter will be ready to go. Or, if backup center Jocquell Johnson takes over—or more likely any of the three rotation guards Deion Calhoun, Justin Malone, Devon Desper moves over.

The mall-crawl is also closed so media shouldn’t be staked-out looking for a big Dog on crutches or anything either. Before they did the getting this evening, many Bulldogs spent the morning giving. They participated at the Second Harvest Food Bank, and visited Levine Childrens Hospital. So the trip has already been a success off the field.

On it, now, is where the score is remembered. With another frustrating end to a regular season, is there pressure on Mullen and Mississippi State to ease some of the rivalry pain with a post-season victory?

There should be.

The same is probably being said in the other camp this week. Most bowl games nowadays turn on motivation, and on surface look MSU and North Carolina State ought to have equal incentive.

Speaking of equal, some offensive and defensive numbers are eerily similar. Whether it is points per game, nearly identical at 33.7 for the Wolfpack to 33.0 for State; the six-yard difference in what the defenses allow; a one-point difference in scoring defense; there is not a lot to pick between them.

Then there are the areas where one side has a statistical edge. MSU nets forty more offensive yards each week, and did so against a generally-better caliber of defenses in their conference than North Carolina State saw in the ACC. But, the Wolfpack did a significantly better job taking care of the football…though that too might say something about the defensive opposition faced?

Stat sheets don’t always match-up with direct scouting. Repeat All-SEC quarterback Dak Prescott is impressed with the challenge. “They’re a really good team. I think they’re a solid team all the way around. I think there are some areas in their defense we can attack and we’ve game-planned to do that, but overall they’re a good defense and play hard.”

On the other side of the ball. Senior cornerback Taveze Calhoun has seen his share of explosive offenses in four years. He respects N.C. State, too.

“When you have that talent with the quarterback and the coaching it’s always difficult and it’ll be a challenge. It’s not surprising to see their stats, just because of the coaching and the talent they have.”

There has to be a stockpile of skill, since N.C. State lost their rushing leader in the shootout with Clemson and still battled to bowl eligibility. They key is senior quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who did not have huge passing stats often but was able to make big plays as needed. If the name sounds familiar around the SEC, Brissett began his career at Florida…and State remembers what another former Gator triggerman did to them this year when Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskell put up early points on Scott Field.

The individual challenge will be All-ACC tight end Jaylen Samuels. Though, ‘tight end’ only hints at how many roles he plays in an offense that moves around and makes miss-matches with backs and receivers and anyone else eligible to touch the football. Samuels is the top receiver on the team but also a leading rusher, and averages over a touchdown a game.

Against this, Mississippi State has high cards to put on the table too. Aces, even. All know about Prescott, who is effectively the ‘face’ of the Belk Bowl as his historic career ends. For all his program records (38 and counting with two more in Wednesday reach) maybe the best measure of greatness is how Prescott is the only Bulldog to repeat as SEC first-team quarterback in six decades. Prescott also wants more than any single State soul to wash away the Egg Bowl bitterness with a fitting finale.

Prescott is no solo act though. Somebodies had to catch the 67% of throws he completed. The top target is All-SEC Fred Ross, a big game away from 1,000 receiving yards. He already has the season record for catches with 81, topping a mark set all the way back in 1970 when State had only been to three bowls, ever.

Ross is expected to return for a senior season. His counterweight in the four-wides offense, junior De’Runnya Wilson, has been quiet about his 2016 plans. A 55-catch, 882-yards, nine-touchdown year certainly makes the NFL an option and most believe he will turn professional despite not applying for a professional draft evaluation.

Either way, Wednesday ends the most prolific touchdown tandem in MSU history. Prescott and Wilson have combined for 18 touchdowns in three years. They along with Ross epitomize why in 2015 Mullen, at heart committed to power running offense, adapted to these record-setters in throwing and catching and scoring.

But North Carolina State is not easy pickings for a passing game. The Wolfpack was 5th in ACC air defense, impressive with so many big-play opponents. They also are superior in one key aspect: N.C. State runs the ball better, for over 200 yards a game. State netted 200 or more rushing yards only three times this season, just once in SEC play and that was against Kentucky.

Comparing schedules is risky. It also inevitably risks accusations of SEC snootiness among ACC clubs more than most leagues. The 2014 Bulldogs saw this first-hand when Georgia Tech shredded State in the Orange Bowl. Plus all agree 2015 was not a premium year for the SEC as a whole and even the Western Division was obviously down by several degrees.

Still, there is a comparison that jumps out. North Carolina State lost to all five bowl-eligible teams they faced. The Bulldogs beat Southern Miss, Auburn, Louisiana Tech, and Arkansas, all bowling this winter. And all four losses were to bowling teams, too. Where they are equal, is both these opponents lost their in-state rivalry game, meaning the bowl game offers at least some sense of redemption.

This is of particular interest to Bulldog fans for one glaring reason. Mullen’s teams are 3-2 in bowl play, which makes him the most successful post-season coach ever at State. Jackie Sherrill was 2-4; no other coach won more than once. However, all three wins (2010, 2011, 2013) came in years those Bulldogs won the Egg Bowl. The two losses came in years they…didn’t (2012, 2014).

So for Mullen this is an opportunity to change another program trend for the better. Plus, a victory would give State consecutive years of nine or more wins for the first time ever. And on top of it all, this is Dak’s final act in a Bulldog uniform.

Bringing home a bowl championship trophy will be the real Bulldog bonus.

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