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State Still Seeking Offensive Formula for Success; UMass Presents Tricky Matchup Tests

It’s foreign football territory for Bulldogs, but not for their coach. Native New Englander Dan Mullen takes his Mississippi State team to the old Northeast for a matchup with Massachusetts.

Mississippi State (1-2, 1-1 SEC) not only has a first-ever meeting with UMass (1-2), but the game will be played in Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium. Kickoff is 3:30eastern for broadcast by ESPN3 and ASN. A list of Mississippi affiliates picking up the game will be released Tuesday.

“A beautiful time of the year to be up there,” Mullen said during Monday’s press conference. The Manchester, N.H. native should know. Mullen grew up 80 miles from Foxboro and was plenty familiar with the region as a youngster. He calls the weekend trip “Really a neat experience” for his Bulldogs. Though, the timing is just a tiny bit off for a Boston baseball fan.

“I’m working here Thursday so I’m going to miss the Pats game. And the Red Sox are out of town. It’s a shame because we follow with a bye-week!”

Much more seriously, Mullen and staff are already at work on game-four. The Bulldogs practiced Sunday after evaluating their 23-20 loss at LSU. An obvious positive was erasing most of a 17-point deficit with seven minutes left in the final quarter. State put on an unexpected rally as substitute QB Damian Williams dove for one touchdown and passed for another.

They even had another shot at tying or winning after forcing a Tiger punt. The rally died on four failed plays. Still after being dominated for a whole half, the Bulldogs gradually gained third-quarter control and gave themselves a comeback shot in the fourth.

Mullen didn’t claim any great halftime adjustments after the game. He didn’t today, either.

“In the first half there were plays to be made. In the second half guys started settling down and made plays,” Mullen said in Monday’s press conference. He also repeated there was nothing schematic about the change. Yes, the Bulldogs upped their effort more consistently in the second half, he said.

“We obviously played much better overall, offense and defense and even special teams wise. I don’t know whether it was just our guys getting settled in, relaxing to a point, play hard every single play. All of a sudden we started executing, started making the plays we expected to make. Unfortunately we dug ourselves into a little bit too big a hole to dig out of.”

Fixing focus on the immediate is one thing. Addressing the technical items is more specific. LSU did what South Carolina couldn’t by containing QB Nick Fitzgerald’s running plays, as he gained just 34 yards on nine carries. His total line though read 13-for-21 as Fitzgerald was sacked four times when State either chose to or had to throw the ball.

“When you run option football, whether it’s zone-read option or other things, you’re just going to take what the defense gives you,” Mullen reminded. That’s correct, but it also reminds that Mississippi State’s ground game relies too much on quarterbacks. The regular running backs just aren’t producing, and might not even be as ‘regular’ in upcoming games as far as rotations and snap-splits.

Getting down deep and time limits made going to the air obvious. It was also productive with Williams, who took over only after Fitzgerald’s helmet came loose on a third down. Once in he moved the team and Mullen stuck with the backup. Yet Mullen did not see a great difference in passing styles from Fitzgerald to Williams.

“We caught the ball,” he said. “One-on-one situations we won a couple. We missed some early in the game, we hit most of them in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter.”

Related to this, Mullen’s review did not show Fitzgerald struggling. “I thought Nick played pretty well to be honest.” Mullen also said immediately after the game that the fourth-quarter comeback did not change the quarterback position. Meaning, Fitzgerald remains the starter and Williams the alternate as needed.

State left Baton Rouge with no new injuries. Mullen had hoped DL Will Coleman would make that trip and even play, but the back injury suffered early in August will probably keep him out of this trip too. Mullen thinks Coleman can play after the open date, against Auburn; he also hopes CB Cedric Jiles (broken arm) returns for that game as well.

The Minutemen are one of the four remaining FBS-level independent programs. This game was hastily-arranged a year ago to fill a non-SEC hole created by Tulane’s abrupt bailing on a trip to Starkville. State found an opponent but had to accept a road game.

However, the bonus is the Bulldogs will get to play in another NFL stadium. The Patriots’ locker room is not available so State will work out of the New England Revolution squad’s facilities. UMass will return this trip with visits to Scott Field in 2017 and ’20.

They are the home-away-from-home team this week, and playing a second time in Foxboro. UMass lost to Boston College 26-7, and opened the season with a 24-7 loss at Florida. Last week the Minutemen got in the win column beating Florida International 21-13 at the Amherst campus. There will be no indy-vs.-P5 intimidation going on this weekend.

“It’s going to be a tricky road trip for us against a team that has already played a SEC team and a ACC team,” Mullen said. The Minutemen also are an unknown in quarterbacking. Ross Comis (44%, 1 TD, 1 INT) is still listed first but Virginia Tech transfer Andrew Ford (67%, 3, 1) seems to be their number one now. The offense has thrown 87 passes against 104 rushes and many of the latter must be scrambles or sacks (14 so far).

“They like to throw the ball around,” Mullen said. “And they’re probably a little different than some teams that spread to throw it. They don’t spread to throw it. They’re going to go unbalanced, movements, shifts, and throw the ball around that way. We’re going to have to be able to defend on the back end and get pressure on the quarterback. That’s one thing we weren’t able to do last week.”

Lack of sacks at LSU was a big change for a Dog defense which went in leading the SEC in bagging quarterbacks or tackling for losses. At the same time in all three games downfield coverage has had big breakdowns, pressure or not.

The UMass defense is “very quick and make a lot of movement and blitzes,” Mullen said. “They’re going to blitz all over the place and stunt guys around all over the place.” So Bulldog blocking must keep up communication without getting confused with the quick shifts across the line.

This is Mississippi State’s first appearance in the Northeast in literally three decades. The 1986 team opened its season at Syracuse, and won too. It will be the seventh-straight fall a Bulldog squad has played at least one game in a NFL venue, regular season or bowling. The coach has more demand than usual for this road game, too, as Mullen says he and Megan have demand for at least 80—and counting—tickets for family and friends.

“It’s really a neat experience. It’s fun for me to get back towards home and play a game. And for most of the guys if they do their state-count, we can check off two more states!” That’s because the Bulldogs will fly into Providence, R.I. on Friday.

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