Bulldogs Host Tigers In Crossroads Contest for Both Ball Clubs

Credit, or blame, the conference schedule-maker. Because whoever assigns the dates, or more likely programs the computer, just has a knack for making Mississippi State-Auburn an annually-pivotal meeting of the Western Division foes.

2016’s edition is no different, Dan Mullen figures.

“It’s a big game obviously for us, with where we’re at right now being 1-1 in the conference,” the Bulldog coach said. “So it’s a huge game for us”

And for the visiting Tigers, too. Auburn arrives 3-2 overall and with the same SEC record as host Mississippi State (2-2). The Bulldogs ought have some advantage since they were free this past weekend, enjoying their only open date of the campaign.

Plus Mullen’s team was able to go into the break on a victory to even the overall record. Then again Auburn wasn’t exactly pushed too hard in their 58-7 rout of Louisiana-Monroe.

The series historically has gone heavily in Auburn’s favor, by a 61-26-2 margin. But Mississippi State has trimmed some of that deficit in much more recent years, and have won three of the last four meetings. And in their last three wins over State under Mullen, the Tiger margin was always by just one score.

So another competitive contest is expected for Saturday’s 11:00am (ct) kickoff. Mullen certainly sees another Auburn squad coming to campus.

“They’re a very good football team. The last play of the game, throwing the ball in the end zone with a chance to beat Clemson. A big win over LSU, and a couple of huge blowout wins. So, an excellent football team.”

Like State, it’s a team that has figured out the quarterback situation(s). Auburn has put the offense on sophomore Sean White, who coincidentally made his first start a year ago in State’s 17-9 win at Auburn. A healthy White is completing 68% of throws with just one turnover against five touchdowns, and working the ball around to a wider variety of receivers.

“It looks like they’ve settled on Sean so that gives them some consistency,” Mullen said. “And they’re going to build around his strengths, do things he does well.” White also benefits from an improved rushing game paced by Kerryon Johnson’s 5.1-yard average gain and six touchdowns.

The Tigers also have the wild card threat with juco transfer John Franklin. “A change of pace,” Mullen described it, and a way to limit hits on White as well. Franklin’s footwork is averaging 12.7 yards.

Defensively, Auburn’s front is aggressive even by SEC standards and keeps passers uncomfortable in the pocket. If there is one. Plus, Mullen said, “They can play great coverage on the back end and rush the passer. So you have to protect and get open.”

Mississippi State had time last week to open up the offensive playbook, compare it to four games’ worth of results, and adjust accordingly. Like the opponent, a quarterback has been settled-on, though Nick Fitzgerald was already supposed to be the guy all along. After a tough and short opening day, and watching Damian Williams rally the team in a fourth quarter at LSU, Fitzgerald is still the clear top Dog to run things.

As for other offensive questions, most obviously at running back(s) and to some extent the receiver packages, Mullen said the bye-week focus wasn’t all about personnel. It was simply execution by who is on the field in whatever situation.

“There’s a lot more plays to be made than we’re making. A lot of that comes with confidence and experience.” The difference is State’s staff had time to show everyone what they’d experienced, and how to build on it. Or forget it, if necessary, and go another direction.

Mostly, Mullen said, it was just proving to players what potential they’ve had and did not maximize. Put another way, the mindset got more attention than anything schematic.

“Just trust what you’re doing and you’re fine to go make plays. But guys have the opportunity to see some of those things and say you’re right, if I trust what I was doing, and I don’t need to change. Essentially stop thinking and know what you need to do.”

Mullen said cornerback Cedric Jiles (broken arm) and defensive lineman Will Coleman (back) are expected to be available for their first action this week after August injuries. Jiles took some snaps last week but gets his first real practicing today in game-prep. His return can’t help but help a cornerback corps that has been erratic in the best of times so far.

Coleman will further strengthen a defensive line that already had good depth and some strong performances. Jonathan Calvin, who took Coleman’s expected starting spot at the new ‘viper’ position, has 4.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks with an interception.

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