What to Watch For

Ole Miss closes out the regular season in Starkville against in-state rival Mississippi State on Thanksgiving night. We take a look at what to watch for in the Rebels' quest for their eighth win of the season.

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Burning Questions:

- Chuck Rounsaville, Publisher

How good is Mississippi State?

Like most teams struggling around the .500 mark, it depends on which Bulldog team shows up. The one who struggled with Bowling Green and Kentucky and got blasted in the fourth quarter by LSU or the one that played the ears off Texas A&M, Auburn and Alabama only to lose close encounters? The Bulldogs are a junior-laden, somewhat young team that only starts five seniors. Sometimes their play has reflected that. The one certainty, however, entering this annual rivalry is the Rebels will get, from an effort-standpoint, the best the Bulldogs have to offer.

Who will play quarterback for the Bulldogs?

MSU has put out a statement that Dak Prescott, a Chris Relf type who runs the ball very well, will not be available for the game, but many Ole Miss supporters do not "trust" that report. Other reports indicate he has nerve damage and is indeed out, maybe for longer than anyone would wish on the young man. Tyler Russell, who is more of a pocket passer, has been banged up in the last two MSU games – Alabama and Arkansas, but the report from Starkville is that he will be available, but not 100%. Freshman Damian Williams, who resembles Prescott more than Russell in style and physical appearance, is listed as the starter.

Dak Prescott
USA TODAY images

Our thinking? Don't be surprised no matter who of the three trot out for the first offensive series of the game. Doesn't answer the question, does it?

Where are Missisissippi State's strengths?

Their front seven on defense is a physical lot. Chris Jones, Kaleb Eulls and Bernardrick McKinney are names most are familiar with. Also, FS Nickoe Whitley is a very good football player who also exhibits a physical style. They also have solid running backs and a very good tight end in Malcolm Johnson. Speedster Jameon Lewis, who is their chief return man and wideout, is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Not to beat a dead horse, but one would have to consider Prescott a strength if he is able to play.

What are their weaknesses?

Their secondary seems susceptible to the pass, but a lot of that depends on the pressure their front is able to get. At times, their offensive line has had trouble with pressure, allowing 20 sacks on the year. As is the case with a lot of SEC games, the trench warfare for both teams will be critical to the outcome. Turnovers might be a big factor in telling this tale. Overall, Ole Miss has done a little better job taking care of the football to this point.

What do the Rebels have to do to win the game?

What is the advantage MSU has? Some of this answer does not change from week to week in the SEC. On offense, they must be able to run the ball effectively to keep the MSU defense honest. They were not able to do that against Missouri and, in the long run, it cost them. Their recent Red Zone woes against Missouri must be corrected. The Rebs have to take advantage of every scoring opportunity in order to help take the crowd out of this game. They must be crisper in their passing game than they were against Missouri. When there are catches to be made, they must be made. On defense, the Rebels have to contain the MSU run game and keep Johnson and Lewis in check. No big plays. . . . The advantage MSU has is where the game is being played. Strange things happen when teams are protecting their home turf and playing for not only state pride but a chance for postseason play and revenge from last year's outcome. Their artificial noisemakers, which were foolishly allowed by the SEC, are also beyond annoying, they are an advantage, like it or not.

Ole Miss Player to Watch:
Ole Miss defensive line

It is very difficult to single out one player that will be a difference-maker for the Rebels in the Egg Bowl, but certainly the group that will have to perform at a high level is the defensive line, led by freshman DT Robert Nkemdiche and senior DE Cameron Whigham. Against Missouri, although not all their fault, the defense gave up more than 200 yards rushing and that opened up the passing game for Mizzou, when the Tigers needed it.

The Bulldogs will rely heavily on the run game and it is imperative for the Rebels, starting with the front four, not only slow down their run game, but get some sort of pressure on the quarterback – whoever that may be – when MSU is forced to pass. Since the loss of DE C.J. Johnson, arguably the Rebs' best DL and arguably the Rebs' best defensive player period, Coach Chris Kiffin has had to adjust several things to try to put his troops in the best positions to win.

Nkemdiche was moved from DE to DT. Bryon Bennett was moved from DT to DE. D.T. Shackelford has been moved almost exclusively to defensive end. All of this disrupted the continuity gained on the DL in spring and August and into the season. Nkemdiche, Whigham, Shackelford, Bennett, Woodrow Hamitlon, Issac Gross, Carlton Martin, Lavon Hooks, John Youngblood, et al, will need to play lights out Thursday night, particularly against the run.

Last game vs. Missouri: TKL: 23 / TFLs: 2 / SACK: 1

Mississippi State Player to Watch:
Damian Williams – Quarterback

With Prescott assuredly out with possible nerve damage in his elbow and Tyler Russell listed as day-to-day after re-injuring his shoulder in Mississippi State's win over Arkansas on Saturday, Damian Williams, a true freshman, could be called on to shoulder the quarterback burden in the Egg Bowl by default.

Williams, who scored his first career touchdown at Arkansas, was listed as the No. 1 quarterback on the most-recent Mississippi State depth chart. His playing style is similar to Prescott, though he's a far less accomplished passer. He's best utilized on the ground in an option attack, as displayed by his 25-yard touchdown burst in the first play of overtime against the Razorbacks.

He's played in four games this season, including his debut in the fourth quarter against No. 1 Alabama.

"When Dak and Russell went out, I told them, I'm not even worried about it," Mississippi State defensive end Ryan Brown said of Williams in the (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger. "He did the same thing to me in high school. You're all going to see. He showed the world he could do things in clutch situations."

He'll have some considerable shoes to fill. Prescott is tied for fifth in the SEC with 12 touchdowns scored, tops among quarterbacks. He's also sixth in the league with 251.6 yards of total offense per game.

Last game vs. Arkansas: ATT: 3 / COMP: 4 / YDS: 34 / RATT: 7 / YDS: 40 / TDs: 1


- Ole Miss Spirit staff

Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, on preparing for multiple QBs:

"They do different things with different quarterbacks. We don't really know which one is going to play the most because both Tyler (Russell) and (Dak) Prescott have been hurt lately. They may even have to go with their freshman, Damian Williams. They all present different challenges and the bottom line is we have to prepare for all three, which is a little difficult in a short week."

On MSU players to watch, including Bulldog OL Gabe Jackson:

"This league is loaded with NFL type players and he will be one of them. In their run game, the guy who comes to mind is No. 34 (Josh Robinson). He's short, but he'll stick it up in there and will run it hard. LaDarius Perkins is their do-it-all guy. He's very dangerous out of the backfield in the passing game."

Kicker Andrew Ritter, on dealing with colder conditions:

"The ball just doesn't have as much pop when it's cold like that. When it's hot outside, the ball tends to jump off your foot. When it's cold, it doesn't. Standing around on the sideline, I tend to tighten up a lot quicker.

Dave Wommack
Chuck Rounsaville

"I just have to stay moving. Stay on the (stationary) bike. Get in front of the heaters. Keep the blood flowing. If I do that, I'll be able to kick the ball fine."

On the significance of the rivalry game:

"It's very important to me and to this team. We're not only controlling our own destiny as to what bowl game we go to, but it's also for the state of Mississippi and our fan base. This is for 365 days of bragging rights. It's also huge for recruiting in the state of Mississippi, and we understand that. To our fans, it's the most important game of the year. And it's that way to us."

Quarterback Barry Brunetti, on the emotion of the Egg Bowl:

"It's a different game than any I've been a part of. Everybody's emotion is flaring, and I feel like their emotion is going to be real high. They're like how we were last year, trying to go for a bowl game. I expect us to have the same attitude we had last year going into the game."

On the emphasis placed on the Egg Bowl by the coaches and players:

"Coach Freeze grew up in Mississippi, so he knows the pride for this game and what we have to put on the line for this game. We know it's going to be a full 60 minutes. Both teams can have losing records and it's still going to be an all-out war. He does a great job of getting us focused for this game, and they're going to a great job this week of getting us focused. We've got to bring our ‘A' game, because Mississippi State is."

Safety Cody Prewitt, on the game:

"You have to understand the rivalry. To me, it doesn't matter what our record is when we play that game. We can't lose it. We're the flagship university and we have to keep it that way. We have to win that game."

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