Seeking A New Start In Starkville

The Vanderbilt football team needed a week off. Then again, it can be said that in this very difficult 2014 season, the Commodores have needed more time to get just about everything right. What might be different about this bye week? What can Vanderbilt truly achieve this weekend against Mississippi State?


CAN VANDERBILT CREATE A HIGH FROM MISSISSIPPI STATE’S LOW?

Heading into this season, it never did seem likely that Vanderbilt would be favored heading into game number 11 of the season. Mississippi State, with Dak Prescott returning at quarterback and being surrounded by some highly talented pieces on offense, figured to have the resources needed to win eight games, maybe nine. Naturally, the Bulldogs have reached much higher than that. They’ve exceeded all expectations and have put together one of the very best seasons in a snake-bitten program’s long and difficult history. Mississippi State isn’t merely favored over Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs are expected to annihilate the Commodores.

And yet…

Over the past month, Mississippi State has looked like the very ordinary team it has been in the past under head coach Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs struggled against a Kentucky team that has completely fallen apart, a team that will need to beat Louisville just to get into a bowl game. Mississippi State was pushed and pushed hard at home by an Arkansas team that won its first SEC game under Bret Bielema only this past Saturday against LSU. The Bulldogs lost by only five points to Alabama this past Saturday, but they looked outclassed for most of the day. They benefited from plenty of mistakes by the Crimson Tide, but in the middle of the fourth quarter, they were down by 12 points. In the final few minutes of regulation, they never really had a good chance of winning. Much like the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI against the San Francisco 49ers, the Bulldogs fell behind by a bunch of points (19-0 for them, 20-0 for the Bengals) and then made the final score respectable with a touchdown in the final 20 seconds of regulation (16 seconds for the Bengals, 15 seconds for Mississippi State).

What has happened in recent weeks is that Mississippi State has felt the weight of the season. Prescott, who frolicked against LSU and Texas A&M and made a few particularly important plays against Auburn, has been straitjacketed in recent weeks. He’s made bad throws (in terms of their trajectory) and poor decisions to throw balls in the first place, trying to wedge the pigskin into double or even triple coverage. Mississippi State has been in decline for a few weeks, so simply based on current form, there is at least a small degree of vulnerability enfolding the Bulldogs.

What makes Mississippi State even more vulnerable is that this is a sandwich game for the Bulldogs. MSU is coming off the draining and disappointing loss to Alabama, and it is going to face the hated Ole Miss Rebels next week in Oxford. This could be a letdown game for the Bulldogs, and it could also be a look-ahead game as well. This is when teams play mentally hijacked games and just aren’t there for the first half, maybe even three quarters.

This is all a way of setting up the next point: While a dialed-in Mississippi State team playing with confidence should obliterate Vanderbilt, the current version of the Bulldogs seems neither focused nor formidable. This team, the one that’s been in evidence for the past few weeks, can be pushed. Maybe not taken, but certainly pushed, in much the same way that Arkansas (like Vanderbilt at the time, without an SEC win before its breakthrough against LSU) managed to do in Starkville.

Vanderbilt’s offense has required time and teaching, patience and persistence, in the attempt to make it better. Results have rarely surfaced in 2014, but after another couple of weeks to address various issues, could the Dores come up with just enough offense to hit a few big plays, just enough firepower to score something in the area of 17 points? If VU could pull that off, would the defense be able to get two turnovers from Prescott, shorten th game, and at the very least, create a close contest in the fourth quarter?

It reads like the stuff of fantasy, but in the midst of a grim and trying season for the Dores, should this team not try to aspire? Should Vanderbilt coaches and players not try to envision what an ideal scenario would look like? Mississippi State probably won’t play its most precise and energetic game of the season this weekend. Let’s see what Vanderbilt can do if indeed the Bulldogs let down their guard.


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