As excitement builds, 5 things to watch for in Mississippi State's Maroon and White Game
There might not be a team surrounded by more excitement than Mississippi State. With Super Bulldog Weekend and all its hoopla around the corner, the buildup is for Saturday evening’s Maroon and White Spring Game.
It was a Jekyll and Hyde ending to the 2017 season, a loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl that also resulted in the loss of breakout star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Keytaon Thompson came in as a freshman and surpassed all suppressed expectations filling in during the Egg Bowl and leading the Bulldogs to the TaxSlayer Bowl win against Lousiville.
Then Dan Mullen left – Tommy Tuberville style. But Joe Moorhead’s hiring from Penn State quickly re-energized the program. Here are five things to keep an eye on Saturday when the offense takes on the defense.
Watch the scoreboard
Mississippi State has a lot returning on both sides of the ball and fans obviously want to see a swarming defense when the 2018 season officially arrives. Saturday, they’ll want to see points against their own.
In Moorhead, there is reason to believe it will happen.
Moorhead directed a Penn State offense that averaged 41.1 points per game last season, tied for sixth nationally.
With Moorhead watching from the press box, the Bulldogs scored 31 points in the TaxSlayer Bowl win against Louisville, usually a moot point for a new season. But for a team returning 10 starters on offense, it helped build the buzz for 2018.
There will remain an unknown until Fitzgerald gets 100 percent healthy, but Thompson and a stocked offense can keep the buzz going Saturday with a few downfield hits. That aspect was missing for Fitzgerald and the offense last season as Hail State had just 8 pass plays of 30 yards or more — the lowest total in the SEC.
Speaking of Keytaon …
Thompson was thrust into action in the Egg Bowl, not an ideal way to begin your SEC career. He was more than serviceable with 300-plus yards and a couple of touchdowns. It was a celebrated – and gutsy – performance in a loss. And while he would have been forgiven even through a dismal performance in the bowl game, Thompson was anything but, totaling 274 yards and three touchdowns to outshine Lamar Jackson on a large stage.
Those numbers showed the study habits and game IQ for Thompson, who will again have eyes on him Saturday to see how far he has come in the offseason, plus how much of Moorhead’s system he has soaked in. Mississippi State fans are dying to see the long ball, something Fitzgerald will be expected to continue to improve on as he nears 100 percent, as well.
Willie Gay ready to break out
There is no shortage of big names returning on defense, led by Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat and safety Mark McLaurin. Flying a bit under the radar is sophomore Willie Gay Jr. Gay had 23 tackles last season, along with a couple of tackles for loss and a sack. The numbers aren’t what to look for in the linebacker though. It’s those cliché intangibles.
The hometown product has the nose for the ball, the brain for the playbook and the physical pop the NFL has surely noticed. He forced one fumble last season and seeing him do that to his teammates Saturday would be a plus. He can also knock more loose than the football, but he’ll want to wait a few more months to showcase that.
More Aeris, please
Depth is a common theme in Starkville this season, also the cases in the backfield. Aeris Williams, Nick Gibson, Dontavian Lee and Kylin Hill give the run game a lot of different looks and a lot of potential for big plays around the edges.
Williams went over 1,000 yards last season, but his numbers came in bulk performances. (His 4.69 yards per carry was the lowest total among the SEC’s nine 1,000-yard rushers.)
He put up big numbers against two of the SEC’s best, however, rushing for 146 yards against LSU and 97 against Alabama. (Only two backs have topped 100 yards against the Tide since 2015.)
The crowded backfield won’t be the best spot for any feature back looking for stats, but Williams has earned the first crack at the numbers after rushing for 1,107 yards and 6 touchdowns on 236 carries. His 59-yard run was the longest of the season and under Moorhead, he might go longer.
How about a TE touchdown?
Why did Mullen hate tight end production? Let the big men have their moment. If there is a spot for increased production, it’s here. Farrod Green and Justin Johnson combined for only 17 catches. Green had 174 of their 218 combined yards and Johnson had the only touchdown.
Moorhead is expected to bring explosiveness and more variety to the offense. There is no better place to start than tight end. The backs and the receivers have the tools to steal the early touches and early headlines. The tight ends could be the biggest – and most pleasant – surprises of the revamped offense.
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