Mississippi State at the bye: Good weird and bad weird define Bulldogs' 3-2 start
Mississippi State fans must be encouraged, proud and optimistic about their football team after the first 5 weeks of the 2021 campaign.
The Bulldogs are 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the SEC with a big nonconference win over the No. 23 team in the country in NC State.
By my estimation, the Bulldogs have played 2 good games and 3 not-so-good games.
The team came out of the gate with a big comeback against Louisiana Tech before dropping 2 winnable games against Memphis and LSU. However, they’ve won their 2 toughest games thus far against NC State and Texas A&M. In fact, Mississippi State handed the Wolfpack their only loss.
As mentioned in the Saturday night SEC Network broadcast of their win over A&M, “This team is weird.” That is absolutely true.
What makes the Bulldogs weird is their ability to focus and execute in their two big games, but then allow mental errors to pile up in their other games. (LSU is a big game, but LSU at home at 11:00 a.m. is different than playing under the lights at Kyle Field or hosting your biggest nonconference opponent since 2019.
The question I have is, are they good weird or bad weird? I divided the games into two sections: NC State and Texas A&M on one side and LA Tech, Memphis and LSU on the other. Here’s what I found.
One main tenant of the Air Raid offense is turning the traditional shotgun running game (sweeps, dives, counters and delays) into short passes like swing passes, screens and inside pop passes.
That being said, the Mississippi State rushing attack isn’t completely irrelevant in the way that it might be in other Air Raid systems.
The majority of our evidence comes from the Week 4 loss at home against LSU when the Bulldogs running backs Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson rushed 21 times for 97 yards with long rushes of 12 for Johnson and 14 for Marks.
This number wouldn’t be important for most offenses that need to “establish the run,” but in this case, it sends a message.
The LSU defense notably left two safeties over the top with cornerbacks often giving cushion to their receivers. This shows quarterback Will Rogers that the only available passes will be short and outside. This dares the Bulldogs to run the ball.
By running the ball effectively against LSU, Mississippi State showed, on film, that they’re willing to run the ball to win the game. If defenses leave 6 or fewer men in the box, the Bulldogs will run the ball with good running backs and behind good offensive linemen.
For example, both Ole Miss and Arkansas showed this year that against teams that can pass well, they’re happy defending the run with light boxes to keep the passing game in front of them.
That being said, in the other not-so-good games (La. Tech, Memphis), the Bulldogs ran the ball far less effectively and therefore less often.
If the LSU game is any example, I suspect the Bulldogs will be dared to run the ball in coming weeks and will have to do it, not a lot more, but a little more. The surprising thing is that I kind of/sort of think it’s going to work.
Against NC State and Texas A&M, Mississippi State did not turn the ball over 1 time. However, they forced 3 turnovers against NC State (1 fumble and 2 interceptions), and they intercepted 1 pass against Texas A&M. In the other 3 games, the Bulldogs turned the ball over 7 times.
It’s not weird to suggest that the less a football team turns the ball over, the better they play. It is weird, however, how they turned the ball over.
Turnovers against La. Tech, LSU and Memphis came on such plays as forcing the ball into bad windows, trying to gain an extra yard when it wasn’t needed (for a first down), and on simple running back-quarterback exchanges.
The weird part isn’t that they do this; young teams make mistakes. The weird part is that this kind of thing doesn’t happen against good opponents in big moments.
For me, this observation means that when the moment is bigger, the Bulldogs keep it simple.
The most obvious example of this comes from Will Rogers, who seems in total control of himself in these bigger games. As long as he continues to do that, the Bulldogs will continue to have a chance to pull off more upsets.