Mississippi State football: Bulldogs can blow up entire SEC West race
It wasn’t so long ago that the Mississippi State Bulldogs were on the cusp of having their season blown up. A season they entered with expectations as high as they’ve been in two decades was coming close to unraveling at the seams.
Yet, first-year head coach Joe Moorhead responded to the two heartbreaking losses to Kentucky and Florida by adjusting and adapting his offensive scheme to fully capitalize on the strengths and skill sets of the players on hand, instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole. In other words, he quit trying to turn Nick Fitzgerald into Trace McSorley, his former pupil at Penn State the last two years who is well known for accuracy, especially downfield.
Instead of trying to run a balanced offense against then-No. 8 Auburn, the Bulldogs scrapped the aerial attack and instead focused entirely on their rushing attack, and the result was a resounding 23-9 win, a game in which they piled up 349 yards rushing, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt.
Two weeks later, and having rested in a much-needed bye week, the Bulldogs are entering the second half of their schedule feeling pretty good about themselves, as they should. Believe it or not, if they stick to the game plan they used to beat Auburn, they could find themselves as the biggest spoiler in college football in the coming weeks.
Granted, the win over Auburn looks slightly less impressive this week after the Tigers fell at home to hapless Tennessee, 30-24. Having said that, the formula the Bulldogs used in that game (win on the line of scrimmage, control the ball, wear down opposing defenses and let their own defense feast) is essentially the all-time SEC recipe for success – the timeless cookbook to winning in the legendary conference.
If you really look at the Bulldogs’ roster, this is the kind of game plan they were built for – the same kind of strategy Dan Mullen would’ve employed had he not jumped ship to Gainesville.
This new run-heavy offense perfectly fits this team – it highlights their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. Just think …
Fitzgerald can’t beat you with his arm, but he can absolutely make plays with his legs, and defenses have to account for him as a ballcarrier. Defenses are forced to key on him, which opens up lanes for Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams, two proven backs capable of taking over a game at any time.
The offensive line is brutally powerful at the point of attack, especially along the interior. Their weakness, however, is pass protection, especially on the perimeter. By limiting the number of dropbacks, they’re taking pressure off both Greg Eiland and Stewart Reese and reducing momentum-killing sacks that put the offense in unfavorable down and distance positions and force it even more into doing what it shouldn’t be doing, which is passing the ball.
A multi-faceted rushing attack behind a very good drive blocking line means long and sustained drives and fewer third-and-long positions, which the offense struggled with in their two losses. It means fewer turnovers, and it keeps their defense fresh. It allows them to take calculated shots downfield in the passing game, knowing they’ll be facing advantageous looks against single coverages playing off.
Oh, and the defense is legit, make no mistake about it. This is a championship-caliber unit, and their numbers aren’t a fluke. Entering Week 8 of the season, the Bulldogs are the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, allowing just 12.8 points per game, and their 289.7 total yards allowed per game is good for eighth nationally.
Looking ahead, they could really mix things up in the SEC if they play like they’re capable of, and it starts this week in Baton Rouge against an LSU team coming off an emotional win against then-No. 2 Georgia, a game few will expect the Bulldogs to win. I disagree with the majority in this instance.
LSU and State are very similar teams in that they have unreliable passing attacks but are strong running the ball, and each has a nationally recognized defense. They’re physical teams who want to beat you up, not outrace you.
I think the Bulldogs are catching the Tigers at the right time, though. LSU is coming off two consecutive physical slugfests, against both Georgia and Florida. Mississippi State is an equally physical team that will have the benefit of rest coming off their bye. With Alabama looming next on the schedule for LSU, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re caught looking ahead. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they were physically and emotionally spent after the last two games, and going blow for blow with a rested Bulldogs squad might just be too much for the overachieving Tigers.
I think State comes out of Baton Rouge with a victory.
Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech follow, and while neither should be overlooked, the Bulldogs should be favored in both matchups, especially considering they’ll be playing in the friendly confines of Davis Wade Stadium.
Alabama comes next and will obviously be the toughest test of the season. However, Tua Tagovailoa went down with a knee injury this week against Mizzou, and there’s still some unknown as to the extent of the injury. If Tagovailoa is out, State has a legitimate chance to win this game. Jalen Hurts has never been an easy out, but if there’s ever a chance to beat the Tide this year, it would be with Tagovailoa on the sidelines.
No matter who is under center for Alabama, State still might be their toughest test of the season because of how effectively they can run the ball. The key to beating Tagovailoa and the Tide is keeping him on the sideline with a ball control offense that chews up the clock. Throw in a salty defense that can come up with turnovers, and there’s at least a chance for an upset.
Following Alabama are Arkansas and Ole Miss, two team that State should absolutely wallop.
State, with two losses already under their belt, likely won’t have a chance to make the Playoff at this point. Even if they win out, countless other things would have to go in their favor to find themselves in the final four when it’s all said and done.
So, while they likely aren’t playing for a national championship at this point, they do have a chance to drastically shake things up, not only in the SEC West but in the national picture. If State beats LSU this week, the Tigers are officially out of the running (I’ll believe a two-loss team makes the Playoff when I see it). If State beats Alabama in a few weeks, things really get interesting.