5 things Mississippi State must do to beat Tennessee
Mississippi State faces arguably its biggest game of the Joe Moorhead era when it travels to Knoxville this weekend to face Tennessee. The downside for the Bulldogs is this could be a turning point in the Volunteers football season as well.
The Bulldogs (3-2, 1-1 SEC) need this one on Rocky Top, as the schedule is daunting the rest of the way. It’s an absolute must-win in this regard: If they lose, the road to a winning conference record, one of Moorhead’s goals, is all but closed. They would have to upset 2 in this group (LSU, Texas A&M or Alabama) and beat Arkansas and Ole Miss to finish 5-3 in the SEC.
In somewhat a reverse situation, Tennessee (1-4, 0-2 SEC) can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Following its game with the Bulldogs, the Vols have Alabama, South Carolina, UAB, Kentucky, Mizzou and Vanderbilt.
Only the Alabama game seems out of reach. If the Vols can upend Mississippi State, they have a path to bowl eligibility.
Here are 5 keys to victory for Mississippi State to come out of Knoxville with a win.
1. DL Lee Autry and LB Willie Gay need to play
They have missed a large portion of the season due to being suspended but are expected to play Saturday. They’ll need to, as both will provide an immediate jolt on a that has struggled.
Errol Thompson, a preseason award winner, has fallen off. A lot of that can be attributed to the lack of defensive line pressure and opposing offensive lines getting to the 2nd level. With the additions of Autry and Gay, it should free up some needed rest for DT Chauncey Rivers and LB Leo Lewis.
2. Kylin Hill must run the ball more
I feel like a broken record, but when I am asked what the Bulldogs need to do to be successful, my answer always includes getting Hill the ball. Hill has 596 yards in 5 games. While that seems like a lot, it should be closer to 750 yards.
He leads the league in yards and attempts per game, but his 21 carries a game should be closer to 25 or more.
He’s a dynamic runner who runs well in space, while never avoiding contact. The good part about having a mobile quarterback like Garrett Shrader is the ability to run when needed. The bad part is when he takes off on a read option play, that’s 1 fewer carry for Hill.
MSU must establish the line of scrimmage early and allow Hill to run downhill. If the Bulldogs get the Vols’ defense on its heels, Hill will have a career day. If Moorhead begins throwing out routes on 3rd-and-short, it will be a long day for the maroon and white.
3. Garrett Shrader is the QB going forward
Graduate transfer quarterback Tommy Stevens was spectacular against Louisiana to open the season. He still has a 63.8 completion percentage and a QBR of 150.23.
The downside is he cannot stay healthy.
The good news: Shrader has taken the offense and run with it. He leads the team in total offense with 823 yards, with 312 coming on the ground. The team looks more comfortable with Shrader under center and I expect to see him in Knoxville for the duration.
Like any running QB, his passing needs work. While the arm strength is there, his accuracy needs to improve. He’s steadily getting better, throwing for 511 yards and 2 touchdowns.
4. Someone other than Osirus Mitchell needs to step up at WR
Called out before the season, Mitchell has answered. With 19 catches for 277 yards and 4 touchdowns, Mitchell has been a bright spot.
He’s the only one.
Sure, Stephen Guidry has grabbed 2 touchdowns, but he’s only caught 8 passes this season. Secondly, we were led to believe this was going to be a breakout season for Isaiah Zuber as well. The Kansas State transfer has 7 catches for 73 yards.
If Tennessee sells out to stop the MSU rushing game, which it should, someone from the MSU receiving core has to take a big step forward.
5. The defense must improve
It’s cliche, but Saturday’s game will be won or lost on the line of scrimmage.
The MSU defensive front, led by Kobe Jones and Rivers, must improve and force Tennessee into mistakes, especially if it’s true freshman Brian Maurer under center. More important, the defensive front has to keep the pressure off linebackers Lewis and Thompson so that they can make plays.
The back half of the defense has been dealing with injuries, but the emergence of C.J. Morgan, who leads the team with 36 tackles, and Jaquarius Landrews has helped. Brian Cole and Cameron Dantzler have not played to their potential so far and need to step up.