Mississippi State football: What did we learn from win over A&M?
Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach earned the first “signature” win of his Bulldogs tenure on Saturday, beating Texas A&M 26-22 on the road at Kyle Field under the lights.
Texas A&M entered the game ranked 15th in the Associated Press poll and was favored in the game by more than a touchdown.
Despite the odds and disparity in rankings, some at Saturday Down South thought Mississippi State would win outright because they’re simply a better team right now, but I can’t quite remember who. Kidding aside, this Mississippi State team is both unpredictable and feisty.
This game will provide plenty of conversation fodder over the coming days, particularly in Aggieland. Texas A&M, which once had College Football Playoff aspirations, is all but eliminated. Indeed, was this a Mississippi State win or a Texas A&M loss?
Probably both. This piece is about Mississippi State, but SDS will be covering as much of this Texas A&M situation as you would like to read.
From where I sit, however, this was the second of five games this year in which Mississippi State played at a high level for all four quarters.
Still, Leach pumped the brakes on the celebration in his postgame comments on the SEC Network.
“Well, we got to get a lot better,” Leach said when asked what he’d like to see next. “I think we’ve improved … and we improved this week but we need to get better and we can get better, so we need to keep our eye on that.”
MSU fans must love to hear that beating Texas A&M isn’t satisfactory for Leach, even in a rebuilding mode.
So, what did we learn about Mississippi State after this game?
Will Rogers II is good
I consider Bulldogs QB Will Rogers somewhere between the third and fifth-best quarterback in the SEC. Before anyone gets mad at me, yes, Matt Corral (Ole Miss) and Bryce Young (Alabama) are better.
It was obvious from the first quarter that Rogers’ play gave the Bulldogs more offensive opportunities than Aggie QB Zach Calzada.
In the first game of 2021, Rogers got into trouble trying to do too much. In the games since, he has pulled back, taken what the defense gives him, and picked his spots to be aggressive. Now, in the fifth game, it’s clear to see he’s more comfortable with tighter windows and deeper passes. His progression is encouraging.
Against A&M, Rogers completed 46 of 59 passes for 408 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Even for a Mike Leach team, 59 is a ton of pass attempts, but that was what the Bulldogs needed. The Aggies defense is incredibly stout up front and was going to stifle the run. Also, some of those 59 attempts were “pop passes,” which are basically just forward pitch plays.
Going back to the LSU game the week before, Rogers has now attempted 99 consecutive passes without an interception. In the SEC, that’s pretty good.
Rogers put up big numbers again this week, but I think the most important note from the box score is that Rogers connected with nine targets, all of whom caught at least three passes. That means that to defend the offense, defenses will need to cover every single eligible receiver on every single play. As obvious as it sounds in concept, it is not easy to execute.
The one missing element for MSU remains the deep ball. Rogers’ longest completion of the night was 25 yards. This is a small concern now because he protected the football and distributed it to the playmakers. However, scaring the defense deep will open more up in the mid-range packages.
I can’t be sure if this is because receivers aren’t getting as open or because Rogers is content to play within himself. This is not concerning yet, but it’s certainly something to watch.
Moving forward, Bulldogs fans must feel completely comfortable watching Rogers survey the field and wind up to throw.
This defense is good, all of it
Now that the dust settled on some Bulldogs games, we can definitively say that this defense is exceeding expectations — at least expectations thrust upon them by college football media (myself included).
Calzada is playing to the best of his ability in a backup role, but he’s clearly an SEC backup-level quarterback for now. Either way, the MSU secondary and linebacking core confused Calzada all night.
SEC Network commentator Jordan Rodgers noted during the broadcast that Calzada had trouble finding passing lanes. That is to say, even if he wanted to throw to a receiver he thought was open, he couldn’t figure out how to get it over the defensive lineman and around the linebackers who were underneath.
That’s a testament to coaching and execution. MSU defensive coordinator Zach Arnett clearly wanted to keep the potent Texas A&M running game in front of him with no big plays or long rushing drives.
When his defense stopped and/or limited the rushing attack, the Bulldogs built off of that by attacking and confusing the quarterback. It worked brilliantly.
It starts up front. That’s one of those cliches football fans hear perhaps hundreds of times each season, but it’s true. Aggies offensive tackle Kenyan Green is elite and running back Isaiah Spiller could be among the best in college football.
Statistically, Spiller had a great game, rushing for 100 yards on 16 carries. However, 44 of those yards came on one play. That means on his other 15 carries, the Bulldogs held him to just 3.7 yards per rush. That is outstanding.
Furthermore, the Bulldogs defense was superb in the red zone. On four trips inside the Mississippi State 20-yard line, the Aggies converted just one to a touchdown, settling for field goals on the other attempts. The Bulldogs sacked Calzada twice on third down in the red zone, leading to field goals.
The Aggies did not run a single play inside the Mississippi State 10-yard line. The defense capped the victory with a safety as an absolutely filthy interior spin move by junior DT Nathan Pickering led to a sack.
To recap, the Bulldogs rushed the passer, confused the passer, limited big plays to fewer than 50 yards, owned the red zone, took advantage of mistakes and stopped the run. They also tackled fairly well, though I’m sure coaches will want to discuss a few missed tackles.
The Bulldogs are off this week, but waiting for them after the bye is Alabama, which also has a pretty good quarterback and a reputation for defense.
For now, though, there’s reason to look at the remaining schedule and presume that the Bulldogs have what it takes to be competitive in every game.