MSU regular-season superlatives ... and a surprise MVP
Mississippi State made quite a few preseason predictions look silly by finishing 4th in the SEC West, ahead of Texas A&M, Auburn and LSU. Despite ending the regular season on a sour note, the Bulldogs still can look forward to a nice bowl destination.
For a relatively new coaching staff, bowl season is so important. It’s more practice and another game plan. It comes with distractions and obstacles that young players need to learn. Also, improving to 8-5 would help create hype moving into next year. Should that happen, the Bulldogs will probably start the 2022 season ranked in the AP Top 25.
But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s hand out some awards for one of the more fun and exciting Bulldogs regular seasons in years.
MVP: CB Martin Emerson
Anyone who follows my MSU coverage knows who the most valuable player on the team is, at least the way I see it — that would be cornerback Martin Emerson.
The defense set the tone in the second game of the year against NC State, so the MVP was always a defender for me. The junior from Pensacola, Fla., locked down whoever he was covering and even if that player made the catch, Emerson made the tackle. Playing violent, lock-down coverage helps coaches and teammates take risks and feel confident about being aggressive.
He finished the year with 3 passes defensed and 31 solo tackles, which was 3rd-best on the team.
Emerson did not record an interception this year, because quarterbacks knew better. For example, in the Egg Bowl, Ole Miss QB Matt Corral, who is also an elite NFL prospect, gave his receiver only 1 shot against Emerson in 1-on-1 coverage down the far sideline.
The receiver attempted to give Emerson a double-move, faking an in-breaking route and sprinting up the sideline. Emerson read the concept perfectly and actually beat the receiver downfield to the ball.
It was theoretically perfect coverage. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall Corral testing him again.
That kind of play against your rival is why he is the MVP.
Emerson will be drafted highly into the NFL should he declare and will continue a tradition of excellent MSU defenders in the league.
Offensive MVP: LT Charles Cross
Will Rogers obviously smashed several of Dak Prescott’s records and deserves credit for doing so. He would be an obvious, logical choice. But in this offense, those numbers are somewhat expected.
So, similar to Emerson as MVP, I opted for the unsung heroes on offense — a lineman. In the second year of a new coaching regime with a relatively inexperienced, young QB, the best thing for an offensive is a monster offensive line.
Cross, a redshirt sophomore from Laurel, Miss., held down the fort from the left side all year. Linemen want to run the ball, they want to move forward and eat pancakes. Pass blocking for 40+ snaps each game takes discipline and stamina. Cross set the tone for every game and played well.
He allowed Rogers the time and protection to set those school marks.
Defensive MVP: LB Tyrus Wheat
Tyrus Wheat led the Bulldogs in sacks this year with 6 and added a forced fumble and an interception. Wheat impressively showed up in big games with sacks against Arkansas and A&M. In Power 5 college football, it’s easy to amass statistics against your nonconference opponents. The trick is playing well against your big-time opponents.
Wheat played well against Arkansas, A&M and Ole Miss, giving the Bulldogs a chance to win.
Wheat, a senior, can be proud of the way he played in his senior campaign.
Transfer of the Year: WR Makai Polk
Easiest award of the season. Polk came from Cal and the Pac-12 to Mississippi State to run routes and catch balls. From the jump, he was one of Rogers’ favorite targets.
The junior was just 11 yards shy of a 1,000-yard receiving season with 9 touchdowns. Polk averaged more than 8 catches per game and 4 times (Tennessee State, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Memphis) went over the 100-yard mark.
Should he return to the Bulldogs, which I believe he will, he will enter the 2022 campaign on a great page with Rogers.
Most Improved: QB Will Rogers
As noted, no problem if you believe Rogers was the Bulldogs’ MVP or offensive MVP. That said, Rogers, a sophomore from Brandon, Miss., showed improvement from his freshman year to this year and from Week 1 to Week 12.
Statistically, his year was insane. Rogers threw for 4,449 yards, completing more than 75% of his 630 attempts, and tossed 35 TDs against just 8 interceptions. The yards and TDs are school records.
Nationally, he finished 2nd in total passing yards and tied for 7th in TDs. Only Bryce Young of Alabama bested him in the SEC ranks for TDs.
Rogers showed a complex understanding of the Air Raid offense. He trusted his playmakers, his vision and his coaches. He managed games, took games over, and generally led the Bulldogs offensively.
The next step will be simply developing more trust in his guys when they get 1-on-1 coverage and anticipating receivers coming open. His improvement has been beyond a bright spot for the Bulldogs. He will enter 2022 as perhaps the No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback in the SEC.
Biggest Surprise: Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson
Johnson averaged more than 5 yards per carry for a total of 423 yards on just 80 carries. In this scheme, that’s pretty good.
The sophomore earned himself an increased workload throughout the season and eventually led the team in rushing yards.
Fellow sophomore Marks rushed for 397 yards and 6 touchdowns. Both backs played a critical role in the passing attack as well. Marks caught 79 passes for 464 yards and 3 TDs.
Leach’s running backs know their role, but credit this duo with doing just enough in the run game to keep linebackers honest.
Play of the Year: Nate Pickering’s sack/saftey vs. Zach Calzada
MSU’s upset over Texas A&M was one of the biggest this season.
Nate Pickering’s safety played a key role, too. The Bulldogs had the Aggies backed up to their own 10 with 2:08 to play. MSU led 24-22. On 3rd-and-11, gave his man a filthy spin move, closed on QB Zach Calzada and dropped him in the end zone for safety.
The play not only made it so that the Aggies needed a touchdown to win, but it also gave the Bulldogs the ball. The offense earned a first down and the Aggies never got the ball back.
From that play on, the Bulldogs felt like a completely different team.
Win of the Year: Comeback at Auburn
The mark of a good team is poise. Win or lose, there’s never a reason to panic. After completing the largest comeback in program history in the opener against La. Tech, the Bulldogs were undaunted when Auburn jumped to a 28-3. They had been there before.
MSU rattled off 40 consecutive points, a preposterous stat. They rallied on defense and executed on offense. No one tried to be a hero and no one tried to get all the points back at once.
The La. Tech game was nearly as bad as an opening game as you could ask for — the Bulldogs escaped. But the Auburn game was proof that teams grow and good coaches manage emotions as much as they do anything else.