Position edge: Miss. State vs. Miami (Ohio) in St. Petersburg Bowl
Mississippi State had a strange season. The Bulldogs lost to South Alabama and Kentucky but beat Texas A&M and routed Ole Miss. With five wins, they are headed to the Dec. 26 St. Petersburg Bowl against Miami (Ohio).
The RedHawks had a weird enough season, too, losing six straight before winning six straight after the return of a quarterback with a torn ACL. Here is a breakdown of how the teams match up:
WHEN MISSISSIPPI STATE HAS THE BALL
QB Nick Fitzgerald vs. Miami (Ohio) pass defense: Fitzgerald has become known for his legs, not his arm. The Bulldogs ranked seventh in the SEC in passing (215.8 yards per game). Miami was fourth in the MAC in pass defense, allowing 214.9 yards per game. The RedHawks were second in the MAC with 14 interceptions, and had six straight games with a pick. Fitzgerald had thrown a pick in six straight games until not throwing one in his last two.
Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams vs. rush defense: Miami was second in the MAC in rushing defense, allowing less than 140 yards per game. It hasn’t seen a runner as determined as Fitzgerald. The lengthy sophomore has rushed for an SEC-third-best 1,243 yards and didn’t play the season opener against South Alabama. The only quarterback in the SEC’s top 10 in rushing, Fitzgerald ran for a school record 258 yards against Ole Miss and has seven games of 100 yards or better. Williams, a sophomore running back, can be a big help to Fitzgerald. His 140 yards were a difference-maker against Texas A&M. The 247 yards Miami allowed to Ball State in the final game of the season was the most it allowed all season.
Edge: Mississippi State
Mississippi State wide receivers vs. pass defense: Bulldogs’ senior Fred Ross finished fourth in the SEC with 873 yards. The RedHawks’ ball-hawk he’ll have to watch out for is 6-foot-2 sophomore De’Andre Montgomery. Montgomery has four picks and five tackles for loss. His 61 tackles ranks him fifth on the team. State’s passing game is in the middle of the SEC. Miami ranked fourth in the MAC against the pass.
WHEN MIAMI (OHIO) HAS THE BALL
Gus Ragland vs. Mississippi State pass defense: Ragland came back from a torn ACL to lead the RedHawks to six straight wins and bowl eligibility. He has thrown 15 touchdowns, no picks and completed 62.4 percent of his passes. Mississippi State ranked dead last in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 283.1 yards per game. Mississippi State’s 13 interceptions was tied for fifth in the league.
Alonzo Smith vs. rushing defense: Smith led the RedHawks with team highs of 689 yards and three touchdowns on 159 carries. Miami as a team rushed for only 1,602 yards. Mississippi State ranked seventh in the SEC in rushing defense but against non-conference teams allowed only 134 yards per game compared to more than 200 yards against SEC opponents. Defensive end Johnathan Calvin (seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss) and linebacker Richie Brown (93 tackles) should make it tough on the RedHawks.
Edge: Mississippi State
Miami receivers vs. Mississippi State DBs: Mississippi State DBs had a tough year. They have a tough test against an efficient quarterback and a group of receivers who are tough to differentiate. James Gardner caught 40 passes for a team-high 658 yards. Jared Murphy led the team with 42 catches, with 126 fewer yards than Gardner. Rokeem Williams, apparently a deep-threat specialist, averaged 21.0 yards on 22 catches. Mississippi State allowed 265 yards or more eight times and gave up three or more touchdowns five times. Ragland has the patience to wait on plenty of options.
Vegas has Mississippi State favored by two touchdowns. The Bulldogs hope it doesn’t come down to field goals. Kicker Westin Graves struggled, making 10 of 18 attempts, three of the misses inside 30 yards. Nick Dowd made 9 of 11 for Miami, all inside 40 yards.