What the MSU Bulldogs need to keep, change ahead of LSU showdown
Mississippi State suffered an agitating and infuriating loss at Memphis, spoiling their 2-0 startrrr.
Looking at the box score makes it seem like the game went fairly well for Mississippi State, but that they allowed one too many big plays and lost to a good football team, 31-29.
The blow feels much worse than a 2-point loss. Perhaps because the Bulldogs led for so long. Perhaps because the SEC officiating crew made multiple enormous mistakes on a punt return that Memphis returned for a touchdown, ballooning the lead to 14.
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers completed 50-of-67 passes for 419 yards and 3 touchdowns and the defense held Memphis to just 2 offensive touchdowns and 1 field goal.
The issue, as it was in week one against La. Tech, was big plays.
Coach Mike Leach’s offense allowed a turnover to go for an opponent touchdown for the second time this year. That was not the only non-offensive touchdown of this game, though.
The Bulldogs, you may have heard, allowed a weird punt return for a touchdown late in the game. That play isn’t worth discussing beyond the fact it officials showed an egregious amount of incompetence.
Regardless of officiating controversies and heartbreak the Bulldogs and their fans need to dust themselves off because SEC play is here.
Let’s look ahead to LSU.
What needs to stay
For the second time in just 3 games, the Bulldogs fell behind late. Following the bizarre punt return for a touchdown, the Bulldogs responded with a 5-play touchdown drive that took just 2:33. After not recovering the onsides kick, the Bulldogs held the Tigers to a field goal and promptly scored another touchdown on just 2 plays.
That kind of resilience not only builds great teams, it builds great programs. The Bulldogs could quite easily be 1-2 or 0-3 if they’d given up late against La. Tech.
No one would be surprised if the Bulldogs found themselves down big late in the fourth quarter in at least half of their remaining schedule. In fact, no one would hold it against them if they were down late in those games. But this team’s resolve must remain constant. That said, a good idea might be not falling behind late in the game.
Good decisions by Will Rogers
Since the first game, Rogers has made sound decisions with the football. He’s often opting for underneath routes and checkdowns instead of forcing throws deep into coverage.
There’s no doubt that Rogers might want to take more deep shots against tougher opponents, just to show that he’s willing to. But a 5-yard completion is better than a 47-yard throw that is picked. Rogers leads the NCAA in attempts, sits at 5th in yards and 4th in completion percentages. He’s thrown just 1 interception. There will be plenty of time to learn the time and place to be aggressive, but Rogers is dialed in.
What needs to change
The Bulldogs allowed 2 touchdowns in the first 3 games of 2021. If Will Rogers and running back Jo’Quavious Marks don’t fumble the handoff exchange on the 7th play of the game against Memphis, it’s possible MSU is 3-0.
In Week 1, you may recall, Rogers threw what felt like a back-breaking pick-6 late in the game. Putting the botched punt return aside, those big turnover touchdowns cannot happen in SEC play, especially for a team in the early stages of a big rebuild.
The Bulldogs allowed no such play in their convincing Week 2 win against NC State.
The running game
I understand quite well that the philosophy of the Air Raid offense doesn’t involve a heavy running game. But it does involve some running game. The Bulldogs are led in rushing by Marks and Dillon Johnson, who have both amassed about 80 yards, though Johnson got there in 7 fewer carries.
Including Rogers, the Bulldogs are averaging 2.7 yards per carry (sacks hurt that average, obviously). Multiple times in the recent loss to Memphis I thought that Rogers had a shot at a few scramble yards to set up a better-looking 2nd down. Most often, he elected to stand in for as long as he could. If that number jumps to even 3.5 yards per carry, I think we’ll see a new level of this offense.
LSU’s season started with a massive dud. The Tigers fell to UCLA.
Since then, LSU dominated McNeese State and Central Michigan, winning both by about 4 touchdowns while UCLA just lost to Fresno State.
But, in that UCLA game, the Tigers rushed for only 49 yards while allowing the Bruins to rush for 210 yards. Other than the massive rush yards disparity, the game was even.
LSU returns perhaps the best defensive back in the country and certainly the best cornerback in the country in Derek Stingley Jr., who will be looking to bait Rogers into forcing the ball down the field. Especially after what happened last year, when the Air Raid embarrassed DBU to the tune of 623 passing yards and 5 TDs. Different QB, but still …
In the SEC opener, look for Mike Leach and company to start playing a bit of chess against head coach Ed Orgeron in the passing game.