I’m going to be completely honest with you. Before this week I didn’t know much about the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
(I still don’t).
MSU this season has almost appeared to me to be the perennial Jefferson Pilot type of team, and Auburn hasn’t played in those types of games thus far this season. The Tigers’ conference schedule? At LSU - primetime, Georgia - game of the week, Arkansas - national doubleheader, Ole Miss - primetime, Texas A&M - game of the week. And here we are on national TV again for Big Nude Saturday on ESPN with Corso’s mascot head transitioning right into a sure shot of the eagle flight and plenty of orange.
That’s to say, I haven’t paid attention to Mississippi State. They almost lost to Louisiana Tech opening weekend, then actually did lose to Memphis two weeks later, and it was time to write them off. Pencil in the victory in November, thank goodness. They certainly didn’t barnstorm into the season like they did last year by knocking off LSU immediately and setting all sorts of SEC records in the process. They came into the season with a definite whimper.
And then, well, things started to happen. After the close loss to Memphis, they nearly pulled off a big comeback against LSU, falling by 3 to the Bayou Bengals, and then went to College Station to take down Texas A&M. After getting hammered by Alabama, they strung together two wins against Vanderbilt and Kentucky (not your mama’s Kentucky, but 12th-ranked Kentucky). Last week they had a chance against Arkansas, but the Hogs escaped for a 31-28 win, sitting the Bulldogs at 5-4 heading into this week.
What’s been the difference between the early season and the recent weeks? At a glance, the last three games have three of the four highest rushing attempt totals for MSU this season. Dare I say they’re getting more balanced? It could be part of the story, but what’s actually driven the Bulldogs this season is their defense.
It’s not normal for a Mike Leach team to be led by defense, but here we are. In particular, it’s the running defense that’s paced MSU this year and allowed the team to generate some success in the win column. NC State ran for 34 yards on 25 carries, LSU reached just 63 yards on 27 attempts, while Vanderbilt gained just 9 total yards and Kentucky hit just 66.
It’s pretty clear that in the games MSU had the best chance, they were able to limit the damage done on the ground, if not outright stop it. Alabama and Arkansas both ripped up the MSU rushing defense and won. It’s interesting to see that much of what’s made a Mike leach team successful doesn’t have anything to do with their offense.
So what about that offense? Well, it’s always going to be predicated on the pass. As if you could expect anything else from the Pirate. They’ve thrown 490 passes this season, with Will Rogers tossing 483 of those at a 75.2% completion rate. However, it’s classic Leach with short passes galore. Makai Polk is the volume dude with 71 catches and 6 touchdowns, but I guess you could say that Rara Thomas is the “gamebreaker” that averages 14.1 yards per catch (highest on the team) with 4 touchdowns on the year. Do they run the ball? Kind of, just to keep you honest like always. Nobody’s particularly dangerous, but Dillon Johnson averages about 4.4 yards per carry.
That’s to say that this is a Mississippi State team that does what you expect on offense, and has an above average defense for Mike Leach. Which means that much of the focus will certainly be on what Auburn does to rebound over the past six quarters.
That’s a number that we’ve had to hear quite a bit this week, after the Tigers went without a touchdown in College Station and failed to score in the last two quarters against Ole Miss on Halloween weekend. We chalked up the Ole Miss effort to lack of execution, and then the same thing appeared to happen in College Station but with a little added talent discrepancy on the lines.
It’s not going to be easy for Auburn to move the ball like they want to do today, especially on the ground, so are we going to be looking for a Bo Nix day? Very possibly.
Nix showed a little of what got him benched earlier this year last weekend in the loss to Texas A&M, and the series of plays that got the game out of hand in the second half was a fumble on a trick play that may have ended up hitting for a big gainer, immediately followed by an unforced fumble that turned into a scoop and score. Ballgame.
How does he respond? Is it a game like we saw against LSU? If so, Auburn is probably in good shape with this one, especially since it comes at home, and that’s where Bo usually eats. However, what kind of a leash is he going to have if things start going off the rails?
SERIES HISTORY: Auburn leads the all-time series 62-29-3, with the Tigers winning 2 straight and 4 of the last 5.
LAST MEETING: 2020 saw Auburn take down Mississippi State in Starkville in Gus Malzahn’s final game as head coach. The Tigers won 24-10 with a fantastic defensive effort and sent Gus out with a victory before he was fired the next day after the conclusion of the season.
LAST WEEK: Auburn got shut down by Texas A&M, failing to score a touchdown for the first time since 2012 in a 20-3 loss. Mississippi State, meanwhile, fell to Arkansas 31-28.
KEYS FOR AUBURN:
- Gotta get good Bo. It’s really evident what happens when this team doesn’t have the composed Bo Nix, and it’s essentially the what we saw between the benching and last week. Bo was great when he got a little scared by the cold steel of the bench, and it spurred him to play well for a third of the season. What happened in practice this week, and how did the situation get communicated to him? Is there any buffer with poor performance? How closely is TJ Finley breathing down his neck? I still believe that Bo gives us the best shot to win, so I just hope we get his best the rest of the way.
- Apply the lessons learned against Penn State. Sean Clifford completed 28-32 passes, with much of them coming right around the line of scrimmage or just closely thereafter. It was clearly Auburn’s plan to keep things in front of them, but Penn State took absolutely whatever the Tigers gave them and enjoyed it. Mississippi State will do the same with pleasure, so Auburn has to figure out a way to score key turnovers, negative plays, and neutral plays. Will Rogers has been north of 70% completion more often than not this year, and he probably will be here as well, but the Tigers have to neutralize him with enough from an attacking defense.
- Find the execution from six quarters ago. Auburn posted 4 touchdowns against Ole Miss in the first half, and pretty much went flawlessly against the top ten Rebels two weeks ago. Where that went is a mystery, and it’s not just offensively. I’m not going to say anything against the defense at this point, with them allowing no touchdowns over that same span either, and allowing just 12 points in the loss to A&M last week. However, special teams haven’t been great either, with missing field goals and muffing punts. Get those errors in line and the Tigers shouldn’t have trouble today.