MAC Football -- Week Seven
Game Time: 7:30 p.m. ET -- Location: Starkville, MS
Television: Fox Sports Net affiliates (check local listings) and ESPN3
The bowling Green Falcons conclude the first leg of their season tomorrow when they travel to the warm confines of Starkville, Miss. to face head coach Dan Mullen and the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Although this will be the first time these two schools have ever met on the gridiron, the Bulldogs have some pretty close connections to Bowling Green. Mullen was an assistant coach at BGSU during the Urban Meyer years and was a candidate to join current Falcon coach Dave Clawson when Clawson formed his first staff at Fordham University in 1998. Two other MSU assistants, Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy, were at one time assistants at BGSU. Also, Mississippi State director of football operations Jon Clark is graduated from Bowling Green in 2002.
Of course, while there will certainly be a lot of reminiscing going on this weekend, there is a football game to be played. For Mississippi State, the contest presents a chance to get the team's won-loss record to an even 3-3, and this game could be important to the team's long-term efforts at bowl eligibility. Bowling Green can actually gain bowl eligibility with a win tomorrow, but more importantly in the immediate sense, this is the Falcons' final tune-up before facing Toledo in two weeks. For BGSU, the final five games of the season will be more difficult than the first seven, so ending this stretch of the schedule on the right foot will also serve to start the second half of the season in a positive way.
By now, all of you are (or should be) familiar enough with BGSU, so we'll primarily take a look at Mississippi State players and what to look for from the Bulldog team in tomorrow's game. But first, here's a brief injury update for BGSU, compiled by Toledo Blade beat writer John Wagner: wide receiver Ryan Burbrink and defensive linemen Ted Ouellet and Charlie Walker are all described as "probable" and should play tomorrow. Both Ouellet and Walker practiced this week, and having them back will be important for BGSU. Linebacker Paul Senn wore a "do not hit" jersey earlier this week in practice but is "probable" and should also play. The only major area of concern remaining is safety Josh Pettus. Pettus has missed three games in a row with a knee injury and is questionable for tomorrow's game.
On to our look at Mississippi State:
WHEN THE BULLDOGS HAVE THE BALL...
Mississippi State runs an up-tempo offense that is similar in some ways to what Bowling Green saw at Indiana a few weeks ago -- especially in their use of two very different quarterbacks. Tyler Russell is the team's primary throwing weapon, but he has been injured for much of the early portion of the 2013 season. Russell, to date, is 17-for-27 with 279 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Last year, he started all 13 of the team's games and threw for 2,897 yards and had a 24:10 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. His counterpart, sophomore Dak Prescott, is a dual-threat quarterback that is especially dangerous as a runner. In three games, Prescott leads MSU with 49 carries, 318 yards (for a 6.5 ypc average) and six touchdowns. He had 133 yards and two scores against Auburn and then 103 yards and one touchdown last week versus LSU. As a passer, he's still a bit unpolished but can get things done. He has completed 53.3 percent (56) of his 105 attempts and has thrown for 815 yards. He has three touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
Mississippi State beat writer Michael Bonner says that the duo is one similar to another from earlier in Mullen's career, when he was an assistant at Florida. Those guys were Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, and that is a pretty lofty standard to live up to. The frustrating thing for Bowling Green is that there is no discernible pattern to plan for, especially because Russell hasn't played much; according to Bonner, Mullen will see how the pair does in practice during the week before determining how to split snaps during the game.
The other big offensive weapon presented by Mississippi State is receiver (and general all-purpose pain-in-the-rear) Jameon Lewis. Lewis leads the team with 19 catches, 359 yards and three touchdown receptions. No other player on the team has more than 162 receiving yards. Lewis is also dangerous on the ground, and he has 74 rushing yards and two touchdowns in just five carries this season. He also has a 36-yard touchdown pass to his credit. We should also note that Lewis is the team's primary kick returner. He averages 29 yards per kickoff return, and a 66-yard jaunt is among his seven returns this season.
When running the ball, the Bulldogs take a committee-type approach outside of Prescott. Three players have between 25 and 40 carries for the season and average between 30 and 50 yards per game. That trio is led by LaDarius Perkins, who 206 yards on 39 carries. The team's runners know how to find the end zone, though; the Bulldogs have 14 rushing touchdowns, and including Prescott, six different players account for those scores.
As a team, MSU averages 32.4 points and 464.6 yards per game. The latter total includes 208 yards per game on the ground. The Bulldogs have a plus-4 turnover margin, a 34:00-26:00 average time-of-possession edge and are 20-for-23 in the red zone this season.
WHEN THE BULLDOGS ARE ON DEFENSE...
The Mississippi State defense has been up-and-down this year, depending on their opponent. They've taken care of business against lesser opponents but have been really exposed against the SEC, especially when they allowed 59 points last week to LSU. Overall, they allow a middle-of-the-road 360.6 yards and 23.6 points per game. Against the run, they're allowing 140.8 yards per game and 4.2 yards per play. Versus the pass, they only permit 219.8 yards per game and 11.3 per reception.
MSU plays a 4-3 defense and does a good job at focusing on their opponents' best attributes. Against Bowling Green, this likely means that they will attempt to take away the run and force Matt Johnson to beat them with the pass. To accomplish this, they will use a polished front seven that includes a name that BGSU fans ought to be very familiar with.
That name? Chris Jones! No, not THAT Chris Jones. Jones is a freshman defensive lineman who Bonner describes as possibly the most talented MSU player on defense. Against LSU last week, he had four tackles that included two tackles-for-loss and a sack. Fellow defensive lineman Preston Smith has 15 tackles in 2013, including four for loss and two sacks. Behind them are a very stout group of linebackers. Benardrick McKinney leads all players with 28 tackles and also has a fumble recovery this season. Deontae Skinner is right behind McKinney with 26 tackles and also has a sack and an interception to his name. In the secondary, Nickoe Whitley leads the team with three interceptions, and he is joined by tough cornerbacks Jamerson Love (one interception) and Taveze Calhoun.
WHAT ABOUT SPECIAL TEAMS...
We already mentioned Jameon Lewis' prowess at returning kickoffs, but the Bulldogs as a whole are very poor on punt return coverage. Lewis has six of those returns in 2013 for a net of just one yard. Brandon Holloway can also return kicks and has a 95-yard return in his only attempt in the team's first five games. Punter Baker Swedenburg has an average of 44.9 yards for his 15 punts this season. Five of those punts have gone 50 yards or longer. Kicker Devon Bell is adequate on kickoffs. He has a 63.5 yards-per-kick average, and 14 of his 29 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. However, Bell has been a problem on field goals. He has made only five of nine field goal attempts and is only 2-for-6 from distances of 30 yards or more.
As much as I would love to say that Bowling Green is going to come out and win this game, it's difficult to see. Mississippi State is going to give the Falcons trouble on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Bulldogs don't appear to be as powerful as Indiana, but they do have some athletes. Prescott and Lewis, in particular, are going to be very difficult to stop. On defense, MSU has the athletes in the front seven to shut down Travis Greene and other BGSU runners. The offense will have to be on Johnson's shoulders, which means that he will have to be much more accurate and efficient than he was at Indiana.
Yes, the Bulldogs are 2-3, but look at their results. They've lost to two teams (Oklahoma State and LSU) who will be at the top of the Big 12 and SEC (respectively) at the end of the season, and they lose to another (Auburn) on the road. In their two games against non-BCS teams (Alcorn State and Troy), they throttled those two schools by a combined 113-14. In their 62-7 win against Troy, MSU outgained the Trojans 551-186 and scored 35 points in the second quarter. In that game, Troy rushed 26 times for just 47 yards.
This isn't to say that BGSU can't compete and doesn't have a chance to win. I think they can, at the very least, keep this close. But to do that -- to have any chance to win -- they're going to have to play a very clean, efficient, smart game, and they're going to have to do that for all 60 minutes. We haven't seen that yet this season from BGSU, so now is as good a time as any to start.