- Time and date: Saturday, September 24 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: SEC Network
- Location: Davis Wade Stadium — Starkville, MS
- Spread: Mississippi State (-30.5)
- ESPN FPI: Mississippi State has 98.1% chance to win
- All-time series: Mississippi State leads, 1-0
- Last meeting: Mississippi State 21, Bowling Green 20 — October 12, 2013
- Current streak: Mississippi State, 1 (2013)
Setting the scene
Bowling Green needed to make a statement. After falling in seven overtimes to an FCS school in their home opener, the Falcons responded in remarkable fashion. The odds were stacked against Bowling Green when a Marshall team fresh off a victory over Notre Dame came into town, but Scot Loeffler’s team overcame a 21-7 deficit to outlast the Thundering Herd in overtime, 34-31.
Now they look to their next test in Starkville, MS. The cowbells will resonate throughout the stadium as Bowling Green faces Mike Leach and his signature air raid offense. Bowling Green allows the second most passing yards per game in the FBS, so the Falcons hope to reverse that trend as their defensive backs will be challenged early and often in SEC country.
Bowling Green Falcons outlook
Most prognosticators could have assumed Bowling Green would start the season 1-2, but guessing which team would be the Falcons’ first victim of 2022 was the tricky part.
Seven days after Marshall paraded around Notre Dame Stadium following a 26-21 victory over the Fighting Irish, and six days after the Thundering Herd generated 85 AP Poll votes to rank one spot outside the Top 25, Bowling Green put an end to Marshall mania. The Falcons overcame a 14-point deficit by scoring three touchdowns in roughly an 8-minute span on their home turf. Led by defensive coordinator Eric Lewis, the defense snatched three turnovers while the offense committed zero, serving as the springboard to the Falcons’ 34-31 overtime victory.
Now that Bowling Green ejected the bad taste of a 7-overtime loss to an FCS squad from its mouth, this team knows it can go toe-to-toe with high-caliber competition. That is exactly what the Falcons will face when they leave their home confines to travel to Starkville this Saturday.
After a brutal offensive performance to open the season, Bowling Green has sustained longer drives and drawn up more explosive plays in recent weeks. The passing attack is the offense’s definite forté and senior quarterback Matt McDonald is in the midst of his best stretch to date. McDonald fired a collective nine touchdown passes on consecutive 280+ yard showings in Weeks 2 and 3, and overall, and he is one of two FBS quarterbacks (along with Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud) to have at least 10 touchdown strikes without an interception in 2022.
One reason for McDonald’s significant progress involves stronger protection from the offensive line. After absorbing 3.3 sacks per game in 2021, the quarterback has only been wrestled down in the backfield four times in three contests this fall.
While the Falcons await the return of their 2021 No. 1 option Austin Osborne, they’ve done a solid job distributing the wealth to the available targets. Their four leading receivers each have between 10 and 14 receptions, ranging from 104 to 143 yards. FCS transfer Odieu Hiliare has been the breakout player at the position, currently serving as the team-lead in receiving yards and total offensive touchdowns.
The run game hasn’t been as reliable, and McDonald has more rushing yards than any player on the roster with 77 thus far. Jaison Patterson and Ta’ron Keith are splitting the bulk of carries, and the two hope to bolster Bowling Green’s 119th ranked rushing attack against a Bulldog defense permitting 4.6 yards per carry.
A relentless defense laden with All-MAC veterans was expected to be Bowling Green’s specialty in 2022, and although the unit struggled in its first two contests, tremendous progress was exhibited in the Week 3 win over Marshall. Yes, the Falcons allowed 547 yards and still rank third-to-last in the category nationally. But the unit forced three turnovers, played disciplined football, and limited Marshall to one end zone appearance in the second half — assisting the offense in the comeback.
Transfers Chris Bacon and DJ Taylor have been such vital additions to the unit this year. The former Georgia State safety and Wake Forest linebacker rank one and two on the team in tackles, respectively, and they’ve seamlessly adapted as some of the Falcons’ top defenders thus far.
Perhaps the most impressive storyline unfolding this season is the sudden emergence of the pass rush. Bowling Green didn’t concoct the most backfield pressure in 2021, but the unit is off to a hot start with 4.0 sacks per game to rank seventh in the FBS. Defensive end Karl Brooks has caused plenty of havoc up front with two sacks and a handful of pressures on the season, providing more opportunities at takeaways. When it comes to forcing turnovers, free safety Jordan Anderson is a must-watch talent. Anderson snagged three interceptions and forced two fumbles last year, and he is already on a mission to replicate those numbers in 2022 with an early-season interception.
Mississippi State Bulldogs outlook
Mississippi State’s brief run with an unblemished record came to a close in Death Valley last Saturday night. Despite entering the fourth quarter with a 16-10 lead on LSU, the Tigers clawed back with three consecutive late touchdowns to claim a 31-16 victory, while the Bulldogs responded to the scoring barrage with punts and turnovers.
One of the most glaring issues in Mississippi State’s first loss of 2022 was the inability to convert short-yardage situations. After overcoming a 4th and 1 on their initial scoring drive of the contest, the Bulldogs fared 0-of-3 on 4th and 1s the rest of the way. Mike Leach’s aversion to punting when compared to other college football coaches is no secret, and Mississippi State will likely maintain this aggressive stance despite the lack of fourth down execution displayed Saturday.
Another signature of a Leach offense is the voluminous number of dropbacks a defense can expect to face. Bowling Green is reliant on the air with 41 passing attempts per game (which includes eight overtime periods in a 3-game sample size), but that still pales in comparison to Mississippi State’s affinity to air out. Quarterback Will Rogers leads an air raid offense which attempts 47 passes per contest, and he is displaying remarkable efficiency in his third year starting under Leach. LSU’s defense brought his numbers down across the board last week, but Rogers is still connecting on 72 percent of his passes.
Rogers exploded for 450 yards and five touchdowns in a revenge game opener versus Memphis, and his Week 4 numbers could mirror that performance if Bowling Green’s second-worst pass defense in the FBS doesn’t show remarkable improvement. The Falcons allow north of 345 passing yards per game, suggesting Rogers’ top receivers Rara Thomas and Caleb Ducking could be in for career outings in Starkville.
Mississippi State heavily involves its running backs in the passing game as evidenced by Dillon Johnson’s team-high 17 receptions this year. Johnson and his counterpart Jo’quavious Marks have done exceptionally well serving vital roles in both facets of the offense, as they did last year. As rushers out of shotgun formations, the duo has accounted for nearly all of the Bulldogs’ rushing production this year, and Marks is responsible for a team-high four offensive touchdowns. With those two manning the backfield, Mississippi State fields two viable ball carriers, but that’s about it when it comes to their rushing options since quarterback scrambles are not a focal point in Leach’s system.
LSU exploited one matchup in the trenches last week by recording four sacks and nine tackles for loss on the Bulldogs. But on the flip-side, Mississippi State still brought the heat with three sacks of its own. In order to sustain its successful start to 2022 in terms of pass protection, Bowling Green must counter defensive end Randy Charlton and defensive tackle Nathan Pickering — two explosive linemen known to cause damage at and behind the line of scrimmage.
For a team as willing to pass as often as Bowling Green, the biggest emphasis in Starkville should be the whereabouts of cornerback Emmanuel Forbes. The junior leads all active FBS players in career pick-sixes and becomes a lethal threat in the event the ball lands in his gloves. That occurrence is quite common as Forbes already boasts nine career interceptions, including one in Week 2 at Arizona.
The former Freshman All-American assisted in holding LSU’s passing output to 210 on 37 attempts, but the Bulldogs didn't experience the same success in answering the run game. Although the Falcons may not pose the greatest threat in this category, Mississippi State must show considerable progress containing the ground before SEC plays ramps up after allowing LSU to run free in the second half last Saturday.
Bowling Green stunned Minnesota last year in Week 4. Can they Week 4 magic replicate itself in 2022?
After watching Will Rogers drop 450 passing yards and five touchdowns on Memphis’ defense in Week 1, and combining that with the numbers Bowling Green’s secondary has yielded thus far, this matchup doesn’t look nearly as favorable. Minnesota prefers to keep things grounded and is quite the antithesis of Mississippi State. Expect at least 80, possibly 85, passing attempts between the two teams in a game that shouldn’t feature many handoffs.
With Matt McDonald’s noticeable progress leading the Falcon offense to new heights, Bowling Green should enjoy a more favorable day offensively than it did at UCLA. But unless a considerable turnover margin becomes the defining factor like it did in the Marshall game, Mike Leach’s offense should have no problem exceeding 40 if the current trends stand.
Prediction: Mississippi State 44, Bowling Green 19