With about two weeks to go before the bowl game, the Wildcats have begun prepping for their New Years’ Day battle with the Bulldogs. We are planning our cowbell response to help combat the
annoyance noise the Wildcats will have to battle as they head to the South.
Northwestern’s players are done with exams and Evanston is relatively empty so they are doing team-building activities like the Dave & Buster’s trip or the Bulls game trip all while practicing before a holiday break. Pat Fitzgerald has his bowl preparation plans pretty well set up. Of course, practice will be getting serious pretty soon as the attention turns toward preparing for Mississippi State.
It is getting close to that time here too. So it is time to start acquainting ourselves just a little bit with Mississippi State and who NU is actually facing in this bowl game.
Here is hoping that this post serves as an introduction to the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Fast Start, Slow Finish
Mississippi State’s big story this year was the fast start and the hard finish when the realities of the SEC schedule hit this team. The Bulldogs started the year 7-0 and were ranked nationally. Some thought they could compete with the likes of Alabama and LSU for the SEC West. The seven straight wins did not feature a single bowl-eligible team however.
So when 7-0 Mississippi State visited Alabama it seemed like a pretty good matchup. A 38-7 thrashing from the Crimson Tide sent the Bulldogs into a tailspin. They lost four of their last five games with their only win coming against hapless Arkansas. Again, Mississippi State did not beat any bowl-bound teams this year.
In that final five-game stretch the Bulldogs gave up 477.0 yards per game, including 203.6 rushing yards per game and 273.4 passing yards per game. It seems that Mississippi State was an equal opportunity defender at the time.
The Bulldogs gained 351.0 yards per game in those closing five games and averaged 21.2 points per game. Of course, those final five games included matchups with Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in a murderer’s row of three straight difficult games for Mississippi State (only one was in Starksville).
So it is hard to make heads or tails of this team from a straight numbers perspective. The 8-4 record does not feel so much as a mirage as a team that won the games on its schedule and lost games it might have been expected to.
The only difference is, Mississippi State lost its four games by an average margin of 23.3 points per game. In fact the Bulldogs only played one game decided by one possession — a 30-24 win over Troy.
An All American at Cornerback
The best player for Mississippi State is undoubtedly All-American Jonathan Banks. He had four interceptions, returning them for 124 yards, seven break ups and 11 pass deflections. This from a guy teams knew to avoid.
Expect Dan Mullen to move Banks around and stick him on every receiver. If Kain Colter lines up in the slot any, I would suspect Banks will be the cornerback lining up opposite him. Banks is the kind of cornerback that takes away part of the field from Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian when they step back to throw. Banks also recorded 59 tackles. He will be involved on defense one way or another.
He is the one guy Northwestern has to be aware of at all times on defense. Of course, an over-emphasis on him could leave Northwestern forgetting about others on this defense.
Darius Slay actually led the Bulldogs with five interceptions and had 11 pass deflections himself and six pass breakups. Preston Smith had 4.5 sacks and Cameron Lawrence and Denico Autry each had four sacks too. Lawrence led Mississippi State with 111 tackles.
This is a defense that is SEC-athletic, if not at the talent level of the elite teams or with the discipline not to give up big plays. The Wildcats, if they run their offense, have a chance to either bust open big plays or get bogged down like they normally do. It seems beating this defense will come down to execution and taking advantage of whatever the defense gives them.
Inconsistency on Offense
Mississippi State could have a very balanced offense if not defended correctly. Those are the offenses that give everyone trouble. But the Wildcats will be somewhat more focused on continuing their solid run defense.
LaDarius Perkins was Mississippi State’s top rusher with 940 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged only 85.5 yards per game. That makes you think the Bulldogs are more of a passing team.
Tyler Russell is the primary quarterback, although Dak Prescott also played all 12 games and took snaps at quarterback. Russell threw for 2,791 yards with 22 touchdowns against six interceptions. He averaged 232.6 passing yards per game.
From these numbers you can see this is not an imposing offense Northwestern is going up against. Then again, the Wildcats do not have that imposing of a defense. Yes, NU’s defense is good against the run but there have been plenty of issues against the pass that have yet to be corrected. Time and health might fix some of those — Nick VanHoose is expected to be 100 percent and ready for the Gator Bowl — but excuse me if I am a bit worried about the consistency of this team’s pass defense.
Those lack of turnovers from the quarterback position could mean that Mississippi State will be able to move the ball through the air. That is what the Wildcats have to be careful about in this game.