We are t-minus one week from bowl time which is hard to believe. The Wildcats have landed in Jacksonville and the fans will not be too far behind as we get prepared for Tuesday’s game. Yes, the game is Tuesday and all that anticipation will end. All that is left is preparation and the game.
Instead of generically reviewing what the Wildcats have to do to win — you know that obvious stuff like Northwestern cannot turn the ball over, the offense has to stay on the field and sustain drives, Venric has to run wild, the stuff we know Northwestern has to do because we have watched them all year. So what are the keys to Mississippi State victories? What makes the Bulldogs go?
Stopping these on tendencies could be just as important for Northwestern as anything the team does to get that elusive bowl win.
As I noted previously, Mississippi State did not beat a single bowl-eligible team this season. But among Mississippi State’s four losses were defeats to Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M. Those three teams have a combined five losses between them (including the three losses each team suffered to another one of those three… if that sentence makes sense). It is hard to really get a good measure of this Mississippi State team then. Except for the loss to rival Mississippi, Mississippi State did not lose any games the team should not have lost and really did not win any games the team was “supposed” to win.
A major common thread that ties a lot of Mississippi State’s losses together are passing yards.
In Mississippi State’s losses, the team gave up 283.8 passing yards. The Bulldogs gave up at least 230 yards passing in each of those games in their final five games (four losses) while they gave up more than 230 yards just once in the first seven games of the season. Jonathan Banks certainly takes away half the field and Mississippi State will put him in different positions on the field to maximize his effectiveness.
But still Mississippi State is a team that can be passed on. If there was ever a time for the wide receivers to step up and fulfill the potential everyone saw this offseason in them. Northwestern averaged only 166.8 passing yards per game and there has been plenty of frustration this year with Kain Colter and his seeming regression in the pass game — or the fact that the ability to use his legs and create plays in the option game has developed so much more with Venric Mark in the backfield with him.
If Colter can get into a rhythm breaking down Mississippi State’s secondary and methodically work his way down the field, then those passing yards and that seemingly struggling secondary could be there for Northwestern to exploit. Of course, the Wildcats are not a passing team anymore. They will still try to get the ball going through the air and the potential is there if NU is willing to stick to its game plan and pick up yards in small bites rather than go for home run plays.
A common refrain in Mississippi State’s wins was the turnover battle too.
In Mississippi State’s eight wins, the team turned the ball over only five times and forced 25 turnovers. But in the Bulldogs’ four losses they committed eight turnovers and forced only five. It does not take a football genius to see that turnovers can make or break a game.
This is where the game might really be decided as Northwestern is very good at both protecting the ball and forcing turnovers. This season, Northwestern committed only 12 turnovers and forced 25. That included 16 fumble recoveries in 28 opponent fumbles. The Wildcats can force turnovers and can take the ball away, particularly in the run game.
Mississippi State running back LaDarius Perkins does not get the ball a whole ton. However, seven of Mississippi State’s 13 turnovers were fumbles and the Bulldogs put the ball on the ground 17 times this season. The fact though that Mississippi State had only 13 turnovers for the season shows that the team protects the ball relatively well just like Northwestern does.
The final thread I would like to emphasis tying Mississippi State’s wins together is the work on the ground from Perkins and the Bulldogs’ rushing attack. Mississippi State averaged 183.3 rushing yards per game. But in its four losses Miss State rushed for only 55.5 yards per game. That included only 30 yards on 25 carries against Ole Miss.
The Bulldogs are not a rushing team to begin with, but, much like the Wildcats in the last few years, they need a run game to keep defenses honest. If the Wildcats can take away any semblance of a run game than the Bulldogs are in big trouble. The question is whether NU’s run defense is good enough to hold Mississippi State below 100 yards rushing.