Let’s be honest: next Saturday is the game (Auburn) Mississippi State fans have been talking about since some time in April. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything yesterday as the Bulldogs downed Jackson State in a relatively convincing fashion.
As we wrap up the first game, I’ve got few thoughts and observations, some notes and post-game interviews with several of the players.
Before we dive in, one wide-reaching observation should be noted. It was tough to discern a ton or take away too much from the complete game performance, as the coaches substituted and rotated their players liberally.
Not only was the substitution frequent, it was done wholesale. Rather than switch player-for-player, MSU tended to send in entire units, changing out the full defensive line or group of receivers, or whatever position it was at the time.
For instance, the touchdown drive by JSU late in the first half was against primarily freshmen and sophomore backups on the defensive line and in the secondary.
Those substitutions patterns, combined with a relatively vanilla game plan, mean we ought to take most observations with a grain or three of salt.
That said, some thoughts:
- The offensive line was easily the biggest concern entering the season, and it probably remains so today. However, the unit got better with each drive against a better-than-you’d-think JSU defensive front. Most notably, senior right guard Tobias Smith started the game, but only played the first series. Presumably, the coaches wanted to ease him back as he is recovering from injury and not give him too much in the first game. Justin Malone worked with the first-team line in his stead.
- MSU’s running back depth looked every bit as good we’ve thought it would. LaDarius Perkins managed 58 yards on only nine carries, often finding holes that weren’t there, scoring two touchdowns in the process. Redshirt freshman Derrick Milton – who was often praised in fall camp – was the second back in and he had a superb debut, racking up 65 yards and one touchdown on eight rushes, an average of 8.1 yards per carry.
- Tyler Russell (15-of-24 passing for 185 yards and two touchdowns) basically only played the first half, getting one drive to start the third quarter before giving way to redshirt freshman Dak Prescott. Russell’s passes appeared sharp, accurate, and perhaps most importantly, well-placed. He was rusty early, and Mullen said on his Sunday teleconference that Russell has work to do before Auburn, but he threw passes only his receivers could catch, including both of his touchdown passes, which were darts to Chad Bumphis and Marcus Green.
- Speaking of Bumphis…that touchdown was his only catch of the night, the first score of the game. MSU did a good job spreading the ball around with eight different guys (two of them tight ends) recording at least one catch and none of them getting more than three receptions. Senior Arceto Clark was his usual reliable self, leading the way with three catches and 35 yards.
- The offense in general seemed a little, I don’t know, something. Not off, but never really in a rhythm. Part of that has to do with MSU scoring two defensive touchdowns, of course, as well as working on a short field often and only having your starting quarterback in for two quarters. Not to mention the frequent rotation of running backs, receivers and even linemen. I’d have to imagine that over the course of a full game, with your best players in at all times and the benefit of having shaken any rust off, MSU’s offense will have a bit more flow against Auburn, even if the competition is stiffer.
- It was interesting to see MSU go under center a little bit after being almost exclusively shotgun the last three seasons. I’m curious if we’ll see more of that going forward.
- On the defensive, the line was studly. From starters to third string, defensive coordinator Chris Wilson has a strong group. It was interesting that tackle Curtis Virges, listed as the starter, never played in the game, but I liked the starting four MSU used. The Bulldogs moved defensive end Kaleb Eulls inside to tackle, the position he played when he got to campus, and had senior Shane McCardell as the other starting end with Denico Autry, who was wasted no time getting a sack in the first quarter.
- True freshmen tackles Quay Evans and Nick James are both huge and good at the football. That is all.
- The secondary, what we expected to be MSU’s strength, played zone most of the night and saw JSU receivers running free and open over the middle of the field a little too often. On the surface, it may seem worrisome, but it was likely just part of the vanilla game plan and will change for Auburn.
- Linebacker Matt Wells was everywhere. Throughout the night I saw him line up covering receivers on the outside, with his hand in the dirt next to the defensive linemen, and of course, at linebacker. He was constantly around the ball and his play of the night came on his interception returned for a touchdown in the third quarter.
- One final thing I found interesting was seeing which true freshmen played. Evans and James played, of course, as well as kicker Devon Bell. Defensive end Ryan Brown was a bit of surprise, but he did well. Cornerback Cedric Jiles had a very impressive debut, breaking up two passes in the corner of the endzone and forcing JSU to kick a field goal. Linebackers Richie Brown and Beniquez Brown and receiver Brandon Holloway were the most significant and/or surprising freshmen to not play, though one game doesn’t necessarily mean they have no chance of earning time this season.