Mississippi State is 5-0, the Bulldogs are tied for first in the SEC West and Dan Mullen’s team moved up to 18th and 19th in the USA Today and AP Top 25 polls, respectively.
After taking down Kentucky in Lexington by a score of 27-14, MSU is riding high into the second and significantly-tougher portion of the season.
If you missed any of the action (or just want to re-live it), check out the story of the game on HailState.com, complete with full stats, notes and quotes from the win and even a highlight video of all the fun.
But, despite all those positive feelings, something is still a little weird, isn’t it?
It’s strange for MSU to get a two-touchdown road SEC victory and we don’t really know what to think about it.
They say you don’t really, truly know someone until you marry them. Whoever “they” are, the opinion is you don’t figure out what a person is genuinely like, at their worst and best, until you live with them.
That’s where we stand with Mississippi State right now. You could say this team is engaged, if you like, but we’re not married yet. The wedding, though, should be happening on Saturday when Tennessee comes to town.
We just don’t know this team yet. They’ve looked really good at times. They’ve looked pedestrian at others. Sometimes it changes from game-to-game, and even still, it changes from quarter-to-quarter or drive-to-drive.
The first half of the season, against three non-conference foes and two struggling SEC teams, was, relatively speaking, easier. Now, the hard part comes. UT, Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Ole Miss. They litter the road ahead.
The sloppy things we saw in the early days, will they be cleaned up when the marriage starts? Were the Dawgs not cleaning the house because they lived alone, or are they really that messy, even when things get serious?
MSU has started off hot in nearly every game, before, as Mullen put it, taking their foot off the gas. Will the lethargy carry over when State “moves in” to SEC play?
To be honest, we don’t know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. We still haven’t seen MSU play a complete game. Offense, defense, special teams. Even individual players. MSU hasn’t gotten a full, 100 percent game from everyone at the same time.
At this point in the season (or relationship, if we continue this comparison), we’ve seen plenty we like, mixed in with occasional disappointment. We’re banking on potential, knowing all the pieces are there.
We won’t truly know until the marriage starts.
It’s starting soon. I imagine we won’t have to wait much longer before we really know where this team stands and what it can do. Hopefully, things will become clear in the near future.
Now, some of my thoughts and observations from MSU’s 27-14 win over Kentucky.
- Offensively, the triumvirate of Tyler Russell, LaDarius Perkins and Chad Bumphis continues to shoulder the load. My question: can MSU find a third explosive piece on offense? The best defenses can find a way to hold two players in check. Yes, State has some reliable and talented play-makers. But there is a difference between a play-maker and a game-breaker. It’s the difference between a first down and a touchdown. Could Malcolm Johnson be that guy when the tight end returns? Given time, I think he can be.
Speaking of Bumphis, he’s now first all-time in receiving touchdowns at MSU, passing Eric Moulds and Justin Jenkins yesterday. He’s proving his big games weren’t a fluke and that he can do it against SEC competition, catching nine passes for 104 yards and one touchdown against the Cats. His season to this point has been fantastic, and you have to wonder where MSU would be without him after his performances against UK and Troy.
- Perkins, again, is steady, reliable and seemingly unstoppable. 25 carries, 110 yards and one touchdown. He truly is an every-down back. His touchdown scamper was, for lack of a better word, just awesome. He turned on the jets and out-ran everybody.
- For what felt like the first time, Perkins really got going on the edge in Lexington. He hadn’t caught a ton of passes or done much damage previously, but he turned three catches into 53 yards Saturday. He and Russell executed the wheel route to perfection on his 23 yard reception. With those two, it’s easily my favorite play MSU runs. As fast as Perkins is, you almost have to double-team him out of the backfield if you want to be able to stop it, and that’s just not going to happen.
- Then Russell, after an “off” day against South Alabama, came out as sharp and accurate as we’d seen him previously. He takes a lot of hits (probably too many), but man, he can zip some passes in there. His touchdown to Bumphis was a beauty, splitting two defenders, who looked like a pair of sliding doors, rushing together as Russell threw a dart in the gap just before the window closed, resulting in six points for the Bulldogs.
- Two receivers of note: sophomore Robert Johnson and senior Chris Smith. Johnson has performed well when called upon (and has received praise from coaches), he just isn’t used very often. At the risk of being vague, Johnson just looks good; he passes the eye test. Smith, on the other hand, turned the ball over for the second time this season, now responsible for two of MSU’s three turnovers this year. He has great hands when it comes to catching passes, but he’s struggling to hold onto them. Is it a fluke or a trend? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Johnson possibly eat into some of Smith’s reps, though they’re not exactly the same receiver.
- And the offensive line. Perkins has been finding holes as he runs behind them, but the pass protection was not always great Saturday and it wasn’t the first time. Russell does hold on to the ball longer than some might prefer, but he’s on the run a lot, too. From left to right, the starting offensive line Saturday went sophomore-junior-sophomore-freshman-junior, with the final junior being a junior college transfer. I’d only expect the group to get better with time, and the more senior Tobias Smith can play the better, but the improvement needs to happen fast. Of course, while he’s getting hit, a sack of Russell is rare, so that’s good.
I also like seeing freshman quarterback Dak Prescott get in there in short-yardage situations, but after doing the same thing three times, UK knew what was coming when he stepped on the field. Prescott is a weapon, but you can’t use him the same way every time and expect it to keep working. I’d love to see a return of the option game when Prescott comes in.
- Defensively, there’s not a ton to say, good or bad, as it was solid and relatively uneventful performance (which is good). The defensive line, however, had one of its best games of the season. The Wildcats only managed 84 yards on the ground, and the pressure on UK quarterbacks was constant. The return of previously-suspended tackle P.J. Jones was important. Given time to get back into playing shape, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him assume the starting role next to Josh Boyd. He brings the pass-rushing presence up the middle MSU has lacked.
- It’s happened all season, and again, sophomore cornerback Jamerson Love played extensively. Mullen has called him probably the fastest guy on the team, and he’s earned time in practice. He seems like a sure-fire starter next year. Granted, Kentucky’s only passing touchdown came when Love slipped. He was a bit out of position anyway, but the pass was a high lob, hanging in the air for a while. Had Love not fell, he would have at least made it a contested pass, and he very likely could’ve broken it up. If you take away that 32-yard “accident,” Kentucky only had 112 yards passing. Even if you leave it, 144 is not a lot.
How’ bout redshirt freshman middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney? He had 12 tackles, including one for loss, and has racked up at least eight tackles in each of his last three games. “Little K.J.” is making a big impact.
- Senior corner Darius Slay, while he didn’t pick off any passes, was all over the field making tackles, both on defense and on special teams. As the year goes on, he sure seems like he’s making himself some money in the NFL.
- Speaking of special teams… this unit has really put it together lately, huh? The group struggled early on, but freshman kicker Devon Bell has now hit six-straight field goals, the punt team is, by both numbers and opinion, one of the best in the country, and the big hits just keep coming. Did you see the tackle sophomore linebacker Christian Holmes made on the kickoff? Go look at the highlight video. Call it laying the wood, bringing the hammer or delivering the pain, that hit was both clean and sick.
Once again, we find ourselves wondering. How good is MSU? Are they vulnerable? I tend to lean toward good. If the Bulldogs ever hit on all cylinders, they have a chance against any team in the country. We’ll know more on Saturday when Tyler Bray and Tennessee come to Starkville. Nationally-televised, late at night and a matchup of strength-on-strength should make that a fun game, no matter the outcome.