Both David Bailiff and Dan Mullen have stressed the need for their respective Rice and Mississippi State teams to understand the difference in the fun parts of a bowl game and the times to be serious.
Hearing from coaches and players over the week, the strategy and scouting can be interesting as it is two teams from two very different conferences with very different opponents and very few (if any) chances to see each other over the course of the year.
After nearly a month of preparation, however, all those differences and unfamiliarity have led both coaches to the same conclusion: it’s all about the run.
The day before the game, Mullen told assembled media that, basically, whoever could stop the run would win the game. Whoever couldn’t, would likely lose.
For his Bulldogs, that running attack begins with sophomore and dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott.
Bailiff knows it well.
“If you can’t control Dak, you’re gonna struggle in this game,” he said.
In fact, back on Thanksgiving before either Rice or MSU knew they’d be in the Liberty Bowl, Bailiff happened to be watching the Egg Bowl and it was Prescott who stood out to him, naturally.
“I just saw how the fans and the team responded when Dak went in there,” Bailff said about Prescott’s fourth-quarter return. “He’s obviously an inspirational leader.”
How Prescott does will likely go a long way in determining how successful MSU can be, as the Owls will make a point to try to keep the Bulldog rush attack from having its usual success.
What will allow the Owls to attempt that, Mullen said, is the strong Rice secondary.
“They’re corners are as good as any we’ve seen all year,” Mullen told the room, ”which allows them to do a lot of things.”
One thing Mullen has noticed about the Owl defense, though, is a tendency to play smart and sound, rather than take chances with heavy blitzes or exotic play-calling. Whether that helps or hurts remains to be seen, but it certainly helps to have a general idea of what’s coming.
On the other side of the ball, both MSU and Rice seem respectful of what they’ll be going against.
State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins ran through a list of what impressed him about the Owl offense and hit nearly every position along the way. The keys, he said, are the amount of experienced vets and the size of the offensive line for Rice, two of the more important factors he sees in scouting an opponent.
Collins also sees a quarterback who he believes has good mobility and rarely makes bad decisions, four or five running backs, including one who often lines up in the Wildcat, and an offense that genuinely has a lot of options.
“They’ve got big, physical receivers,” Collins said. “They’re very interchangeable with what they do, move guys around, give you different formations … It’s gonna be a challenge for us.”
Naturally, he said, he’ll be concerned with making sure his players are in the right position to handle a very multiple offensive attack.
Specifically, it’s an offense that has been particularly successful on the ground, one of the top rushing offenses this year.
Again, it comes back to the run.
As for Bailiff, his praise for MSU’s defense may have outdone what Collins saw in him. Asked what stands out about the Bulldogs, on either side, he didn’t hesitate to give his response.
“Their size,” he quickly answered. “They’re a big, long, strong, good-lookin’ SEC team.”
He hopes to not be over-matched, but he regularly on film how MSU’s length on defense at every level disrupted what offenses tried against them.
At 3 p.m., a month of preparation for these two teams will come to a head in Memphis in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.