Last November, Mississippi State rolled into College Station with four losses and just as many wins. The season, to that point, had not gone particularly well, and it looked from the outside that things only got worse that day when MSU lost to Texas A&M, their fifth defeat of the season.
Inside the locker room, however, that loss was the most encouraging thing that had happened to the Bulldogs all year.
“I really think that game right there is when this team came together and we started rolling from there,” junior quarterback Dak Prescott recalled.
“We just ran out of time,” said Dan Mullen, whose team had mounted a late comeback effort.
MSU lost to No. 1 Alabama the following week, but with new confidence, they followed that up by reeling off seven-straight wins, bringing them all the way to a 4-0 start in 2014 and a re-match with the Aggies after coming up just short a year before.
“We found our identity that game,” senior Jay Hughes remembers.
Much of that identity is wrapped around playing as hard as they can as long as they can, not just the first few quarters. It’s got to be all four. Evidence suggests Hughes is right, as MSU won back-to-back overtime games against Arkansas and Ole Miss to close the 2013 regular season and managed to stave off a late LSU comeback two weeks ago in Baton Rouge.
Against A&M this Saturday, one of the best offenses in the country, MSU will need that mentality. Their freshman quarterback Kenny Hill, with a total of 1,745, has almost 400 more passing yards than the next closest quarterback in the conference. As a team, the Aggies are averaging 594 yards and 51 points per game, both tops in the SEC. They’re throwing over 400 yards per game, while 11 other conference teams aren’t even cracking 300.
On the other side? Defensive lineman Myles Garrett has more sacks (5.5) than anyone else in the heavyweight SEC West and the entire team has racked up 17, good for second in the conference, just ahead of MSU’s 14 sacks.
“They have weapons everywhere,” Mullen summarized nicely on Monday.
He also shared the obvious-to-say but hard-to-do truth that all that matters is scoring one more point than they do. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is hoping to keep that number somewhat low, but he’s not denying the fact A&M will be able to score and probably do so a fair bit.
Much of what makes the Aggies so tough to defend is their amount of big-time playmakers. That’s certainly a strong point for them. But their style is just as difficult as anything. Mullen and Collins said they see an offense that will throw short passes and bubble screens, run the ball a bunch and try to draw defenders in toward the line of the scrimmage. Then, once you’ve been reeled in, they gash you deep down the field.
“They do a great job,” Collins said. “They sit there and they want you to get frustrated and then all of the sudden, there goes one launched over your head. The guys understand, the times we’re gonna take chances, we’re gonna take chances. The times we’re playing top-down, we’ve gotta be top-down because they have dynamic playmakers out there. They can stretch the field and get on top of you if you let them.”
The other key, Collins says, is tackling. An obvious thing, of course, but very important for a team whose receivers have more yards after contact than any in the conference.
Collins said his defense only allowed a total of 60 yards after contact against LSU, an extremely impressive number.
“If we can do that again,” he said, “I’ll be thrilled.”
MSU sophomore linebacker Beniquez Brown, the man in charge of deciphering the tendencies of opposing offenses, said much of A&M’s offensive success runs through Hill. If he can’t get the deep ball, Brown said, he’ll try to work the linebackers, so the pressure will be on for MSU’s deep group in the middle.
Collins praised A&M for how well they disguise run and pass tendencies, but Brown said extra study time during the off week has given him a few ideas.
“I’m really watching film this week trying to find those small things that they do give away,” Brown said. “Finding those little things they think they don’t give up, but they really do.”
On the other side of the ball, pressure will be on Prescott and the offense to keep up with the Aggies, though MSU’s quarterback himself is confident in that endeavor. He should be, as he and junior running back Josh Robinson have combined for almost 2,000 total yards and more touchdowns than many teams in the country have total.
“We think we can score a lot of points, no matter what their offense is doing on the other side,” Prescott said.
“They’re big inside. They’re talented outside. I’ve been in this league whatever years,” he said, “and they’re an SEC opponent.”
Said Mullen, “[They are a] much improved defensive team from last year. You watch them, and they are more physical against the run. They do a great job of creating pressure on the outside with pass rushers. They’ve obviously got some skill guys in the perimeter that can lock you down and cover. There’s a reason they’re ranked No. 6 in the country.”
Appropriately enough, Prescott said A&M’s biggest strength on offense can also be their weakness on defense. From what he’s seen, their aggressiveness can lead to giving up some big plays to opposing offenses.
“They’re a good defense and they try to make some big plays, which sometimes hurts them,” Prescott said. “They play sound and we’ve got our gameplan set for them.”
That gameplan involves a lot of running the ball, and similar to the Aggies, Prescott said MSU wants to complete short passes and open things up to take some shots deep.
With two teams possessing so much talent, the breakdowns of each team on each side could go for days (and they have in local papers, website and radio), but on Saturday the talk turns to action as No. 12 MSU hosts No. 6 Texas A&M.
“This is what it’s about in the SEC,” Mullen said.