Mississippi State stumbled a bit coming out of the gate this season, winning some weird games and dropping some tough losses to teams they beat easily just one year ago. By the time the Bulldogs got back home from their second loss of the season a little over a month ago, it seemed nearly everyone had written them off. All those eyes on Starkville last fall were looking elsewhere, all the stories were about some other team and all the excitement had quickly faded.
But within themselves, while no one has been watching, MSU’s team has quietly undergone a resurgence. While the rest of the country has been distracted with its top-ten teams of choice, the Bulldogs have gone from weirdness and disappointment to comfort and domination. Since the college football world tuned them out after losing at Texas A&M five weeks ago, MSU has run off four-straight wins, outscoring those opponents by nearly 100 total points.
Dak Prescott has built up the numbers to make himself one of the best quarterbacks in SEC history as MSU’s offense has put up 41 points per game in its most recent stretch. Led by coordinator Manny Diaz, MSU’s defense has quietly become one of the best in the country, let alone the SEC, as it has fiercely defended the endzone from those who would wish to reach it. No one has scored a fourth-quarter touchdown against MSU since 2014.
Even in blowout wins – the Bulldogs won their three home games in October by an average of 27.3 points – no one has managed a garbage time score. In fact, no one in the SEC has been better than MSU when it counts as Diaz’s unit leads the SEC in redzone touchdown percentage, checking in at third in the country.
For the first time in a while, eyes will be back on MSU this week as, ranked No. 20, they host No. 3 Alabama for a game with major SEC West and Playoff implications. But those who tuned the Bulldogs out after an early loss in College Station may be surprised at what they see Saturday.
“I really feel, every single week since the Texas A&M game, we’ve improved as a team,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “I think we’ve played better for four straight weeks.”
It’s true, they have. However, it’s not necessarily a function of MSU waiting until the middle third of the season to start really trying. If we’re being honest, it was kind of bound to happen that MSU would finish the season as a much better team than it started the 2015 campaign.
The roster was full of talent, the coaches knew, but what it had in measurables it lacked in experience. Three of five starters on last year’s offensive line are now on NFL practice squads. Half of last year’s defensive line is now on 53-man rosters in the NFL, with a third starter also graduated. It’s a story anyone following MSU knows, including a starting running back, tight end, safety and two linebackers off to the pros, as well. Expecting MSU to have some issues wasn’t a dangerous limb to go out on.
The folly was in thinking that those losses would affect MSU’s entire season. Turns out, it just made things a little harder at the beginning. Growing pains, you could call it. Literal ones, as a strong core of young talent, many of whom never played a down of college football, have found themselves relied upon, taking the mantle from juniors and seniors and being expected to do just as well as freshmen.
It took some time, took a few learned lessons, but the new faces have started to make their own names. In some instances they’ve gone, already, beyond their predecessors. Few outside of Starkville have been paying attention, but the Bulldogs have become a team of dangerous mercenaries, men written off and given no chance, taking every opportunity to destabilize the foundations of those who doubted them.
On a wet, rainy and overall dreary Thursday night in Columbia, Missouri last week, MSU no longer looked like the timid team that had been in awe of a gigantic stadium and other-worldly tradition in College Station. The Bulldogs are the enforcers now.
In the minutes before the game started, both teams were on the field warming up, separated only by a thin line of coaches and managers on the 50 yard line. Just a few yards from each other, the Bulldog defensive backs and Tiger receivers were going through drills at the same time.
Kivon Coman and Brandon Bryant, MSU’s safeties in their first year as starters, pushed as close to the coaching wall as they could, crossed their arms over their chests, and stared the Missouri receivers straight in the face. They smiled, leered, taunted, bounced on their heels and shook their heads as they called attention to themselves, letting the foe know the Bulldogs weren’t just ready, they were foaming at the mouth.
“We put fear in them before we even played them,” Coman said. “If you look a man in his eye and he looks away, he ain’t ready to play.”
Those receivers, by the end of the game, only managed 66 total yards. The entire Mizzou offense only had 107 yards through the air, and none of those catches included a trip to the endzone. No touchdowns for a single one of them, as Coman slapped away the Tigers last shot at the endzone, adding on to the interception he’d already snagged earlier in the night.
On the other end of the defense, MSU’s line, led by junior tackles Chris Jones and Nick James, had one of their best games of the season, tallying 11 tackles for loss, including five sacks.
“We had a gameplan to come in and out-tough those guys,” Jones said. “We’ve got the mentality – put the ball down, it doesn’t matter where it is, we’re going to stop them.”
Offensively, MSU looked nearly unstoppable against a defense that was previously the best in the SEC and one of the best in the entire country. Barring some moments during a vision-impairing downpour late in the first half, they didn’t just look unstoppable – they kind of were.
Prescott is the catalyst, the driver behind it all, but those who haven’t been paying attention would be unwise to think he’s alone in MSU’s offense. Three times in the last 15 games, junior receivers Fred Ross and De’Runnya Wilson have both gone over 100 receiving yards in the same game, including their trip to Missouri.
On Thursday, the inside-outside duo combined for 15 catches, 217 yards and three touchdowns. Just like their defensive counterparts, MSU’s offense doesn’t care who you are. Whatever timidity they may have had early on is now gone, a distant memory to these gritty and confident fighters.
Emphasis on confident.
“When we’re tagging ‘em up outside with Bear [Wilson] and Fred’s eating them up inside, they don’t really know what to do or how to stop that,” Prescott shared after the win.
“My feet get sweaty,” Wilson said, explaining what happens when he sees that he’s got a 1-on-1 opportunity. “My eyes get blurry. I know the ball is going to come to me.”
“Bear’s a big guy with great body control,” Prescott further explained. “I’ve said it all year: I’ll take him vs. any cornerback in the country 1-on-1 at any time.”
So, to those who haven’t been paying attention to Mississippi State, don’t expect this weekend to see the same team you watched in September. That’s not them anymore.
You can write MSU off, if you like, but as it turns out, they don’t really care.