Even if their cowbells are the most annoying thing on this planet, the Mississippi State fans have been very gracious all week. If you’re in Tuscaloosa this weekend, do your best to show them a great time during gameday festivities. Now on with the questions!
Brent: I’ll start with a tough one: Seriously, who is Mississippi State this year? On one hand, we’ve seen you lose to South Alabama, BYU, and Kentucky (though, admittedly, they are one of the top teams in the east this year…), but then we saw you shock the nation by taking down #4 Texas A&M last week. Was that a fluke? Or was it an indication of a team that’s finally starting to find itself after losing a four year starter in Dak Prescott?
Evan: I won't call it a fluke, but it was certainly an anomaly. The beginning of the season was a journey to find the identity of this football team and it was not a fun one, but look where we are now. The largest thing that was missing from the team was an undisputed leader, and when there wasn't one, the players turned to Dan Mullen, but even he wasn't the same man he once was.
But after getting our teeth kicked in by Auburn, something changed. The team started gelling on offense and week after week, Fitzgerald continued to grow as a player and as the leader of this football team. Last week was the final culmination of a few things that had been disguised by three straight losses. The offensive line played their best game of the season, Fitzgerald started finding his touch on some throws, Aeris Williams finally became the guy at RB and Mullen left the defense almost completely alone during the game as well as allowing the QBs coach to call reportedly more than half of the offensive plays. This team is currently playing their best football of the season, I just hope that it doesn't all come undone this week.
Brent: What does the Bulldog running game look like, scheme/strategy-wise? QB Nick Fitzgerald is the leading rusher, followed by Aeris Williams and the diminutive Brandon Holloway… But for the fans who haven’t watched a single game outside of Alabama matchups, how does Mississippi State go about running the football?
Evan: Play action. Play action. Play action. It literally felt like we ran the same play on Texas A&M 100 times and they could just not do a thing about it. With Fitzgerald's pure size, it's hard to not anticipate the run most of the time and thats what can work so nice in our offense sometimes, freeing up guys like Donald Gray and Fred Ross downfield. At the same time, those guys demand respect on the outside, allowing us to run in inside like Mullen loves to do so much.
Brandon Holloway started out the season as RB1 and I'm still not sure why after seeing how well Williams has been playing recently. He now finds himself mostly on designed outside runs and in the slot, where he thrived last week. The majority of running plays featuring Williams although, are off-tackle runs and that's what worries me about this weekend against one of the best interior lines in the nation. I'm not sure how Mullen is adjusting for that but if he doesn't get it right, it'll be a long day for the MSU offense.
Brent: Fred Ross has been one of my favorite receivers in the SEC the last few years. Early on, it seemed that Nick Fitzgerald was trying to force feed him the ball, and Ross was consequently struggling with drops. Has that spell passed, or is it still an issue?
Evan: I would say that it has passed for the most part. Early on, Fitzgerald was fairly inexperienced as a pocket passer and simply knew that Ross was the best guy out there so he got it to him as much as he could. I think it's mostly a chemistry thing between the two of them. Ross having to learn where Fitzgerald feels most comfortable throwing the ball and Fitzgerald learning where Ross is most comfortable catching the ball, as well as getting down to the same timing on plays. Yes, it may have taken longer than we all would've liked to see, but when Ross is on and Fitzgerald finds him in stride, go ahead and put 6 on the board.
Brent: What is the state of the Miss State offensive line?
Evan: I'd say its pretty great right now. Martinas Rankin was named O-lineman of the week last week and across the board they played their best game of the season. We don't win that game on Saturday without those guys playing lights out like that. They have a huge challenge facing them this Saturday, and if we have any hopes to successfully run the ball against the Tide, they're going to have to play even better.
Brent: Jonathan Calvin leads the team with 9.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks. What kind of player is he, and how does Miss State use him? Will he cause problems for the Alabama offense, especially in regards to attacking a mesh point for the option offense?
Evan: The guy is an absolute savage. He is by far my favorite player to watch on defense because he just plain goes to work on every snap. He has an incredible ability to get that every important first push off the line, allowing him to get deep into the backfield before the QB is even able to hit the second guy in his progression. He's such a disruptive presence in every way. Last week I watched him split a double team like they were saloon doors and all I could do was watch in awe of his athleticism because he's such a big guy to move that fast.
I think he can be a huge disruptor for the Alabama offense, simply because he'll make it around the edge before you have time to get outside the hashmarks on an option. Making Jalen Hurts less than comfortable is going to be a key in this game in order to keep his pass attempts manageable for the secondary as well as limiting his mobility outside the pocket.
Brent: Defensive line, linebackers, or secondary… Which unit is the best, and which is the weakest?
Evan: I would definitely have to say that the D-line is the best unit, as they've been the biggest game changers and most consistent on the season as a whole. Our secondary is the weakest by about a mile. While they have shown some improvement recently, they still are a ways off from being considered "solid". MSU ranks 14th in the conference and 108th nationally in pass defense and I don't see those numbers getting any help this weekend in Tuscaloosa.
Brent: What matchup against Alabama do you think Mississippi State has the biggest advantage? Biggest disadvantage?
Biggest advantage? Yeah, I'm not sure I can actually find one without just completely making something up. Biggest disadvantage? We're a sub-.500 team that is still learning how to win football games. I just hope we get in, get out, and have no injuries along the way.
Brent: Finally, how do you predict the game will flow, and final score?
Evan: As far as game flow, I feel like Mullen will come out aggressive and put some points on the board on our first drive before the defense has a chance to adjust. After that, I just don't see many good things happening Mississippi State's way. Final score: 38-12