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Kicking the Tires: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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K-State’s opener was a win, but pretty much nothing else went as planned. It gets way more difficult this week with a visit from Mississippi State.

Stephen F Austin v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

With a closer-than-expected win over South Dakota in the rear view mirror, K-State takes a step up in competition this weekend when Mississippi State comes to town. The Bulldogs are No. 18 in the AP and Coaches polls, and No. 6 in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings. They good.

Let’s take a moment to look back at the near-disaster against USD. Not to claim a moral victory, but to put things in context. The Coyotes are coached by Bob Nielson, who won two Division II national titles at Minnesota-Duluth. At every school where Nielson has coached at least three years, he’s made a playoff appearance. So the ‘yotes are well coached, and have enough talent to compete in the gauntlet that is the Missouri Valley. They’re not a pushover, especially for a team counting on execution with a limited playbook against an FCS opponent.

And there’s some precedent for K-State stumbling out of the gate and having a big season. In 2011, the Wildcats needed a late touchdown pass to Chris Harper for a 10-7 win over Eastern Kentucky. K-State turned the ball over five times in that game. They would turn it over only 11 more times the rest of the year while winning 10 games and going to the Cotton Bowl. To paraphrase Connelly on this week’s PAPN podcast, I’m not predicting that K-State is going to the Cotton Bowl this year. But I will mostly ignore that USD game.

Anyway, Mississippi State is not South Dakota. They’re a legitimate top 25 team with some elite talent. K-State will need to play very, very well to have a chance to win this game.

Players to Watch

K-State

Passing: Skylar Thompson, 8-14-1, 57.1%, 61 yards, 4.4 yards/attempt, 1 TD

Rushing: Alex Barnes, 21 carries, 103 yards, 4.9 yards/carry, 0 TDs

Receiving: Isaiah Zuber, 5 receptions, 68 yards, 13.6 yards/reception, 1 TD

Mississippi State

Passing: (2017) Nick Fitzgerald, 159-286-11, 55.6%, 1,782 yards, 6.2 yards/attempt, 15 TDs, 148.5 yards/game

Rushing: Kylin Hill, 9 carries, 50 yards, 5.6 yards/carry, 1 TD

Receiving: Osirus Mitchell, 2 receptions, 114 yards, 57.0 yards/reception, 2 TDs

Presumptive starter Nick Fitzgerald did not play last week against Stephen F. Austin due to suspension, but he will likely start this weekend in Manhattan, so his stats 2017 stats are listed above. Interestingly, his per-attempt passing numbers weren’t quite what I expected, and hits TD:INT ratio was also not outstanding. But he’s a dual-threat quarterback who gained 984 yards on 162 carries (6.1 yards per carry) last season. He will be a huge test for K-State’s defense.

Running back Kylin Hill was solid last week against an overmatched SFA team. Receiver Osirus Mitchell had an 84-yard touchdown catch last week, so let’s hope we drop his per-reception average significantly.

Defensively, end Montez Sweat leads the Bulldogs. He recorded 3.5 TFL and 2.0 sacks last week against SFA, building off last season’s 15.5 TFL/10.5 sacks season. Dalton Risner, K-State’s all-conference right tackle, will get the assignment against Sweat, so keep an eye on that one.

Advanced Stats

As mentioned, Mississippi State’s impressive blowout over SFA last week lands them at No. 6 by Connelly’s S&P+. Look, SFA is not a good FCS program, and really hasn’t been since 2014, coincidentally when a Jake Waters-led K-State team beat them 55-19 in the season opener. But even against bad teams, you can prove how good you are by how you play. Mississippi State proved their ability last week.

For its part, K-State checks in at No. 74 by S&P+. The Wildcats defense looked pretty good, ranking 13th nationally. But hooboy, that offense. There’s almost nowhere to go but up from 122nd. Or at least we hope that’s the case.

Conclusion

I’m not going to tell you that everything is OK and K-State is totally likely to beat Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are good, and K-State was not against USD. But K-State’s turnovers and penalties against the Coyotes were well beyond their usual norms, and the defense played pretty well. Clean up the turnovers and penalties and maybe catch a couple passes that receivers had on their hands, and we might feel a little better.

But only a little. Sweat is the biggest threat, but the rest of Mississippi State’s defensive line is strong, too. And they have athletes all over the field. Check out this solid breakdown of several key plays from last week’s win over SFA to get an idea what they do. As you’ll see, they beat an undisciplined and unathletic SFA team that also deployed some, ahem, unsound alignments against them. Presumably, K-State will not allow such easy pickings.

It’s also an 11 a.m. kickoff on the road, against a team that barely beat South Dakota, ferchrissakes. It’s not difficult to imagine Mississippi State starting a little slowly. If K-State can jump ahead early, then they could lean on their defense to make things interesting. I doubt it will be enough, but we can dream.

Bulldogs 30, Wildcats 27