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Kicking the Tires: Mississippi State

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After two weeks of kicking puppies, K-State gets a shot at the Bulldogs. But this dog bites back.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to imagine Chris Klieman’s tenure as K-State’s coach getting off to a better start. No, the competition hasn’t been good. But to paraphrase Bill Connelly, good teams make bad teams look like bad teams. K-State has done that with no-doubt wins over Nicholls (49-14) and Bowling Green (52-0).

That feels like the old days. But now it’s time to take a step up in competition. That step up is the Mississippi State Bulldogs (RV AP Poll/#23 Coaches Poll). The Bulldogs are 2-0 with wins over Louisiana (38-28) and Southern Miss (38-15).

Players to Watch

K-State

Passing: Skylar Thompson, 26-35-0, 363 yards, 10.4 yards/attempt, 3 TDs, 181.5 yards/game

Rushing: James Gilbert, 26 carries, 218 yards, 8.4 yards/carry, 3 TDs, 109.0 yards/game

Receiving: Malik Knowles, 8 receptions, 125 yards, 15.6 yards/reception, 2 TDs, 62.5 yards/game

Mississippi State

Passing: Tommy Stevens, 29-40-0, 341 yards, 8.5 yards/attempt, 4 TDs, 170.5 yards/game

Rushing: Kylin Hill, 41 carries, 320 yards, 7.8 yards/carry, 2 TDs, 160.0 yards/game

Receiving: Osirus Mitchell, 8 receptions, 134 yards, 16.8 yards/reception, 2 TDs, 67.0 yards/game

The big question heading into Saturday’s pertains to Tommy Stevens. He left last week’s game against Southern Miss with an injury. Channeling Bill Snyder, Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead has been coy about Stevens’ status for Saturday. Stevens said he “feels good” but declined to get into specifics.

Running back Kylin Hill returns to terrorize K-State once again. Hill toted the rock 17 times for 215 yards in Manhattan last year, scoring two touchdowns. At receiver, it seems a bit unfair that the Bulldogs are allowed to play the Lord of the Underworld, Osirus Mitchell, but the junior from Sarasota will test K-State’s secondary.

Defensively, Mississippi State fortunately doesn’t have the same wrecking crew it brought to Manhattan last year. Defensive linemen Jeffrey Simmons and Montez Sweat, along with safety Jonathan Abram, were first-round picks in this year’s NFL Draft. The Bulldogs’ defense rates only 65th nationally by SP+, and even that is propped up by preseason projections. MSU has allowed 4.2 yards per rush and 7.6 yards per pass, which aren’t great numbers against Louisiana and Southern Miss, two sub-75 teams by SP+.

Safety Jaquarius Andrews leads the Bulldogs in tackles with 15. Another safety, Brian Cole II leads the team with 3.5 tackles for loss. Yet another safety, C.J. Morgan, is third on the team with 13 tackles and one interception. Overall, the Bulldogs have very little production so far out of their defensive line and linebackers.

Conclusion

Mississippi State ranks 13th nationally by SP+ and is favored to win by almost two touchdowns using Connelly’s metrics. Here are a few things I’ll be looking for on Saturday:

  • Can K-State’s offensive line push around a Mississippi State front seven that doesn’t include two first-round NFL Draft picks?
  • How will Skylar Thompson look against a much faster defense than he’s seen thus far this year?
  • Will K-State’s defense remain as active as it has the first two weeks?

You have to squint, but there’s a narrow path to victory for the Wildcats in Starkville. The Wildcats must sustain drives and find a score early against the Bulldogs. This accomplishes the goals of avoiding playing from behind with our offense that’s not predicated on explosive scores, and both protecting our own defense and wearing out MSU’s on a day when temperatures will exceed 90 and the heat index will likely exceed 100.

We won’t be able to simply run over Mississippi State, though. Thompson will have to carry some of the load with his arm. So far he’s played excellently against overmatched competition. How he handles his first real adversity of the year will be important.

Finally, K-State’s defense has been very active in its first few games. Can they continue that play against a much faster team running a more-complex offense? As we saw last year, Moorhead thrives on exploiting missteps and misreads by defenders, and K-State’s young defensive lineman and linebackers obliged him repeatedly. This year’s defense is significantly more experienced.

I don’t see it adding up to a win for K-State. But this could very well be a game where the Wildcats remain within striking distance into the fourth quarter, where a timely good break could change the result.

Bulldogs 35, Wildcats 28