The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

COLUMN: The good and the bad of MSU football, halfway through the season

Noah Siano | The Reflector

Brandon Bryant, a junior safety from Flora, is part of an MSU defense that held BYU to 176 total yards last Saturday. 

At this point in the season, most fans expect to know the personality and abilities of their team. However, Mississippi State University football (4-2, 1-2 SEC) has left their fans puzzled from week to week, and one thing is for sure: the Bulldog’s schedule only gets tougher from here.

Inconsistent on offense

The first three games of the season, MSU’s offense appeared to be a juggernaut of Big 12 proportions. MSU scored a total of 132 points through a balanced running and passing attack.

Junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, while not perfect, appeared comfortable leading the offense and making smart decisions with the ball.

In addition, junior running back Aeris Williams provided the offense with a much-needed run game to alleviate pressure from Fitzgerald. This was all made possible by strong offensive line play in both pass protection and run blocking.

Then, the Bulldogs went on the road to Georgia and Auburn and only scored a measly 13 points. The struggles on offense seemed to have a snowball effect to the point where even simple things were impossible for the Bulldogs.

Starting up front, the offensive line was unable to create holes for Williams, who needs room to gain steam to play effectively. The lack of a running game caused the offense to become one dimensional.

Defenses were able to key off on Fitzgerald, which limited his running success and forced him to make throws into tight windows. Then, when Fitzgerald made those tight throws, his receivers struggled to catch the ball, which instantly killed drives. 

This weekend MSU returned to Davis Wade Stadium and the offense started to click again. However, it should be noted Georgia and Auburn are much better teams than BYU. That being said, the offensive line clearly dominated the line of scrimmage all day and was able to create rushing lanes for Williams and Fitzgerald, who totaled 217 yards of rushing.

While Fitzgerald was prolific running the ball, the starting quarterback was pedestrian in his passing game. There are still obvious flaws in Fitzgerald’s mechanics, especially while throwing on the run.

He often drops his elbow, which slows his release, lowers his release plane and ultimately decreases his accuracy.  

In addition, Fitzgerald made several poor decisions in the red zone, which led to two interceptions on potential scoring drives.

The receiving corps is not without blame either. The Bulldogs have struggled to create separation between the receivers and the defensive backs, which makes it harder for the receivers to catch passes.

They have also struggled to catch the ball all season, dropping a plethora of passes, some of which have led to interceptions. Also, the Bulldog receivers, while talented, are generally undersized. This limits their effectiveness on deep balls.

If the offense focuses on fixing the little things moving forward, they will see a marked improvement in every facet of their game. A receiver cannot change how fast or tall he is, but he can improve how sharp and precise his routes are.

For example, Jerry Rice holds a slew of NFL receiving records and yet his 40-yard dash time is slower than most, if not all, of the starting Bulldog receivers.

If the MSU offense focuses on improving the small imperfections the bigger issues will naturally improve as well.

Big plays plague the defense

Similar to the offense, the defense was praised early on for their utter domination of opponents. Many attributed their success to first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s high-pressure defense strategy.

However, the high-risk, high-reward defense was exposed when put to the test by better offenses.

The MSU defense allowed 915 total yards in the two losses to UGA and Auburn. The most sobering statistic came from the Auburn game; Auburn gained 331 yards on 6 plays, while only gaining 180 yards on their other 50 plays.

The front seven were unable to generate sufficient pass rush in these bigger games, which gave opposing quarterbacks time to find often wide-open receivers.

In addition, the defensive line struggled to exploit stand-out sophomore defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. Junior defensive linemen Braxton Hoyett and Grant Harris need to win their one-on-one battles and increase their overall production in pass rush and run defense.

While one group cannot take all the blame, the MSU secondary causes fans to cover their eyes when opposing quarterbacks drop back to pass.

Excluding the first game against Charleston Southern University, the MSU secondary has been torched by long bombs. The secondary does not lack athletes—the fastest player on the team, Brandon Bryant, plays safety—but miscommunication and missed assignments will negate athleticism.

Tackling has also been an issue in the secondary. Often, opposing receivers are able to pick up 5 to 10 extra yards after the catch due to breaking the first initial tackle. The defensive backs struggle to get off their blocks and maintain outside containment, which opposing offenses exploit during run and screenplays.

The MSU defense is a talented group of players, but is not playing as a cohesive unit yet, which hurts its effectiveness. The long yardage plays are detrimental to the team’s confidence. If players lose confidence in each other, they will stop focusing solely on their assignments and start to worry if their teammate is going to handle their assignment instead. This creates a chain reaction of missed assignments and a lack of focus.

Reliable special teams play

Since Jace Christmann was switched to kicker, MSU fans can watch field goal attempts optimistically. The crowd no longer erupts after a successful point after touchdown attempt, because they have become reconditioned to the fact PAT’s should be automatic.

Logan Cooke’s play, while not perfect, has left little to be desired from fans and coaches. Averaging a hair under 50 yards, with a hangtime right around five seconds, Cooke’s punts effectively flip the field and force opposing offenses to drive the ball all the way back down.

So far in the season, Cooke has punted the ball for more yards than Fitzgerald has thrown. In addition, punt coverage has been solid, as the team has not allowed any significantly gashing returns.

Cooke has also been successful during kickoffs. Cooke’s ability to blast the ball out of the end zone is a big asset to Dan Mullen and the coaching staff, especially when the Bulldogs play against teams who have sensational return-men like Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk.

In addition, Cooke has honed his craft to the point where he can kick to a certain corner, so the Bulldogs can cover with more precision.

Overall, MSU has the talent and coaching staff to finish this season well above .500, but if certain flaws continue to persist, it could be a long rest of the season.

As the Bulldogs begin conference play, teams will have more available film and will attempt to exploit MSU’s weakness. Either way, Bulldog fans should find solace in the fact they do not have to cheer for a “landshark”—whatever that is. 

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The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University
COLUMN: The good and the bad of MSU football, halfway through the season