Tough Rush Defense Awaits Auburn in Starkville
Mississippi State Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (Photo: AP/Elise Amendola)
There were questions surrounding Mississippi State football heading into the season, including “Will Mississippi State be fine without Dak Prescott?”. More questions were raised after their season-opening loss to South Alabama, where the Bulldogs blew a 20-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Since then, the Bulldogs have picked up wins over South Carolina, and UMass. Their other loss was on the road at LSU. In the game, Mississippi State trailed 23-6 heading into the final quarter of play. With 4:10 to go, backup quarterback Damian Harris rushed into the end zone from one-yard out to cut the lead to 23-13. The Bulldogs scared LSU even more just 40 seconds later when Harris connected with receiver Fred Ross to get within three of LSU. The Tigers would ultimately recover MSU’s onside kick, to end the comeback attempt. Head Coach Dan Mullen is in his eighth season as head coach of Mississippi State, with a record of 57-37. The Bulldogs are 36-17 at Davis Wade Stadium under Mullen and have won 13 of their last 17. Here is an extended look at the Mississippi State depth chart: Offensively, Mississippi State averages 28 points per game, which is 8th in the conference. The Bulldogs rank 7th in the SEC in total offense, with 433.8 yards per game. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and Receiver Fred Ross are the cornerstones of the Bulldog offense. Quarterback: Nick Fitzgerald gets the start at quarterback for Dan Mullen’s team. Since taking over for Dak Prescott, Fitzgerald is 2-2. He has completed 57 passes for 603 yards and 5 touchdowns. Fitzgerald is a bit of a runner, too, which is something that Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been preparing his defense for this week. He has 329 yards on 47 carries, which leads the team. In his last game, Fitzgerald recorded 415 all-purpose yards in the win over UMass. He is also the second quarterback in MSU history to throw for over 300 yards, and rush for over 100 yards in the same game, he did that against UMass. Running back: Brandon Holloway is the starter for Mississippi State. He is second on the team with 191 rushing yards but is tied with Ashton Shumpert and Damian Williams for the rushing touchdown lead with one. The Bulldogs are 5th in the SEC in rush offense, averaging a little over 219 yards per game. Receiver/Tight End: Like most spread offenses, the tight end is used in various ways for Mississippi State. Former Hoover High School Buccaneer, Justin Johnson, has played in 15 games during his career, but only has three starts. So far this season, Johnson has 3 catches for 21 yards. As for the receiving corp, Fred Ross is the player to watch. Ross is second in the SEC in receptions per game with 6, and has recorded 100 receiving yard games eight times in his career, which is a tied school record. Ross has half of the Bulldogs receiving touchdowns, with 4. Gabe Myles, Donald Gray, Malik Dear, Jesse Jackson, and Keith Mixon are expected to play a role in the receiving game as well. Offensive Line: The offensive line features two graduate students, right tackle Justin Senior, and left guard Devon Desper. Senior has the most experience on the offensive line, with 29 career starts. Behind him, is center Jamaal Clayborn with 16. Clayborn is a Rimington Trophy Candidate, who lead the team in total snaps with 818 last season. Left Tackle is Elgton Jenkins, who has had starts at left, and right tackle. The Mississippi State defense ranks in the SEC top-5, by allowing 356 yards per game. Their strong suit is stopping the run. Opponents only gain close to 111 yards per game against them, which could be a problem for Auburn. However, Mississippi State ranks 11th in the SEC in stopping the pass. Quarterback Sean White and the receiving corp could take advantage of the situation. Defensive Line: Mississippi State has four returning starters from last season on defense. One of those, being defensive end, A.J. Jefferson. Jefferson leads the conference with 9 tackles for loss, and leads his team with sacks, at three. Johnathan Calvin, J.T. Gray, Cory Thomas, and Nelson Adams round out the defensive line. Linebackers: Team leader in tackles is graduate student, Richie Brown. Brown has 28 total tackles, with 2.5 of those being for a loss, and another one being a sack. Will Linebacker Leo Lewis leads all freshmen in the SEC with 25 tackles. Secondary: Safeties Brandon Bryant and Kivon Coman return to the defensive backfield for Mississippi State. Auburn will need to watch Bryant, for his speed. He has a 40-yard dash time of 4.24. Coman recorded his first interception of the season in their last game, against UMass. Another player who picked up his first career interception two weeks ago was cornerback Jamoral Graham. Graham is a converted wide receiver, who has transitioned nicely. Since the switch, Graham has four pass breakups and 17 tackles. On the opposite side of the secondary, is Lashard Durr, a JUCO transfer. Durr has 9 tackles thus far on the season. Special Teams: Junior Westin Graves will handle kicking duties for Mississippi State. Graves is 8-10 on field goal attempts, with his long being from 48-yards out. He is also a perfect 12-for-12 in extra points. The punter is junior. Logan Cooke. Returning kicks will be Donald Gray and Brandon Holloway. Finally, the explosive Fred Ross will return punts.