We all knew it was going to be difficult to replace Dak Prescott. The talented quarterback set virtually every record a quarterback could hold for the Bulldogs. So figuring out it might be a little more difficult to win games was obvious.
But as much as the Mississippi St. Bulldogs and their fans would like to have Prescott, the quarterbacks have played well. Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams have combined to throw for a completion percentage of 62.6% with 210 yards per game and 7 touchdowns to just one interception. They’ve also tacked on 417 yards rushing at nearly 7 yards per carry with 1 touchdown.
But the team has struggled to score points. If the quarterbacks are playing well, and despite the complaints about the running back position which is averaging around 5 yards a carry, why are the Bulldogs 9th in the SEC in scoring?
In my eyes, the answer lies in the absence of De’Runnya Wilson. And the two areas it is showing up the most is in the Red Zone and on Third Down.
In 2015, MSU converted 42.35% of its third down opportunities. They ranked 32nd in the country in that category and much of it was due to the trio of Fred Ross, De’Runnya Wilson, and Dak Prescott. The Bulldogs couldn’t run the ball effectively in 2015, so they often used the short passing game to move the chains. Prescott’s first option was often to find Wilson who drew double teams due to his size advantage. When those plays weren’t there, Ross was usually left in one-on-one coverage underneath. It was a tough combination to stop.
In 2016, the Bulldogs are only converting 29.6% of their third downs. The running game is still focused on Brandon Holloway, so running is not always an option. But now the Bulldogs lack a receiver with the sheer size Wilson had which created mismatches. Teams are now double teaming Fred Ross, but Donald Gray does not create the mismatch Wilson did. On the other side of the field, Gabe Myles is struggling to catch the ball and doesn’t create mismatches either.
The result is a team struggling to move the chains and sustain drives. And when they do drive the field, if the team gets inside the 20, they are missing Wilson’s most valuable asset the most. That was his ability to go up and get tough catches in the end zone.
De’Runnya Wilson is second all time at Mississippi State in touchdown receptions. What he lacked in speed, he made up for in size. The fact he was so much bigger than most defensive backs allowed him to physically overpower them to catch balls in crowded areas like the red zone. And right now, the Bulldogs don’t have such a threat and it is killing them when they need to put up six instead of three.
The Bulldogs have scored on 92.9% of their possession in the red zone which is good for 27th in the country, a slight improvement on the 89.4% the team had in 2015. Pretty good right? Not as good as you might think.
In 2015, the Bulldogs scored a touchdown on 71.7% of their red zone attempts, and a lot of that was because of De’Runnya Wilson. This season, the Bulldogs have entered the red zone 22 times, but have only scored a touchdown 11 times. That’s well off last year’s pace.
So how can the team correct this problem? The first is to simply take Brandon Holloway off the field inside the 20 and give the ball to an improved Ashton Shumpert. After a disappointing 2015, Shumpert has improved more than any other back on the team and has seen his workload increase the past two games.
The second would be to get a tight end who is consistent. Jordan Thomas has potential, but he’s almost as large as an offensive lineman. Farrod Green might be the best option for the Bulldogs. He received quite a bit of playing time against UMass and recorded three receptions, one of which was his first touchdown.
The last way to correct it would be to find an adequate replacement for Wilson, but there are very few receivers who can come close to his size. Wilson was 6’5” and 215 pounds. The only receiver who comes close to his height and weight is freshman Jamal Couch. He checks in at 6’4” and 223 pounds. Couch has two catches on the season, but it appears he still has a ways to go before he is contributing regularly to the offense.
In 2014 and 2015, Mississippi State had multiple options to move the chains and get the ball in the end zone. Currently, the best and only real option the team has is to run the ball with Fitzgerald when the area around the line of scrimmage gets crowded. And when you only have one option, it becomes real easy for the other team to stop it. Until someone else emerges with the ability to convert third downs and score in the red zone like De’Runnya Wilson had, then this offense is going to continue to struggle.