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How Can Mississippi State get the Season Back on Track Following South Alabama

Yesterday’s loss wasn’t fun. Let’s try to fix this team some, shall we?

NCAA Football: South Alabama at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in the Dan Mullen era, Mississippi State was embarrassed and lost a game that it simply should not have lost. But the season isn’t over yet. For better or worse, there’s 11 more games to play. Despite what some folks believe, this season is not lost. At least, not yet.

So what can the Bulldogs do, going forward, to find a way to fix the mess that we saw yesterday?

Step 1: Strengthen the running attack

The Bulldogs rushed for 239 yards and averaged 7 yards per carry. So, how is the running game a problem? Well, outside of Damian Williams rushing for 93 yards on 12 carries and Fred Ross gaining 46 yards on a single run, Mississippi State was less than impactful when running the ball.

Having Damian Williams as the leading rusher doesn’t bother me. But the fact that South Alabama was able to key in on Brandon Holloway and lock him down in the second half concerns me. The South Alabama defense was able to slow down Mississippi State’s speedster and hold him to 12 yards on 6 carries in the third and fourth quarters.

The fact that Ashton Shumpert, Aeris Williams, and Keith Mixon got a combined 3 carries for 21 yards in this amount of time bothers me. While Damian Williams was effective at times running the ball in the second half, it is unrealistic to expect him to carry the entire load for the offense, especially in SEC contests.

Step 2: Diversify the passing attack

The dinking and dunking pass attack worked very well at times for the Bulldogs, but the lack of a downfield passing attack significantly limited Mississippi State’s offense yesterday. Whether this was by design due to concerns with Williams’ ability to throw the ball downfield or if it says more about the fact that Mississippi State doesn’t have a deep threat yet, I’m not sure. But something needs to change.

South Alabama was able to keep Fred Ross blanketed, and held the star receiver to 34 yards receiving on 6 catches. Ross had more yards rushing than he did receiving. He wasn’t even the leading receiver for the Bulldogs yesterday, Holloway was with 40 yards from 5 receptions.

So what can Dan Mullen do here? Well, utilizing the tight ends more is one possibility. There was an effort early on to get Justin Johnson involved, but the sophomore tight end finished the day with a pair of receptions for 22 yards, one of which was an 18 yard shovel pass off of an option run play.

The other option is to incorporate more creative plays that specialize around passing. If Dan Mullen is able to improve the running game, as mentioned above, then he’ll be able to turn more to play action passes that target Johnson, Ross, Donald Gray, and Gabe Myles. And while flea flickers and throw back passes might seem to be gimmick plays, they might be necessary from time to time if State can’t find another way to get the ball downfield effectively. Dan Mullen won’t be able to live off of trick plays alone in 2016, sure. But something needs to be done here.

Step 3: Consistently get disruptive pressure on opposing quarterbacks

With a relatively young group of safeties and a couple of question marks at cornerback, there was a sizable amount of concern regarding how the pass defense would perform. While there were brief moments where the defensive backs shined, there were many more instances where the defensive backfield was a liability.

The quickest way that Mississippi State can alleviate that problem to an extent is to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While this won’t completely solve the issues that the secondary had yesterday, it will go a long way to helping them out.

Jeffery Simmons returning from his suspension will likely help this some, but his return alone likely won’t be enough to make a radical impact. Peter Sirmon may need to increase the amount of times that he blitzes, and change some of his blitzing schemes.

For many, this may feel like putting a band aid on a bullet wound. However, it may be the only way that the pass defense can improve this season. That is, unless the secondary can play up to their potential. There’s several talented defensive backs on the field, but State couldn’t rely solely on them yesterday.

Step 4: Reintroduce tempo to the offense

Much like a year ago, the offense was more effective when they were able to move the ball quickly. On Mississippi State’s first touchdown drive, the Bulldogs gained 60 yards on 7 plays in a total of 2 minutes and 29 seconds. State’s second touchdown drive? Well, it was even better and took a total of 1 minute and 59 seconds for the Bulldogs to gain 80 yards on 6 plays.

Things slowed down for the offense as the game progressed, and the first of State’s field goals came on a drive that took 10 plays for 64 yards and consumed 3 minutes and 46 seconds from the clock. The second field goal resulted from a drive of 11 plays for 46 yards, and exactly 3 and a half minutes.

This is obviously way too small of a sample size to do any meaningful analysis with, but the offense was visibly less effective when they went on longer, more lethargic drives. The clearest example of the offense performing more efficiently when running at an accelerate pace was the final drive of the game. The Bulldogs were able to dink and dunk and run their way down the field, gaining 54 yards off of 9 plays in 51 seconds.

What are your thoughts? What can State do to fix the problems that we saw yesterday?