When the clock read 0:00 and the Bulldogs walked out of Davis-Wade Stadium in celebration after defeating then No. 8 Auburn 23-9 two weeks ago, Mississippi State sent a message across the Southeastern Conference and the Western Division that it would not be amongst the laughing stock in the conference.
The Bulldogs used a heavy dose of a one-two punch rushing attack from quarterback Nick Fitzgerald – who ran for 195 yards and two touchdowns and became the SEC career leading rusher for a quarterback – and running back Kylin Hill, who ran for 126 yards on 23 carries in the game.
Combining their offensive prowess on the ground with another standout performance defensively, Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2) snapped a two-game losing streak in its win over Auburn.
But the real tests, however, are just beginning.
Fresh off of a much-needed bye week, No. 22 Mississippi State faces its second division test on the road against LSU (6-1, 3-1), a team that is coming off a monster performance in upsetting then No. 2 Georgia 36-16 last Saturday at Tiger Stadium.
Popularly known as Death Valley, the confines of Tiger Stadium have not been friendly to the Bulldogs over the years. Since 2000, Mississippi State has only defeated LSU one time at Tiger Stadium. In 2014, the Bulldogs defeated the Tigers 34-29. Former MSU and current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott threw two touchdowns and ran for a 56-yard touchdown to snap a 14-game losing streak in the series against the Tigers.
Before the 2014 matchup, the Bulldogs had not defeated the Tigers in Death Valley since 1991 under then head coach Jackie Sherrill.
On Saturday, both teams will enter the game looking to take the next step in solidifying their place in the division. For the Bulldogs – which defeated LSU 37-7 in Starkville a year ago – the balance on offense will be key if they want to pull another upset, something that has been a major concern for them.
Mississippi State first-year head coach Joe Moorhead has tried to make Fitzgerald more of a passing than running quarterback. For Fitzgerald, who is only completing 49.6 percent of his passes, that has not been his greatest asset when the Bulldogs win.
As a team, Mississippi State ranks 104th in the nation in passing yards per game (190) while rushing for 241, ranked 18th in the FCS. Against Auburn, the Bulldogs rushed for a season0high 369 yards.
Against a LSU defense that is very talented and limited Georgia’s dynamic rushing attack – one that averages 245 yards per game – to 113 yards, the Tigers will look to force Fitzgerald into throwing the football and limiting the explosive rushing plays from him and Hill.
Defensively, the Tigers enter game ranked 17th in the nation in scoring defense (giving up 16.9 points per game), 26th in rush defense (120.4 yards per game) and 33rd in total defense (340). The Tigers also in the top 50 in the country in red zone defense.
Fitzgerald has only thrown for 709 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions this season. Against Auburn, he went 9-of-17 for 69 yards and an interception against a solid Auburn defense. If the Tigers limit Fitzgerald and Hill’s rushing tandem, Fitzgerald will need to find a way to put the ball in the air to make plays.
From a statistical perspective, LSU enters the game balanced on offense, having rushed and passed for 1,415 yards respectively.
”We have different weapons,” Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron said. “We’re running from a spread, can spread the ball around. But it all starts up front.”
Behind a strong offensive line, the Tigers are led by quarterback Joe Burrow and rushing duo of their own in Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Burrow has thrown for 1,415 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. Against Georgia, the junior quarterback went 15-of-30 for 200 yards but rushed for 66 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns.
The Bulldogs’ defense will have its hands full in stopping Burrow from making plays with both his arm and legs.
Brossette leads the team in rushing with 640 yards and nine touchdowns. He will look to improve from his performance last week against Georgia, where he rushed for 64 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown while averaging four yards per carry.
Edwards-Helaire, who loves to run along the outside but can run between the tackles like Brossette, rushed for 145 yards against Georgia and has tallied 475 yards and five touchdowns the season.
A major key for the Bulldogs’ defense will be not allowing Burrow and company to establish an offensive balance of the run and pass. The fire that makes the LSU offense click is its rushing attack.
”I think they have a lot of confidence in their run game right now,” Moorhead said to the media. “I think both backs run with great pad level.”
Mississippi State enters the game ranked eighth in the nation in total defense (allowing only 290 yards per game), first in scoring defense (12.7 points per game) and 40th in red zone defense.
As the beauty of college football has shown us, anything can happen on any given Saturday, especially when it matters midway through the month of October.
And for Mississippi State, this will serve as another test of many to come as October gets interesting and Novembers nears. For the Tigers, Orgeron will look to solidify its place in the division and within the nation as a top-tier team looking to keep pace with Alabama in the SEC West.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.