Late October in a football season is a critical time of the year. Sports fans and experts begin to find out what their teams are made of as the toughest stretch of the season unfolds. Pivotal conference matchups to early bowl-game projections, the chill air in the month of October is the time for teams to put up or shut up.
Mississippi State (4-3, 1-3) finds itself searching for its second win in the Southeastern Conference and second victory in the SEC West, a division that has been and is still dominated by football juggernaut Alabama. After defeating Auburn 23-9, the Bulldogs hoped to build on that momentum by defeating another division opponent in LSU.
Things, however, did not go as planned as Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald struggled, going 8-for-24 for 57 yards and throwing four interceptions in a 19-3 loss at LSU.
On Saturday, things will not not be any easier as the Bulldogs play No. 16 Texas A&M, a team riding high on a three-game winning streak and coming off a much-needed bye week.
The Aggies enter Saturday’s game ranked fourth in the SEC and 14th in the nation in total offense, averaging 486.7 yards per game. Texas A&M averages just over 282 passing yards per game (4th in the conference) and 204 on the ground (7th in the SEC).
Under first year coach Jimbo Fisher, the Aggies’ wins over Arkansas, Kentucky and South Carolina in their latest three-game winning streak have come behind the play of key players in quarterback Kellen Mond, running back Trayveon Williams and tight end Jace Sternberger.
Mond – who ranks fifth in the conference in passing yards – has thrown for 1,800 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions.
For an Aggies’ offense that averages 32.3 points per game (sixth in the conference), a lot of it has to due with Williams, who has rushed for 798 yards and eight touchdowns, second best in the conference only behind Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr.
Sternberger has become the key target in the passing game, tallying 29 receptions, 496 yards and six touchdowns. Between the Aggies top three playmakers, they are also responsible for helping Texas A&M maintain possession in games as the Aggies are 16th in nation in first downs.
Defensively, Texas A&M ranks 22nd in the nation total defense, 29th in scoring defense (allowing 20.6 points per game) and fifth in red zone defense, allowing only 10 scores to its opponents this season.
The Aggies also feature two defensive linemen in Landis Durham and Kingsley Keke who will be looking to wreak havoc on the Bulldog’s rushing attack.
Durham has recorded five sacks and 29 tackles, while Keke also has five sacks and 26 tackles.
For Mississippi State, the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game averaging 406 yards of total offense, with 235 coming on the ground (ranked 16th in the nation and first in the SEC) and 171 passing yards that is next to last in the conference.
While Fitzgerald has struggled in the passing game, the Richmond Hill, Georgia native has had his way with opposing defenses on the ground, rushing for 644 yards (fifth best in the SEC) and seven touchdowns. Against LSU, Fitzgerald ran for 131 yards on 23 carries.
Alongside Fitzgerald in the rushing attack is running back Kylin Hill, who has rushed for 516 yards on 76 carries for three touchdowns.
In a game that features an Aggies rush defense that sits in the top five in the country, Fitzgerald will be forced to make some plays with his arm if the Bulldogs are to have any shot at pulling of the upset in Davis-Wade Stadium Saturday evening.
Fitzgerald has thrown for only 768 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions. Against conference opponents, he has yet to throw a touchdown pass but has thrown six interceptions.
Bulldogs first-year head coach Joe Moorhead said quarterback Keytaon Thompson could see some action under center to help establish some passing opportunities in the offense. Thompson has thrown for 397 yards, five touchdowns and one interception, with most of this production coming in the Bulldogs season opener against Stephen F. Austin.
Thompson could potentially be a spark on offense for the Bulldogs in the passing game if Fitzgerald struggles. But for Fitzgerald, he has had nothing but success against the Aggies on the ground in their last two meetings, rushing for over 100 yards in both games.
Defensively, Mississippi State enters the game with a defense that will have its hands full in containing Mond and company. Despite their losses, the Bulldogs are giving up only 13.6 points per game (4th in the nation) to their opponents, 282.4 yards of total offense, 167.9 passing yards (11th in the nation) and 114.6 rushing yards (19th in the nation).
The Bulldogs also feature two key players on defense in defensive end Montez Sweat and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. Sweat has accounted for 28 tackles, six sacks (ranked fifth in the nation) and 22nd in tackles for a loss. Simmons ranks 34th in the nation in tackles for a loss.
While the current odds favor Texas A&M, Mississippi State has had success against Texas A&M, winning the last two games and six out of the 11 times the two teams have played. Last season, the Bulldogs defeated the Aggies 35-14 at College Station, the largest margin of victory in a game between the two teams.