It’s that time of the year where the temperature is changing, the leaves are falling, grills are going and football teams are winning nail-biting conference games to keep their season alive, with hopes of competing in a bowl game in December and January.
It’s that time of year where bitter rivalries become fierce and every possession and win matters each week until the season ends. For Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are in need of a midseason conference victory, specifically against their SEC West opponents.
Coming off a disastrous 19-3 loss to No. 5 LSU in Baton Rouge, Mississippi State (4-3, 1-3) could use a much-needed victory on Saturday evening when the Bulldogs face No. 16 Texas A&M (5-2, 3-1) at Davis-Wade Stadium. The Bulldogs only conference victory has come against Auburn 23-9 but they have suffered losses against SEC East opponents Kentucky 28-7 and Florida 13-6 in the past few weeks.
And while the SEC is a conference where teams beat up on each other, Saturday’s matchup against Texas A&M – a team that is tied for second in the division with LSU – will not be an easy one.
Surprisingly, however, the Bulldogs have fared well against the Aggies. In the 11 total meetings between the two teams, Mississippi State has won six of those games, including the last two meetings in 2016 and 2017. Under former head coach Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs defeated the Aggies 35-28 in Starkville in 2016. In 2017, Mullen’s Bulldogs manhandled the Aggies 35-14, who were then coached by Kevin Sumlin.
This year’s meeting between the two teams will be a lot different. For starters, both teams feature different coaches – Joe Moorhead for Mississippi State and Jimbo Fisher for Texas A&M – and different team dynamics this season.
A year ago, Texas A&M was coming off of its bye week but Mississippi State – a team that had not won or loss a game by less than 25 points – earned its sixth win of the season on the road at College Station, Texas, declaring itself bowl eligible. Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald went 12-for-21 for 141 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and rushed for 105 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown in the victory.
With Mullen now at Florida – a Gators’ team that is currently tied for first place in the SEC East with Georgia and Kentucky – and Sumlin at Arizona, Moorhead and the legendary, former Florida State coach in Fisher will start a new chapter in the series between the two teams.
Texas A&M enters Saturday’s game riding a three-game winning streak with wins over Arkansas, Kentucky and South Carolina. Offensively, Fisher’s team features dangerous playmakers in quarterback Kellen Mond, running back Trayveon Williams and tight end Jace Sternberger, who leads the team in receiving yard.
Mond has made a solid name for himself this season, throwing for 1,800 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions this season and ranks fifth in the conference in passing yards. Against Mississippi State a year ago, Mond went 8-for 26 for 56 yards and threw two interceptions and rushed for 32 yards on six carries before he was replaced by quarterback Nick Starkel in the loss.
Now, as a sophomore, look for Mond to be more relaxed in the pocket and relying on Sternberger to come up with big plays in the passing game for the Aggies.
Sternbeger leads the team in receiving yards and ranks sixth in the conference with 29 receptions, 496 yards and six touchdowns.
To go along with an offense that averages over 32 points per game (sixth in the SEC) and averages 282.4 passing yards (fourth in the conference) per game, the Aggies also average just over 204 rushing yards behind the play of Williams, who has rushed for 798 yards and ranks second in the SEC in rushing.
As a unit, Texas A&M averages 486.7 yards of total offense (fourth in the SEC and 14th in the nation). The Aggies also do well with maintaining possessions as they rank 16th in the FBS in recording first downs.
However, against a Bulldogs’ defense that is fourth in the nation in scoring defense (allowing 13.6 points per game to their opponents), 11th in passing yards allowed (167.9) and 19th in rush defense (114.6), the Aggies could face some difficulty in moving the ball through the air and or on the ground.
Against Texas A&M last year, the Bulldogs held the Aggies to 96 rushing yards, 189 passing yards and forced them into three turnovers (three interceptions). If Texas A&M hopes to extend its winning streak to four games, the Aggies must establish a sense of balance offensively and steer away from turning the ball over.
Mississippi State enters the game looking for a boost offensively. Against the Tigers, Fitzgerald went 8-for-24 for 57 yards and threw four interceptions. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald rushed for 131 yards on 23 carries and ranks fifth in the conference in rushing yards.
The Aggies’ defense will be locked in to Fitzgerald and running back Kylin Hill on the ground.
Aggies Defensive linemen Landis Durham and Kingsley Keke will have a busy day as the two have combined for 10 sacks and 55 tackles this season.
Texas A&M ranks 29th in FBS in scoring defense (allowing 20.6 points per game to its opponents), 22nd in total defense (320.1 yards of offense to its opponents), fourth in rush defense (78.4 yard per game) and fifth in red zone defense.
Considering these numbers, the Aggies will look to force Fitzgerald to throw the ball. However, Fitzgerald has thrown for only 768 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions. Not to mention, the Bulldogs sit second to last in conference in passing yards.
Moorhead stated that backup quarterback Keytaon Thompson could become an option as a signal caller during the game, helping the Bulldogs to move the ball through the air. In the Bulldogs season opener against Stephen F. Austin – although a mediocre defense – Thompson threw for 397 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
The bigger picture, however, is that Thompson has shown accuracy and the ability to make plays in the passing game, something Mississippi State desperately needs if they want to remain successful in the toughest stretch of their season that has games remaining against Louisiana Tech, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
The month of October depicts the heart and soul of what teams are made of. For Mississippi State, a win against Texas A&M would not only disrupt the Aggies chances at competing for a division crown and a shot at competing in the 2018 SEC Championship game in Atlanta, it would give the Bulldogs another huge win and another major boost of momentum heading into a tough slate of games in the month of November.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.