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Game Preview: Mississippi State Faces First SEC West Test Against Auburn

Everything you should know going into State’s first SEC West matchup

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

It is the first weekend of football in the month of October, and Mississippi State (3-2, 0-2) is still searching for its first win in Southeastern Conference play, something that many thought would not be the case.

After starting the season with three straight wins over Stephen F. Austin, Kansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette, the Bulldogs have dropped their last two games against SEC East opponents in a disappointing manner, losing to Kentucky 28-7 and Florida 13-6.

The Bulldogs’ schedule does not get any easier this weekend as Miss. State faces its first SEC West test against No. 8 Auburn (4-1, 1-1) Saturday evening in Davis Wade Stadium.

If there was ever a perfect time to hear the shake and clank of the loud-ringing cowbells, Saturday would be the perfect time for Miss. State fans to have them in full force against the Tigers.

Auburn is coming off a 24-13 win over Southern Miss for its homecoming.

While the Tigers only loss has come at the hands of LSU in Week 3, Auburn has dealt with some injuries along their offensive line that could play in the Bulldogs’ favor from a defensive standpoint.

Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham was sacked three times against USM. The Bulldogs rank fourth in the conference in sacks and fifth in the country in tackles for loss (46 tackles), led by preseason All-American defensive end Montez Sweat and defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons.

Sweat ranks fourth in the conference in sacks (4.5) while Simmons has accumulated the second-most tackles for loss in the SEC with 7.5.

Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead will look to have his defense put pressure on Stidham and find away to take control up front against the Tigers’ offensive line. And, while Auburn is banged up on the O-line, the Bulldogs’ task will not be an easy one.

Auburn enters the game averaging nearly 33 points per game and 376 yards per game, with 198 coming through the air and 179 on the ground. Stidham has thrown for 963 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. On the ground, redshirt freshman running back JaTarvious Whitlow leads the Tigers in rushing with 326 yards and four touchdowns.

Whitlow, who suffered a shoulder injury last week and saw limited in snaps this week during practice, will be sharing the load with other backs like junior Kam Martin, who rushed for 90 yards on 24 carries against the Golden Eagles. As a unit, the Tigers are averaging 179 rushing yards per game, which is a little lower than usual for Auburn.

Tigers head coach Guz Malzahn will look to establish the run first to open up opportunities for Stidham to make plays down the field. With a Bulldogs’ defense ranked 11th in total defense (allowing 287 per game) and eighth in points allowed (13.4), the Tigers could run into some problems establishing a solid running game.

For Miss. State, the question at hand over the last couple of weeks has been whether or not the Bulldogs can find some type of balance or rhythm to their offense beyond the ground game of third-year starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Through four weeks that included him missing the home opener, Fitzgerald has thrown for 640 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.

But, on the ground, Fitzgerald has rushed for 318 yards on team-high 70 carries for five touchdowns. Not to mention, he is 144 yards’ shy of eclipsing Tim Tebow’s record for the most career rushing yards by a quarterback in conference history.

To pull an upset Saturday evening against the Tigers, however, Fitzgerald must be able to make plays with arm and his legs to secure a win, something that has been harder rather than easier this season. In his first two games – against non-SEC opponents – Fitzgerald threw for 397 yards and recorded his four TDs.

Against the Gators and the Wildcats, he threw for a combined 243 yards, one interception and completed just over 46 percent of his passes. Against an Auburn defense that limits its opponents to 12.6 points per game (third-best in the country), 305 yards of total offense but only 93 on the ground, Miss. State cannot be one-dimensional in the game.

Not to mention, Malzahn’s defensive unit is also third in scoring defense (allowing 12.6 points per game) and seventh in forcing turnovers.

As an offensive unit, the Bulldogs enter the game averaging nearly 33 points per game, 433 yards of total offense with 219 on the ground with running back Kylin Hill leading the rushing attack, followed by Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams.

For Miss. State to make an upset against an Auburn team that it has not beaten at home since 2015, Fitzgerald must make accurate throws down the field to his receivers in Osirus Mitchell and Stephen Guidry to name a few as well as establish the running game with him and Hill.

The Bulldogs must also limit Stidham in his playmaking abilities at quarterback and slow down the Tigers rushing attack that could feature two even three different running backs in the game.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.