Mississippi State is coming off a dominating performance last weekend against Louisiana Tech, but the Bulldogs will face their biggest test of the season when LSU comes to town this Saturday. I expect this game to be a fairly low scoring affair that is close throughout, where at any time one big play could determine the outcome of the game. While I do believe that Mississippi State has the edge at quarterback and at head coach, there are a few match ups that I will be watching throughout the ball game that could play a major role in determining the winner.
Mississippi State O-line vs LSU D-line
The Bulldogs have struggled across the offensive line on more than one occasion through two games this year, and LSU is not a team that you want to have offensive line problems against. Charleston Southern got some push up front at times during the season opener, but the offensive line did look better last weekend against La Tech. As I touched on last week, this is a group that has a couple new faces and other guys playing new positions, so I expect them to improve as a unit as the season goes on. Have they improved enough already is the question.
As everyone probably knows by now, LSU end rusher Arden Key is an absolute monster. He is quite possibly the best defensive player in the SEC, which means he is at least in the conversation for the best in the country. Key, a future NFL Draft lottery pick, will likely line up across from another projected first rounder in Bulldogs left tackle Martinas Rankin. It is possible that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda lines Key up on the right side of the ball against redshirt freshman Stewart Reese, but I think the Tigers will try and keep Key on Fitzgerald’s blind side. This will certainly be a matchup that I will be watching, along with numerous NFL scouts.
Mississippi State must slow down Derrius Guice
Guice is without a doubt the guy that powers this LSU offense. He led the SEC in rushing in 2016 even though he sat behind Leonard Fournette for part of the season. Fournette struggled with injuries throughout the year, and Guice did not waste any time making a name for himself. Through two games in 2017, the junior back has carried the ball 42 times for 224 yards and four touchdowns. Last season, LSU tore through the Peter Sirmon-led Bulldog defense with 177 yards on the ground, while Fournette averaged 5.3 yards per carry. That is just simply not good enough. If Mississippi State wants to have any shot at pulling the upset this weekend, that number will have to improve. The magic number for me is 4.5. If Mississippi State can hold Guice to under 4.5 yards per carry, you have to like the Bulldogs’ chances in Starkville.
Establish the running game
Through two games, Mississippi State leads the SEC in rushing yards per game with 304 per game. The Bulldog offense is without a doubt at its best when it’s able to run the ball effectively, but that won’t be easy against the Tigers. LSU is allowing just 31.5 yards per game on the ground and just 1.54 yards per carry. Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams both need to have solid games on the ground to open up the passing lanes for Fitzgerald to throw through. State doesn’t have to put up 300 yards on the ground, they just need to be respectable. Last season in Baton Rouge, State struggled on the ground, gaining just 56 total rushing yards from scrimmage. This in turn forced Fitzgerald to throw the ball more than he was used to and took the Bulldog offense out of rhythm. That simply can not happen Saturday.
Fitzgerald’s accuracy throwing the ball
LSU is going to load the box and force Nick Fitzgerald to beat them with his arm. That is no secret. How do you force them to respect you through the air, you ask? Easy. Fitzgerald has got to be accurate throwing the ball. Well, maybe easier said than done. There have been times this season where Nick throws off his back foot, typically when under pressure, causing the ball to sail on his receivers. A team like LSU will make you pay for bad throws. One thing that should help Fitz is the fact that LSU will load the box. This will create a lot of one-on-one coverages on the outside, which should make for easier throws. Another key to success is for Nick to get the ball out of his hands quickly, because the Tigers will undoubtedly be coming after him. A few quick, easy completions for positive yards early in the game will set up the deep shot later on. Fitzgerald will have to hit one or two deep throws for Mississippi State to win this game. Connecting on the deep ball will force the defense to respect the pass, back out of the box and allow some running lanes to open. This game will likely be decided by one or two big plays and Fitzgerald will have plenty of opportunities to make those plays through the air.
The kicking game
Boy, I feel like this will be on here every week this season. After going 1/3 against Charleston Southern, Tucker Day responded and made his only field goal attempt from 36 yards out against La Tech. However, Day did have two PATs blocked in that game, and you know LSU is salivating at a chance to get their hand on one. In a game that will likely be decided by one possession, you can’t leave points on the field. There is no reason you should be missing PATs, or anything under 35 yards at this level. That being said, hold on to your hats when the kick team trots on this Saturday. It could be a wild ride.
These were just a few things I will be watching for this Saturday against the Tigers. As always be sure to let me know what you will be watching for this Saturday that I may have left out on twitter.