Bulldogs brace for explosive offense
Last year the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs averaged 44.3 points per game, good for second highest in the country behind only Baylor. They finished the year with their third straight nine-win season and represented the West in the C-USA championship game. But this year there are a lot of new faces on the offense for LA Tech. Last season much of their success came from starting quarterback Ryan Higgins, C-USA player of the year, who threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns.
Unfortunately for LA Tech he will not walk out the tunnel for them Saturday night. Instead they are breaking in sophomore J’Mar Smith. While Smith doesn’t have the physical tools that Higgins had he does have power in his arm. He also knows when to tuck the ball and run, which could add an interesting aspect to what is typically a pass-happy offense. Last week, in his first career start, Smith was 18 for 35 with 276 yards passing and two touchdowns. He also added 72 yards on the ground.
While LA Tech is trying to find ways to make up for the loss of Ryan Higgins and the receiving tandem of Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor one familiar face remains on defense. Jaylon Ferguson returns for his junior year looking to build off his all-star season in 2016. Ferguson finished the 2016 season with 14.5 sacks, a school record. Ferguson is one of the top defensive ends in all of college football and it is important for him to have a big game Saturday night if Louisiana Tech wants any chance of upsetting Mississippi State. But Ferguson isn’t the only player in the LA Tech front seven that can get after the quarterback, in fact they return 44 sacks from the last season.
Keys to victory
Last week the Mississippi State defense only allowed a mind-boggling 33 yards against Charleston Southern. They only allowed the Buccaneers to pick up two first downs and kept them inside the Bulldog territory the entire game. The Bulldogs consistently hit the quarterback and running backs in the backfield. Last week Nick Fitzgerald started where he left off in 2016, completing 16 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for another 41 yards and added a rushing touchdown to his totals. Those numbers may not impress many but towards the end of the third quarter Fitzgerald sat on the sideline so Bulldog fans could see the debut of freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson. As the game became all but wrapped up Mississippi State also started running more of a spread offense with 5-WR sets. Fitzgerald isn’t someone who will light you up with his arm. I expect Mississippi State to stay in their run-heavy offense this weekend, actually helping Fitzgerald with his passing numbers. Speaking of their run game, I would expect LA Tech to receive a heavy dose of Aeris Williams, Kylin Hill and Nick Gibson. Last week the Bulldogs rushed for 281 yards and three touchdowns, expect much of the same this Saturday. Encore? You can’t expect the Mississippi State defense to put up the defensive numbers they put up last week. Can we? State’s defense shutdown everything Charleston Southern tried throwing at them last week but LA Tech will run an entirely different offense than what MSU saw last week. Charleston Southern tried running a read-option offense through the wishbone formation to no avail, LA Tech will try spreading the Bulldogs out and beating them through the air. Last season MSU finished 120th in the FBS in pass defense so even with an improved defense there are reasons to be concerned going into this weekend’s game. My prediction is that those concerns go out the window.
The last time the Mississippi State Bulldogs visited Ruston it was in a losing effort. But, that was before Dan Mullen. Since Mullen took over as head coach for the Bulldogs, Mississippi State is 8-1 on the road against non-conference foes, with the single loss coming last year in Provo in a game against BYU. If State is to be taken seriously this season they can’t allow for this game to be close. It is hard to find many things that went wrong for State last week but if I had to nitpick it would be that our offensive line didn’t play great. There were mistakes the group made that they can’t allow to happen as they start playing tougher opponents. Deion Calhoun, Darryl Williams and Martinas Ranking all played well last week. It was Elgton Jenkins and redshirt freshman Stewart Reese that sometime concerned Bulldog fans. Jenkins had several snaps that weren’t accurate and Reese got beat a couple times at right tackle. While Louisiana Tech’s defensive line isn’t an SEC-caliber group they do have two really good defensive ends in Jaylon Ferguson and Deldrick Canty that should put more pressure on Nick Fitzgerald than what he was use to seeing last week against Charleston Southern. Nick Fitzgerald doesn’t need to be elite with his passing game, he just needs to be efficient. If he is just that and the Mississippi State running game gets going early I think they should route Louisiana Tech in their first road game of the season. Look for State to continue playing aggressive on defense setting the tone for next week’s matchup with LSU and while they won’t keep LA Tech out of the endzone holding them to two touchdowns will be an impressive start to the season and good enough for the Bulldogs to start out 2-0.
Predicted Score: Mississippi State 41- Louisiana Tech 17