Date: Saturday September 9, 2017
Kickoff Time: 6:30 PM CT
Location: Ruston, LA
Stadium: Joe Aillet Stadium
TV: CBS Sports Network
Series Record: Mississippi State leads 9-3
Last Meeting: 2015, MSST 45-20
Betting Line: MSST -9.0
There’s gonna be a dogfight in Louisiana this week. The Mississippi State Bulldogs will be going on the road to face the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in Joe Aillet Stadium. In 2008, the maroon and white bulldogs made this trek and went home with a loss. They’ve beaten the red and blue bulldogs twice in Starkville since, but now they return to the Joe.
Joe Aillet Stadium, and the whole La Tech campus for that matter, will look significantly different from what Mississippi State fans may remember from their last trip. Tech is a program on the rise, and is excited to welcome in an SEC team yet again. They knocked them off once. Can they do it again?
Louisiana Tech Overview
For the first three quarters in their season opener, La Tech didn’t look fantastic against Northwestern State. NSU scored on their opening drive. Tech responded with a fumble. Despite a field goal and a pair of special teams touchdowns, the Tech offense couldn’t muster a touchdown until 1:02 left in the second quarter, leading to a 24-10 halftime lead for the Dawgs.
That lead evaporated quickly, however, as the Dawgs fumbled the second half kickoff, leading to an NSU touchdown one play later. They would fumble on their next drive, allowing the Demons to tie the game. They would finally get their act together as the third quarter came to a close, scoring 28 unanswered points to win 52-24.
The defense, for the most part, looked fine. NSU was 3-14 on third down, and completed just 50% of its passes. Tech forced three turnovers, getting touchdowns out of all three. Giving up 386 total yards is not ideal, but otherwise the defense did as good as could be expected when its own offense and special teams fumbled three times.
The offense is the biggest concern for Tech after game one. 497 yards is great, but two offensive turnovers is not. If J’Mar Smith is Tech’s quarterback of the future, he’ll have to do better than 18-35 for 276 yards. He did have 10 rushes for 72 yards, but he fumbled twice.
The run game was a bright spot, however. 221 rushing yards is pretty good, and Jarred Craft’s two touchdowns help. Add in Boston Scott and occasionally Jaqwis Dancy, and you’ve got a strong and deep stable of running backs alongside J’Mar Smith’s own running abilities.
All in all, let’s be frank. If Tech shows up to play Mississippi State the way they played the first three quarters against NSU, they’ll get stomped. If, however, they show up playing like they did in the fourth, we’ll have a much better game on our hands. The run game is fine, as is special teams. The defense needs to step up a little more, but primarily Tech just needs the passing offense to click and they’ll be just fine.
Mississippi State Overview
The other bulldogs had a much better showing against their FCS opponent, Charleston Southern. 555 total yards consisted of 274 through the air off 20-36 passing along with 281 rushing yards.
But that defense, though. Zero points. Only two first downs surrendered. 33 total yards. Ouch. Charleston Southern couldn’t do anything, going 3-and-out ten times and giving up two safeties. Yes, this was an FCS opponent, but Tech’s offense will have its work cut out for it.
Nick Fitzgerald is the key to this whole team. He, like J’Mar Smith, is a dual threat quarterback, and he is more dangerous with his feet than with his arm. Stopping Mississippi State means stopping Fitzgerald, and that is not an easy task. When Fitz isn’t doing it himself, he’s got plenty of other options, such as running back Aeris Williams, who collected 83 yards and one touchdown on 16 rushes.
The key for a Louisiana Tech upset is two-fold. One, find a way to move the ball and score against this defense. Charleston Southern failed miserably at that task, and Tech’s offense needs to get in sync fast if they don’t want to meet the same fate. Second, stop Nick Fitzgerald. Specifically, keep him in the pocket. He’s a huge threat with his feet, but he’s not the best pocket passer. If Tech’s defensive line can keep him in the pocket and force him to win with his arm, an opportunistic blue Bulldog secondary will have a chance to make plays and get off the field. NSU’s J.D. Almond was able to break loose a few times, although in the end he was held to just 11 rushing yards. If Tech can hold Fitzgerald to just a handful of yards, they’ll have a strong chance to win this game.
There’s really no outcome to this game that would surprise me. It all comes down to who comes out firing and who comes out flat. La Tech has a great opportunity to get a solid victory here, but a side-by-side comparison of each team’s performance in week one doesn’t look great for Tech. Hopefully for Tech’s sake, they just had to shake off the rust and work out the jitters. In the end, Mississippi State’s defense was the best looking unit from either team last week, and could be the difference in this game.
Mississippi State 31, Louisiana Tech 24