Mississippi State is trying to recover from the stunning LSU blowout. The 41-14 loss, and the manner in which it happened, left the fans in a state of shock. What lies ahead is possibly the most important game thus far, as the Bulldogs are looking for redemption in South Carolina. But there are several other reasons. A win would put State back on a road within the SEC gauntlet, albeit against an SEC East team. More importantly, it reestablishes confidence within the team. It’s times like this that they rely on its veteran leadership.
To that end, four-year starting quarterback Will Rogers had already instituted player-only meetings every Monday. The post-LSU meeting was no different, but probably took on a more serious slant. In an article from the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, Rogers put it this way. “It’s a new week,” Rogers said. “We learn about what we did and didn’t do last Saturday. It’s really key to have senior leadership and guys that will speak up in front of the team and just tell guys, ‘That’s not acceptable the way we played, and we have to get it corrected this week.’”
That could be considered an understatement based on the way Rogers and the whole team played last Saturday. However, any coach will tell you, that if you lose the locker room, half the battle is lost. It sounds like for this highly veteran-laced team, there could be a sliver of optimism come Saturday night.
The Gamecocks – An Impressive First Half
South Carolina opened their SEC schedule against, no less than, the number one team in the country, Georgia. They got off to a quick start against the Peach-State Dawgs, scoring on their opening drive. The Birds would go in at halftime, leading 14-3 and an upset seemed to be on the horizon.
That impressive first half was led by quarterback Spencer Rattler. He has moved up the power rankings this week to the number four quarterback to watch in the SEC. Rattler was unstoppable in the first half against Georgia going 16 of 18 for 152 yards. But in the second half, that all unraveled. He went six of 24 and 104 yards but with two interceptions. In fact, it would be turnovers that led to their defeat 24-14.
South Carolina lost their ace wide receiver Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr. shortly after he scored in their opening drive. Wells went out with a surgery-requiring foot injury and will not be a concern for the Bulldogs. However, sophomore wide receiver O’Mega Blake stepped up to fill that gap catching five for 86 yards. He split the receiving spotlight with another wide receiver Xavier Legette who caught seven for 71 yards.
Their offense is a bit one-sided, however. Rattler threw 42 times for 256 yards. But on the ground, they only ran 16 times for a total of 53 yards. The Bulldogs could expect some modifications to this week’s Gamecock game plan to make it more balanced. However, since their leading rusher was Rattler, the Birds may stick to the air.
One of the keys to their second-half downfall was the self-inflicted wounds. Besides the two interceptions, the team tallied 11 penalties for 73 yards. If they can eliminate those, it might be a long day for the Bulldogs.
A Schizophrenic Defense
Against Georgia, the South Carolina defense had a similar performance. They held the Georgia Dawgs to three points in the first half, only to open the floodgates in the second half, allowing 21 unanswered points.
However, similar to Mississippi State’s loss to LSU, there were individual performances of which State should take note.
Linebacker Debo Williams had 11 tackles, seven solo. Standout safety Nick Emmanwori came away with 10 tackles and four solo. The linebacker Stone Blanton has been one to look out for, but against Georgia, he only had four tackles. He is due for a breakout game, so the Dawgs would be wise to key on him.
Bulldog Essentials to Win
The Bulldogs need redemption in South Carolina. They have everything to win and lose in this game. Considering how they played against LSU, there is only one way to go, and that’s up. Improvement is needed across the board from players and coaches. This goes for execution as well as attitude.
The obvious one is how Rogers executes in the air. Against LSU, he went 11 for 28 and 103 yards. That’s a passing percentage of 39%. Both are the lowest of his career. Rogers has to step up his game if the Dawgs expect to win.
The receivers are there, with Tulu Griffin and Woody Marks, but perhaps Rogers should spread the wealth. There is an opportunity with Creed Whittemore. He led the team in receiving against Southeastern Louisiana and was third in rushing. He saw little to no action in the last two games.
Marks is the obvious go-to guy in the running game, but State needs to get away from the obvious or predictability. There is a stable of talent there with the likes of Jeffery Pittman and Seth Davis. If you recall, Pittman had that 29-yard reception and score to win the Arizona game in overtime. He has ranked in the top 4 rushing in all three games but is still underutilized.
At 5’ 7” and 185 pounds, Davis is due for a breakout game. Head coach Zach Arnett had this to say about Davis, “Seth never seems to get hit square. He’s a small-stature guy. He manipulates his body and never seems to take a shot. Glancing blows.” Davis would add a dimension of unpredictability.
We Want Mike
That was the phrase the student body kept chanting during the LSU game. They’re referring to Vanderbilt transfer Mike Wright and his impressive play in the SELA game. He ran for 95 yards on five carries. But since then, he has been rarely used. Yes, he was responsible for a 4-yard pass play late in the fourth quarter against LSU But at that point in the game, it was anti-climactic. Arnett said, “We’re not spending a lot of time paying attention to chants from the student section,” nor should he. But, a little creativity on the part of offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay could put the Gamecocks on their heels.
A Wakeup Call
With the South Carolina game, Mississippi State has an opportunity to resurrect what was lost against LSU. The fan base is more uncertain about their prospects now than they were before the opener. The way they play in this game could determine the course for the rest of the season. On top of that, it’s the Bulldogs’ first road game, at night, adding another element of uncertainty.
In an SEC teleconference Arnett said, “These are the things that when we’re playing good football in any phase of the game we’re doing X-Y-Z,” Arnett said. “We really have to hone in on that, control what we can control, and be the best football team we can be.”
But, at the end of the day, it’s a more holistic approach that is needed. They will need to resurrect the character shown in the Arizona game. They sucked it up when needed in overtime to bring home the win. In large part, it comes back to the kind of leadership Rogers mustered when it really counted. That was lacking against LSU. If they can get that back against South Carolina, the remainder of the season won’t look so glum. Arnett, a man of few words said, “Really the focus this week has been a lot less on who our opponent is. We’ve got to focus on us.”