Middle Tennessee-MSU Pregame: Youngsters See Increased Roles

Today’s game: Middle Tennessee State (4-2) at No. 15 MSU (6-0), 6 p.m., ESPN2 (Joe Davis play-by-play, Brock Huard analyst, Jessica Mendoza sideline), XM 199, Sirius 94.

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We’ve seen a lot of MSU’s young players this season, they were the subject of my story in the Journal’s GameDay section. Guys like linebacker Benardrick McKinney, quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Josh Robinson have contributed in big ways. All three are redshirt freshmen.

It signals a greater level of trust from coaches in the young guys. And those players are comfortable enough in their roles to come through when needed. Take Prescott, who tossed his first career touchdown pass in last week’s win over Tennessee.

“It’s a play I ran over and over in my head since we created the play, and just been waiting for the opportunity for it to get called, and they called it at the right time, and it was a success,” Prescott said.

He’d thrown a few passes before, but his main duty this year has been to run the ball. Developing him as a passer is a big priority, and Prescott has as much confidence in that part of his game as any other.

“I’m always confident,” he said. “It’s just something as a quarterback you have to be able to throw the ball, and if I can’t do that then it’s not the position for me. I’m pretty confident with throwing the ball. It’s good for them to let me throw it.”

I imagine we’ll see a lot of the young guys today, because they need all the reps under their belts they can get heading into the closing five-game stretch.

No personnel news to report today.

• Remember to follow me on Twitter for updates during and after the game, and check out the Journal’s college football page to get caught up on all of today’s action around the SEC and the country. Now let’s take a look at MSU’s three keys to victory, as found in the GameDay section.

1. Don’t get trapped. MSU is coming off a huge win against Tennessee, and next weekend it visits No. 1 Alabama. So it might be easy to lose a little focus on this final non-conference game of the season.

Last time State was coming off a big win – against Auburn in Week 2 – it struggled to hold off Troy, 30-24. That game was on the road, while this one is at home. MTSU, which like Troy is a member of the Sun Belt Conference, has played well enough of late to be considered a dangerous opponent. It beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta, 49-28.

Trap game for MSU? Maybe so.

2. Maintain the balance. Over its last two games, State has run the ball 80 times and passed it 78 times. The offense is the most balanced it’s ever been under fourth-year coach Dan Mullen, and it appears to be hitting a stride.

MSU has topped 400 yards of total offense in each of the last two games – 427 yards vs. Kentucky, 449 vs. Tennessee. If there is any imbalance today, it might be on the passing side, because Middle Tennessee ranks 112th in the country in pass efficiency defense. It’s not great against the run, either, giving up 175.3 yards per game.

3. Hang onto the ball. MSU ranks first in the country in turnover margin at plus-15, with only three giveaways. So ball security hasn’t been a problem, but a lapse in that department is the surest way to give MTSU a fighting chance at pulling the upset.

The Blue Raiders have done pretty well at creating turnovers, with 12 through six games. Nine of those are fumble recoveries, and cornerback Khari Burke has two of them.

• Notable stat: MSU’s eight-game winning streak is tied for third longest in the country (with Ohio and Cincinnati). Oregon has won nine in a row, Alabama 10 straight.

• Weather: Oh, it’s gonna be nice. The ol’ Weather Channel app says temps will be in the mid-60s at kickoff, dropping into the 50s by game’s end.

I am the online content coordinator for DJournal.com. Previously at the Journal, I covered Mississippi State athletics (2008-13), high schools (2004-08), and was on the copy desk (2002-04). I'm working on a recipe for bacon-flavored coffee, which would solve all the world's problems.

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