Following each loss, Logan Lowery of the Daily Journal will give his opinion and grade out each position group for Mississippi State.
Overview: It was a little strange for me watching Mississippi State play on TV. It was the first time I haven’t been there covering one of their games since 2007 but will be back doing so from this point on. Coming into the game I was curious about three things – if Geoff Collins’ defensive scheme would generate more pressure, how the young receivers and corners would fare and also if Tyler Russell has been able to shake off his horrid performance in the Gator Bowl.
Although it did not produce a single sack, I was impressed with Collins’ game plan on defense. The Bulldogs created pressure and kept Oklahoma State’s up-tempo offense out of rhythm in the first half, setting up its offense with opportunities to capitalize on the momentum. As I wrote in this morning’s paper, I believe the offense owes the defense an apology. The MSU offense was only able to generate three points and did not consistently move the chains after the first quarter. In fact, the Bulldogs were only 2-of-16 on third down on the day.
I did not see a major drop-off in the receiver or cornerback corps despite the lack of experience on both sides of the ball. Seven different players caught passes and the secondary was able to hold the Cowboys highly regarded passing attack to only 46 yards through the air in the first half.
Russell did not heave up four interceptions as he did in the bowl game but was picked off once and could have been several other times. He appeared hesitant in the pocket, especially on passes downfield. I do think Russell is a good quarterback with a ton of talent, but confidence has always seemed to be an issue for him. He seems unsure of himself on the field at times, and it shows on his throws.
Quarterbacks: D+ Russell and Dak Prescott combined for a 17-of-33 passing day for 222 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Bulldogs were unable to generate a consistent downfield passing game. Russell had some bad luck early after one of his passes bounced off a receiver’s hand and was picked off. But there were several other occasions where he should have been intercepted by OSU. Prescott must prove himself as a passing threat to keep defenses honest when he is inserted in short yardage situations. He will get that opportunity this weekend against Alcorn State, especially if Russell is out of action.
Running backs: C+ Three running backs combined for 100 yards on the ground. I thought coming in it would be very important for the Bulldogs to establish the running game and move the chains to keep OSU’s quick strike offense off the field. Early on, MSU was able to move the ball effectively on the ground, but it was short-lived as the final three quarters were tough sledding on the ground.
Wide receivers: C+ I had the bar set pretty low for this group due to the inexperience having lost seven receivers from 2012. Jameon Lewis proved to be a capable playmaker but needs some help from the handful of other wideouts that have played some. De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross are budding stars but would benefit if Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and Jeremey Chappelle could shoulder most of the load until the true freshmen are ready.
Tight ends: B- Having two tight ends out with injury left the position thin, but the Bulldogs luckily had the top two players on the depth chart available. Malcolm Johnson is a mismatch problem in the passing game and has the best hands on the team, while Brandon Hill is a solid all-around tight end. The duo combined for five catches for 70 yards. Russell has always targeted tight ends during his career, and this is another area MSU needs to go to more as the young wideouts continue to develop.
Offensive line: D- MSU needed to establish itself up front and did on the opening drive. However, OSU won the battle from that point on, getting pressure off the edge, especially against right tackle Charles Siddoway. On several occasions, Russell, LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson were tripped up behind the line of scrimmage due to getting their legs tangled up with their linemen due to being blown off the ball by the Cowboys. Dan Mullen challenged his offensive line by attempting power runs in short yardage situations, but they failed those tests.
Defensive line: B- While no sacks were generated, I thought the defensive line got after the quarterback and disrupted Oklahoma State’s original game plan. Denico Autry is getting better each game and Preston Smith is a much better complement to him on the edge than Kaleb Eulls was a year ago. MSU’s depth at defensive tackle was not what it could have been with Nick James and Quay Evans not making the trip, but that group could be as deep and talented as any in the league with their inclusion.
Linebackers: B+ I was curious to see how the linebackers would react having to replace their defensive leader, Cameron Lawrence. I feel that unit is much deeper than a year ago and more versatile. I like the different talents Collins can utilize at linebacker based on the situation. Zach Jackson had an incredible game, as did Matthew Wells. Deontae Skinner led the team in tackles (11) and Benardrick McKinney finished second (7).
Secondary: B+ MSU’s secondary did not create any turnovers, but I liked the job that the young unit was able to do Saturday – especially considering losing starters Jay Hughes and Jamerson Love throughout the course of the game. Dee Arrington and Taveze Calhoun have both stepped up their game and will be relied upon even more if those injuries linger. The secondary was able to hold OSU to only 46 yards passing in the first half, but the amount of reps along with the injuries began to wear them down as the game went on.
Special Teams: C+ I saw a lot of good things on special teams but saw an equally amount of bad. Baker Swedenburg continues to be a consistent punter, and the punt coverage unit is as good as there is in college football. Lewis is also a dangerous returner and answered OSU’s lone first half score with a 66-yard return deep into Cowboy territory. On the flip side, there were a couple of false start penalties called on the punt team, and Devon Bell missed a chip shot field goal while the Bulldogs were trying to cling to any hopes of a comeback.
Coaching: C- Like special teams, there was both positive and negative here. I really liked what I saw from Collins’ defense early and only seemed to struggle with the read-option attack out of the diamond formation. But the offensive game plan seemed to be far too conservative, especially attempting to keep pace with an expected high-powered Oklahoma State team. It seems to be a constant struggle between Mullen and offensive coordinator Les Koenning as far as play calling is concerned. I still cannot understand why any team would line up and try to run out of the pistol or shotgun formation in short yardage situations. Also, the Bulldogs were flagged 11 times during the game, and that will certainly have to be cleaned up before conference play begins.