Following each loss, Logan Lowery of the Daily Journal will give his opinion and grade out each position group for Mississippi State.
Overview: I am in my sixth year of exclusively covering Mississippi State. Over that span I have come to expect at tight game when the Bulldogs and Auburn play to open the SEC slate. Following Saturday night’s game, four of those six years that matchup has been decided on the final drive and in all four the Tigers have come out on top.
I didn’t think anything would outdo what I saw the last time I was on the plains in 2011 when I watched from the goal line as Vick Ballard helicoptered over the pylon in front of me and out of bounds. But then I saw 240-pound Chris Relf was stuffed at the goal line by a defensive back 50-pounds lighter than him.
So when Auburn mounted a 12-play, 88-yard drive and scored the game-winning touchdown with 10-seconds remaining I can’t say that I was surprised. In fact, I halfway expected it or at least a tying field goal with the craziness I have covered between those two schools. After all, I survived writing about the 3-2 ordeal in 2008 – a contest that set the game of football back 100 years.
While this year’s game barely made a ripple on the national scene of college football over the weekend, it was a very important game for both programs but Auburn proved it wanted it more. The game was there for the Bulldogs to close out and win and they simply didn’t take it.
Quarterbacks: A- Dak Prescott played well enough and put his team in position to win the game. I was interested to see if the 85,000 fans on hand would have an affect on the sophomore but it didn’t seem to phase him one bit. Prescott’s passing game still needs some work but that combined with his running ability gives MSU’s offense an added dimension that it just doesn’t have with Tyler Russell. I still believe Russell is an excellent quarterback but is better suited for a pro-style offense. Prescott simply fits Mullen’s scheme better.
Running backs: D+ The Bulldogs played five different running backs who combined for 14 carries and 38 yards. For State to have success they have to have the running game going. The strength of the offense is having five capable backs and their ability to keep fresh legs in the backfield. With that many backs combined with a mobile quarterback, the Bulldogs should be able to wear down most defenses in the second half but they just never established a running game outside of Prescott.
Wide receivers: C+ Three wide receivers had catches and the trio that did were impressive. However, Mississippi State has to get more of its young wideouts involved. Yes, I realize it was the first SEC road game for a majority of that group but with the lack of depth with that group the youngsters have to get experience somehow. I do think it was the best performances of Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow’s careers.
Tight ends: F Taking into consideration where the receiving corps are at littered with inexperience, it is imperative for the tight ends to get involved in the passing game. Saturday Malcolm Johnson caught one pass for five yards. That’s it. That was the entire offensive production of the unit. I know there is a lot of blocking responsibilities that come along with the position but out of the 28 passes that were thrown, only one catch was made by this group.
Offensive Line: C- The offensive line had their moments Saturday night – both good at bad. At times the line blew Auburn off the ball and opened up holes big enough to drive a truck through. Other times it was the Tigers defensive front that got the better of the exchange. Late in the game however, Mullen put the game in the hands of the offensive line to chew out the remainder of the clock. While the offensive line got the job done on 4th-and-1 from their own 29-yard line, they were unable to keep the chains moving and punted the ball back to Auburn with enough time for the game-winning drive.
Defensive line: B- Much was made about Auburn’s running game coming in averaging 298 yards per game. The Bulldogs defensive line was able to bottle that up for only 120 yards. Although the defensive line did not produce any sacks and only one tackle for loss, they did their jobs for the most part by clogging up running lanes and forcing Nick Marshall to beat them through the air – which he ultimately did.
Linebackers: B+ I thought the linebackers as a whole had their best effort of the season, especially getting after the passer. Deontae Skinner and Richie Brown recorded their first career sacks and I liked the multiple looks and blitzes that Geoff Collins schemed up. They too had a hand in slowing Auburn’s run game down. Benardrick McKinney seemed back to his old self in the game which is a positive sign moving forward for the Bulldogs.
Defensive backs: D- Outside of Nickoe Whitley’s two interceptions there isn’t much good to say about this group. The secondary struggled in pass coverage and were even worse in open field tackling. Justin Cox especially looked lost at corner and was beaten on several occasions in the first half, most notably on Quan Bray’s 76-yard touchdown which just simply shouldn’t have happened. Taveze Calhoun also had an opportunity for an easy pick six but Marshall ended up completing the pass to himself and turned it into a 37-yard gainer. Injuries and inexperience to this unit really showed on Saturday night.
Special teams: C+ Baker Swedenburg was once again solid averaging 46.6 yards on seven punts but Devon Bell has been unreliable on field goal attempts. With an offense that struggles to finish drives and has a horrible third down conversion rate it is imperative to have a trustworthy kicker and although Bell has a strong leg, it is not nearly accurate enough. He has however been consistent putting kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, which has been an issue for Mullen’s teams in the past. Another encouraging moment was seeing Deontay Evans force a fumble on a punt although it was recovered by Auburn.
Coaching: C- Sure there were some questionable decision during Saturday’s game but at the end of the day, MSU went on the road in the SEC and nearly defeated Auburn despite three starters (with one being the starting quarterback) out of action. I thought the offensive game plan complimented Prescott’s abilities. I also liked the defensive scheme to stop the run and make Marshall do something he hadn’t done before which is prove he can consistently complete passes. I did not like the decision to go for the two-point conversion after the first score or the choice to play prevent defense on the last drive instead of what had shut Auburn out the previous quarter and a half.