STARKVILLE – Once it gets cranked up, Mississippi State’s offense has shown some horsepower.
But not enough to overcome some slow starts.
The Bulldogs, 2-3 heading into Saturday’s homecoming game with Houston (3-1), are seeking smoother starts on offense. The first quarter is the only quarter in which they’ve been outscored this year, 41-28.
Against each of its three ostensibly toughest opponents thus far – Auburn, LSU and Georgia Tech – MSU has trailed at halftime. It fell behind 14-0 to Georgia Tech last week and never could catch up in a 41-32 loss.
“The one thing I think we’re fighting on offense, even though we are putting up some numbers, we are executing, we’re being successful – we’re not getting into a great rhythm early in the game that we want to get into,” coach Dan Mullen said at his Monday press conference. “It’s forcing us to play some catch-up.”
He said the slow starts have messed up the quarterback platoon, giving senior Tyson Lee a great majority of the snaps over redshirt sophomore Chris Relf.
And the rhythm troubles have been exacerbated by nine turnovers the past two games. For the season, MSU is minus-6 in turnover margin, 11th in the SEC.
“That’s the reason we’ve lost the past two games, especially last game,” Lee said. “Without those turnovers, we have a good chance of winning the football game.”
A slow start this weekend would be disastrous. Houston has the nation’s most prolific offense, averaging 573.3 yards per game, including 446.0 through the air.
Houston has outscored opponents 55-10 in the first quarter.
“It’s like when we’re behind, that’s when we start trying to fight harder,” MSU running back Arnil Stallworth said. “It’s just something we’ve got to have coming out of the gate, we’ve got to come out swinging and come out putting some points on the board.
“Once we start doing that, we’re going to be one hell of a football team.”
Stallworth is one of several offensive weapons expected to factor in big this season. So far, though, that hasn’t been the case each week.
Stallworth, a versatile senior, has just 106 total yards. Sophomore speedster Robert Elliott has 145, while last year’s top receiver, Brandon McRae, has 61 yards on seven catches.
In last week’s 41-32 loss to Georgia Tech, Elliott had 59 total yards, Stallworth had one catch for 13 yards, and McRae was shut out.
The lack of touches hasn’t bothered Stallworth.
“I wouldn’t mind getting more touches in a game. I’m pretty sure Rob or Brandon wouldn’t mind either, but as long as our offense is being productive, it really doesn’t matter to me,” he said.
Said Lee, “We’ve had a lot of the guys making plays. So when you have a lot of guys making plays, I don’t think it really matters who you get the ball to, as long as guys are making plays.”
Much of this week’s talk will center around Houston’s pass-happy offense, which runs an average of 87.5 plays per game. But the Cougars’ defense is one of the nation’s worst, ranking 110th in total defense, 113th in rushing defense and 104th in scoring defense.
Mullen tried to talk up the Houston D.
“They score so much, they’re on and off the field so fast, that their defense ends up playing a whole bunch of plays every game,” he said. “It’s a simple math problem: The more plays you have to play on defense in a game, there’s a good chance the more yards you’re going to give up.”
Opponents are averaging 5.9 yards per play against Houston.
Langston coming along
Junior college transfer Maurice Langston, reinstated to the team three weeks ago, has seen action on special teams the past two games and played some cornerback against Georgia Tech. He could see the field even more against Houston, especially if nickelback Wade Bonner is slowed by the knee injury that kept him out last week.
“Obviously, he didn’t get to go through spring practice or any summer conditioning, so he’s way behind even our freshmen,” Mullen said. “He’s coming along slowly but surely.”
Langston was arrested in February and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. He was suspended from all team activities until last month, when he took a plea deal for possession of a controlled substance.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal