Starkville, MS (SportsNetwork.com) – The No. 1 team in the country will take a
break from conference action on Saturday afternoon, as the Mississippi State
Bulldogs celebrate their homecoming at Davis Wade Stadium by taking on the
UTM, a member of the FCS’ Ohio Valley Conference, has reeled off four straight
wins to pull to 5-5 on the season, most recently downing Murray State on the
road, 62-38. The Skyhawks played another SEC team earlier in the season,
losing at Kentucky in their opener, 59-14.
Mississippi State was unranked this time two months ago but climbed all the
way to the No. 1 spot by starting 8-0 and 5-0 in the daunting SEC, which
includes handing No. 3 Auburn its only loss of the season back on Oct. 11
(38-23). The Bulldogs were not at their best at home versus Arkansas last
Saturday but managed to keep their perfect season intact with a 17-10 triumph.
“As coaches, we all know how hard it is to win in this league,” Mississippi
State coach Dan Mullen said. “That was a huge win for us (Saturday) against an
excellent Arkansas football team. Fortunately we were able to make one more
play there at the end of the game. Our guys are finding way to win, and that’s
all that matters.”
In the only previous meeting between the squads, Mississippi State made easy
work of UTM at home in November of 2011, 55-17.
UTM’s offense has been up-and-down this season, resulting in 30.3 ppg and
429.9 ypg. Last week’s 62-point outburst and just shy of 600 yards, marked the
second time this season it scored more than 60.
Abou Toure had a coming-out party in last week’s win with 234 yards and three
touchdowns on 29 carries, leaving him with 886 yards and eight scores on the
season for a squad that averages 211.6 ypg on the ground.
Jarod Neal has earned the majority of the snaps under center and has completed
more than 66 percent of his throws for 1,681 yards, 13 touchdowns and six
interceptions, while adding solid rushing totals too (175 yards, four TDs).
Dylan Favre (498 passing yards, four TDs, three INTs) is also worked in.
Kyle Kerrick (391 yards, three TDs) is the team-leader in receptions with 33.
William Tanner (30 receptions, 418 yards, four TDs) is also in the midst of a
strong season out wide.
The Skyhawks have been solid, if unspectacular, on the defensive side of the
ball, allowing 28.1 ppg and 392.3 ypg.
Tony Bell is the defensive standout with 60 tackles, 17.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks, two
forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception. Devontay Barnett
(11.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) has a team-high 65 tackles, and Walter Evans (55
tackles) has a pair of interceptions.
Mississippi State’s offense has been nothing short of outstanding this season,
ranking eighth in the nation in yardage (522.4 ypg) and 13th in scoring (39.1
ppg). Last week the unit struggled however, scoring less than 34 points for
the first time all season.
The success of quarterback Dak Prescott is the main reason for the Bulldogs’
excellent season, as the Heisman contender has thrown for 2,025 yards, ran for
725 yards and accounted for 27 touchdowns. He threw for a career-high 331
yards last week but had more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one) for
the first time this season.
“(Dak) was a little bit more relaxed in the second half,” Mullen said. “He
knows we have great confidence in him. He expects to make plays. The great
thing about him is that he’s going to study the film and learn from it and not
make mistakes a second time around.”
The other half of the Bulldogs’ potent rushing duo is Josh Robinson. With
Prescott keeping the defense honest, Robinson has found the holes to pile up
951 yards and 11 touchdowns on 140 carries.
De’Runnya Wilson is Prescott’s preferred target with 22 receptions, 367 yards
and six touchdowns. Ten players have caught a touchdown pass this season,
Mississippi State plays a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense. Even though
it ranks 13th in the SEC in total defense (434.8 ypg), it allows only 20.1 ppg
thanks in part to forcing 18 turnovers.
Benardrick McKinney is the heart of the defense and one of the best
linebackers in the country with 50 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, three fumble
recoveries and a forced fumble. Preston Smith makes plays all over the field
too with 30 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble
and two blocked kicks. Will Redmond and Richie Brown each have three picks.