by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
If you want an informed perspective on Mississippi State sports, Brandon Marcello, Bulldogs beat writer for the Clarion-Ledger, is your man. He offered a few moments from his busy pre-Gator Bowl schedule to answer a few questions. You can follow him on Twitter @bmarcello. Read his MSU blog for more game coverage.
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Mississippi State rode a 7-0 start to a No. 11 BCS ranking and plenty of national attention, then went on to lose four of its final five. The schedule got tougher down the stretch, but is there anything else you can pinpoint that changed as the Bulldogs’ season turned for the worse?
BM: MSU started the season 7-0, as you said, but had a tough time defending teams which utilized spread offenses (Troy, Tennessee, etc.). Other teams took notice. Even teams not known as spread teams, implemented aspects of the offense and some of the hurry-up to confuse the Bulldogs, who have not done well communicating in the secondary against pass-happy teams. The defense just has not lived up to the hype this season and they’re capable of so much more.
How did this team respond to seeing its success so quickly halted by a brutal schedule? Did coach Dan Mullen talk about the entire season as a success, or did he focus on the negatives that felled the Bulldogs the last five weeks of the season?
BM: Dan Mullen is never going to focus on the negatives. He just doesn’t. That’s his style. But the fan base has done so of late and there’s no doubt that a 1-4 finish to the season has chipped away some of the mystique of the season. There’s an undercurrent is negative, but a win against nationally-ranked Northwestern, I think, would wash that away. Facing three top 10 teams in consecutive weeks was tough, and at times I thought the Bulldogs had a chance to knock off LSU before they made some mistakes.
Describe the play of quarterback Tyler Russell. He’s often mentioned as having one of the strongest arms in the SEC, but his below-60 percent completion percentage is somewhat low. What are his strengths? weaknesses?
BM: Tyler is very good at staying in the pocket, absorbing hits and allowing his receivers’ routes to develop. Sometimes that helps him and other times it hurts. He’s held onto the ball too long at times, and while it hasn’t necessarily led to sacks, it’s led to some big plays being missed down field. With that said, Tyler Russell is the best quarterback in MSU history after only one year as a starter. His completion percentage should be higher, but he’s pretty consistent and he doesn’t make mistakes (22 TDs, 6 INTs). He could have a special senior season in 2013.
LaDarius Perkins and Chad Bumphis are the Bulldogs’ two most notable offensive skill players. Who are some other guys to watch on that side of the ball?
BM: Keep your eyes on tight ends Marcus Green and Malcolm Johnson. They may be the best pass-catchers on the team, though they have been lost in the mix of late. Green was leading the SEC in TD receptions a few weeks into the season. They’re legit threats.
Oh, and backup QB Dak Prescott is a bruiser. He comes into the game in red-zone and short-yardage situations much like Dan Mullen utilized Tim Tebow in his freshman season.
A similar question for the defense: besides Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, where are the individual bright spots in the defense?
BM: As bad as the communication has been at times in the secondary, that whole group is very talented. The lack of the pass rush has forced the defensive backs to cover receivers much longer than they should and it’s led to some big pass plays. Senior CB Darius Slay’s five interceptions is tied for the SEC lead, so keep an eye on him. Safety/cornerback Corey Broomfield led MSU in interceptions as a freshman and is now a senior. Broomfield and Slay grew up within a couple hours of Jacksonville (Slay in Brunswick, Ga., and Broomfield in Palm Bay, Fla.) and will have plenty of friendly eyes in the stands. They could have a big game.
Coach Dan Mullen has won bowl games in each of the last two seasons, including the Gator Bowl in 2010. That success has continued the program’s five-game postseason winning streak, which currently stands as the longest in the nation. Is there something you notice this program doing especially well to prepare for postseason games? A certain mentality, preparation method, etc. Mullen has his teams take up in the layoff between the regular season and the finale?
BM: I just think Mullen has them believing in themselves again. Some of it has to do with matchups. Let’s face it: Michigan completely gave up in the Gator Bowl two years ago, but a lot of that had to do with the pounding MSU gave the Wolverines in the trenches. They broke the Wolverines’ backs and they gave up with a lame duck coach on the sideline. The win against Wake Forest last year was tough and, again, was won because of the Bulldogs being physical up front. I think that’s what has been the common theme in those bowl wins: MSU was just more physical and bigger. Now, the criticism facing this MSU team is that they’re not physical enough. That will be tested Tuesday. I’ve had several players tell me that they need to get back to running the ball effectively, which means they’re ready to get their hands dirty and their noses bloody.
What is Mississippi State’s greatest strength/trait on offense? On defense?
BM: MSU’s passing game is the strength on offense, though LaDarius Perkins can break one loose at any time. WR Chad Bumphis has really done an incredible job this season and will go down as fan favorite once he leaves here in January. The defense is strong in the secondary, as mentioned above. Johnthan Banks won the Thorpe Award with four picks. Slay has five picks.
Prediction (with score)?
BM: I can see Northwestern getting out to an early lead, perhaps by double digits, before MSU catches back up in the passing game and by not abandoning the run game. I think MSU has what it takes to wear Northwestern down in the trenches if it keeps the run game going late. The Wildcats’ run defense is VERY good, as we know, but MSU may be a bit stronger in the trenches and I think it will show late. I’ll take MSU 31, Northwestern 27.