Mississippi State trying to fix porous defense for Egg Bowl
Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams III (22) runs past a Mississippi State defender during the second half of their NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Arkansas won 58-42. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Mississippi State's defense was supposed to be one of the team's strengths this season.
Instead, it's ranged from a mild disappointment to a downright disaster and it's a big reason Mississippi State enters Saturday's Egg Bowl against Ole Miss in a tie with their in-state rival for last place in the SEC's Western Division.
The last two weeks have been particularly ugly: The Bulldogs have given up a combined 109 points and 1,276 yards in losses to Alabama and Arkansas, including last weekend's 58-42 setback to the Razorbacks .
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Mississippi State gave up a season-high 661 total yards against Arkansas. Rawleigh Williams ran for a career-high 205 yards and four touchdowns while Austin Allen threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns for the Razorbacks, who moved up and down the field without much resistance.
Coach Dan Mullen said the game tape was predictably gruesome.
''There were a lot of issues everywhere,'' Mullen said. ''We didn't fit right, missed alignments, poor communication and missed tackles. Not a very good performance.''
The continued problems for Mississippi State's defense are surprising, especially considering seven seniors are listed as starters. Veterans like linebacker Richie Brown and defensive linemen A.J. Jefferson were part of the Bulldog teams that had so much success in 2014 and '15, but new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon hasn't been able to parlay that experience into good results this fall.
The Bulldogs (4-7, 2-5 SEC) have one more chance to get it right on Saturday when they travel to face the Rebels (5-6, 2-5) in Oxford, Mississippi.
Ole Miss has had one of best offenses in the league for most of the season, but it hasn't been quite as prolific over the past few weeks since freshman Shea Patterson took over for injured senior Chad Kelly.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Patterson will be making his third career start. He's had some good moments in his first two starts – which included a win over Texas A&M and a loss to Vanderbilt – but is completing just 53.6 percent of his passes. That's well below Kelly's 62.5 percent mark before the injury.
Mississippi State's goal is to make Patterson uncomfortable in the pocket. Bulldogs' safety Brandon Bryant said complete concentration will be needed for the entire 60 minutes on Saturday.
''It is a very big game and we have to go hard all week in practice and take it day by day,'' Bryant said. ''Then on Saturday we have to impose our will on them.''
Mississippi State is giving up 34.3 points per game this season, which ranks last in the 14-team SEC. Ole Miss isn't much better, giving up 32.1 points per game to rank 12th.
Considering Mississippi State has a productive offense led by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, it's fair to expect the Bulldogs to score some points on Saturday.
So if the Bulldogs can get a few stops or turnovers, it might be enough for the win.
''We have to go out and execute and have fun,'' Mississippi State linebacker Dez Harris said. ''We can't worry about the scoreboard or what people think. We have to play our game and do what we have to do to win.''
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