MSU Armchair QB: Late Night at BYU Edition

Peeps, Friday night’s late game against the BYU Cougars revealed some ugly truths. Mississippi State played hard, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a very average non-conference opponent. Don’t know how many of you stayed up for double OT, but luckily for you, I did. As always, here’s what I saw:

Defense:

1. The State D was good all night. They missed a few opportunities, but it took double OT for BYU to reach their season average for points scored. They couldn’t get it in regulation. State held BYU to just 311 total yards. In today’s game, especially one that went to double OT, that’s ridiculously good. The NCAA’s leading rusher, Jamaal Williams, was held to 76 yards and 2.9 YPC. State also had 7 TFLs. Hats off to the D, they came to play.

2. The middle of State’s D got exposed a bit late in the game. BYU was gashing us between the tackles and we just had no answer. If BYU is hammering you between the tackles late, what do you think will happen when we return to conference play?

3. BYU QB Taysom Hill showed why he’s a solid QB. When it mattered, he hit the crucial pass or made a play with his legs. Mobile QBs are just so hard to contain. Especially one who has been playing in college 10 years like Hill.

4. This D just doesn’t tackle very well. If I were MSU DC Peter Sirmon, we’d drop everything else in practice and work on tackling drills. We don’t wrap up and try to knock down the ball carrier way too often. Or we try to arm tackle a guy with a full head of steam. Or we dive at him for no reason. It’s a hot mess. If we want to improve, it starts with tackling.

5. Leo Lewis brings the nasty and is improving every week. I love the intensity he brings, but he needs to learn to focus & control it a little better instead of letting it control him. He led State in tackles on the night with 12 total, 7 solo.

6. Richie Brown was better but still didn’t play up to the standard he’s set prior to this year. He had 9 total tackles, 8 solo, and a pass broken up. But that PBU should have been an INT. It hit him right in the chest and he just dropped it. He also tipped another pass that would’ve been intercepted by a DB behind him. He needs to get it together, ASAP.

7. In the absence of Kivon Coman, Mark McLaurin drew the start and played well. He showed why he was so highly recruited and his athleticism. He had 4 total tackles, 3 solo, and 1 INT he returned for 27 yards. About the only knock on his performance was dropping a second pick late that hit him right in the hands. It’s in the stat book as a PBU, but when your margin of error is so small, you have to make those plays when the opportunity presents itself.

I still think he proved what I’ve thought all along: McLaurin should be the starter over Coman going forward. He’s got freakish athletic ability and a nose for the ball. Put him out there and let him play through the growing pains. The reward outweighs the risk.

8. Traver Jung and AJ Jefferson each had a forced fumble. AJ recovered one.

Special Teams:

1. Once again, Special Teams were an issue. Frankly, they were a major culprit in the loss.

2. In a case of de ja vu, Westin Graves missed an early FG attempt from the hash. At that point, Mullen lost confidence in him and wouldn’t go back to him.

3. Logan Cooke had an off night. He had 5 punts for 184 yards and 36.8 yards per punt. He had just one downed inside the 20. He did have a nice final punt that hung up and bounced. It should have killed the clock, but Ashton Shumpert downed it with a couple seconds left instead of letting it roll.

4. Cooke also resumed his kickoff duties on Saturday night. He had 3 KOs with 2 TBs. The lone return was for just 10 yards. Nice to have him back in that area.

Offense:

1. Offense had a couple of nice moments but overall was poor. State once again failed to crack the 400 yard total offense benchmark. The Dawgs had 223 yards in the air and 163 yards on the ground. State ran 86 total plays, 49 rushes and 37 passes. That’s a 57/43 run/pass split. Better than I anticipated, but still not good enough.

2. QB Nick Fitzgerald struggled to move the offense consistently. He was just 17/36 for 214 yards, 1 TD and 2 INT. His long pass was 44 yards, but it was essentially a lateral to Keith Mixon. Fitz completed just 47.2% of his passes. He added another 41 yards rushing on 16 attempts with 2 TDs.

The issues we’ve seen with Fitz were all on display against the Cougars. He lacked touch on the deep ball and was slow progressing through his reads. When he missed, it was sailed high of his target. He struggles taking something off the fastball. The high misses was the reason for one of his picks.

Fitz’s tools are obvious. But he was so raw coming out of HS that he’s had a long way to come as a passer. He’ll continue to improve, but it’s just going to take time and reps. The biggest issue is that he struggles getting his OL into the right protections and how slow he is getting through his reads. Frankly, that’s a preparation issue. He needs to spend a whole lot more time in the film room and in the playbook. If he won’t, find someone who will. Lack of preparation is unforgivable in my book.

3. The running game looked better without Brandon Holloway. I’ve been on record as saying I think Holloway has a valuable role on this team. That role is NOT as the feature back toting it 10+ times, 8 of those on the inside zone. That play was effective for the first time in forever because we had RBs in the game who didn’t go down when a defender sneezed on them. Here’s a quick look at each RBs night individually:

A. Ashton Shumpert: Shump had 6 carries for 10 yards against BYU. His long run was 5 yards. Shump proved once again why I’ve said since early in his freshman year that he isn’t an SEC feature back. When you average 1 YPC on 5 touches against a former Mountain West school, you just don’t have it to be a feature back at this level. His YPC for the entire night was 1.7. That isn’t going to cut it.

The good for Shump is that he had a solid night blocking. He made a couple of nice blocks as the fullback for Aeris Williams and had a couple of nice blitz pickups. He also added 17 yards on 1 catch. That’s where Shump’s big value is: blocking, catching out of the backfield, and short yardage.

B. Aeris Williams: Williams had a solid night with 21 carries for 82 yards with a long run of 12. Unfortunately, that’s just 3.9 YPC. Honestly, that’s not good enough at this level, either. Now to be completely fair, some of that has to do with OL play. But he still showed the limitations that have concerned me even during his recruitment. He’s a little bit stiff and lacks top end speed. And he had another fumble, which is a recurring theme with him.

The good news is Aeris consistently fell forward and got YAC. It was a breath of fresh air after watching Holloway fall down when someone gives him a mean look. He ground out tough yard after tough yard between the tackles on the inside zone. Aeris’s 21 carries are the first time in 2 years a RB not named Holloway has had double digit carries. Hopefully his performance was enough to convince Mullen he’s ready to handle the load.

4. The WRs continued to struggle catching the ball. Drops were abundant. They made some plays, but not enough to win. Players like Jamal Couch were entirely absent. And don’t even get me started on their run “blocking.”

5. Offensive line was a disaster. You can really see the failure to recruit up front. These guys were pushed around by the Cougars. Several lookout blocks were thrown. Elgton Jenkins shows flashes of being ok. Clayborn is pretty good but out of position. Losing Dion Calhoun was a huge blow. Michael Story did ok in relief, but he’s not quite there yet. Desper, Rankin, and Senior all need to sit.  The play that epitomizes this group for me is one where I saw Desper pull and never lay a hand on anyone. Seriously, how does that happen? Every day John Hevesy remains employed by MSU is a day we’re being robbed.

6. Fred Ross needs to get it together. He’s supposed to be our best player and he’s sucked so far. After being one of the most sure-handed WRs in the SEC for 3 years, he suddenly can’t catch a cold. It makes you question what’s happening. He dropped a perfect pass from Fitz in the second OT that would have tied the game. If he isn’t going to catch the ball, he needs to sit.

7. Donald Gray continues to be underused. He had just 2 catches for 17 yards.

8. Malik Dear was finally part of the gameplan. He had 3 catches for 36 yards and 3 rushes for 17. About time we make a concerted effort to get one of our few explosive playmakers the ball.

9. Keith Mixon had a big game. He caught 4 passes for 69 yards and 1 TD. He added another 13 yards on 3 carries. Mixon showed game breaking speed on the TD, racing 44 yards and outrunning everyone.

Coaching/Intangibles:

1. Lack of leadership is still a problem. The guys you would expect to lead aren’t the vocal type. Fitz is young and growing into the role of QB. The problem with having an absolute alpha like Dak is that it can stunt the growth of other leaders. That definitely apears to be what happened on our team. At some point a few of them have to stop looking for someone else to lead and say “Screw it, follow me!”

2. MSU HC Dan Mullen was fired up for the game. He was once again fire-in-the-belly Mullen. It didn’t result in a win, but you could see he cared. The problem is that it’s only the second time all season he looked like he really wanted to be there.

Most troubling is the play calling. I think we can all agree by now that asking Fitz to throw it 30+ times isn’t a formula for winning with this team. I know the OL sucks. And I know the WRs are supposedly a strength of the offense. But frankly, the WRs haven’t been a strength. They’ve been as bad as the other units. And I discussed above Fitz’s struggles with accuracy. So why are we throwing it so much?

I say it’s time to bring back the Chris Relf-fense/Relf Coast Offense. Mullen has said Fitz is the best running QB he’s coached. Assuming that isn’t just coach-speak, that is quite the statement. Mullen has coached Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, and Chris Relf. All 4 were great running QBs. And he’s saying Fitz is a better runner than all of them. Let Fitz do what he does best. Bring back the two back read option game. Run it 70+% of the time. The OL may be bad, but the option is designed to help mask poor OL play. Make it easier for the OL by allowing them to fire off the ball and dictate the game.

The most frustrating aspect was Mullen’s tendency to get cute. In the late 3rd & 4th quarters, we had drives going by running the ball. Then Mullen would inexplicably call 2-3 pass plays in a row. Fitz would misfire and the drive would stall. Keep running the darn football.

3. Sirmon and his guys had a solid gameplan. They held the BYU ground game in check and forced Cougar OC Ty Detmer into throwing. Unfortunately, the D ran out of gas at the end.

4. With Holloway hurt, I was hoping Mullen would finally #FreeD-Lee. That didn’t happen. He’s still the best pure runner we’ve seen play, but our bullheaded coach won’t use him. And why bother recruiting guys like Nick Gibson & Alec Murphy if you have no intention of playing them early?

5. Officiating sucked both ways.

Final Thoughts:

This game was lost when we kept trying to throw instead of sticking with the run. Not having a reliable kicker was another huge problem. As for the OL, there’s no easy fix. It’s going to take recruiting better players. Same at CB. Really hope Lashed Durr’s injury isn’t serious. If there’s one position we can’t afford more injuries, it’s CB. Mullen has to get rid of Hevesy. He’s a total albatross. As we’ve documented here at M&WN, Hevesy is Mullen’s Woody McCorvey. I didn’t see anything against BYU to convince me 3-9 with blowout losses to Texas A&M, Arkansas, Alabama, and Northern Miss isn’t the most likely scenario. We might beat UK, but even that is a longshot right now. The only hope for improvement is the players develop some leadership from within.

Fire in the Hole and Hail State!

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