Mississippi St.-Missouri Preview
(AP) - Mississippi State is rested, riding a three-game winning streak and pushing to be a factor in the SEC's Western Division during the final month of the regular season.
Following a weekend off, the 24th-ranked Bulldogs (6-2, 2-2) travel to Missouri to take on the Tigers (4-4, 1-4) on Thursday night.
Mississippi State needs some help to win the West, but still has opportunities to make up ground in November, including home games against a pair of division rivals: seventh-ranked Alabama and No. 19 Ole Miss.
"We want to peak at the end of the season, not at the beginning or the middle," coach Dan Mullen said. "I think our guys have really bought into that and they've paid close attention to how they can improve themselves."
First, Mississippi State must handle Missouri, which has been awful on offense with no touchdowns and 12 points over its last three games.
The Tigers also suspended junior quarterback Maty Mauk for the rest of the season Sunday for disciplinary reasons, six days after reinstating him from a previous ban.
Coach Gary Pinkel said Mauk's status will be evaluated at the end of the season. The first suspension was for violating program policies. Pinkel didn't specify the reason for the new suspension and declined to say whether he'd planned to make Mauk his starter.
"We don't overlook things, we don't cover things up, we do what's right," he said. "A lot of other places would find ways to get the problem solved without doing what we do, but we don't do that at Missouri. I've never done that, I never will."
Freshman Drew Lock has made four starts since Mauk was first suspended, and Pinkel said he didn't think the Mauk suspension has affected Lock's play. Lock has passed for 538 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and 13 sacks in his starts.
"I think that they're friends, I don't know that that weighed on him a lot," Pinkel said. "I really didn't think of it in that respect, so I have no idea."
Despite the offensive struggles, Missouri has been one of the SEC's top teams on defense, giving up 12.5 points per game - first in the league.
Mullen was especially complimentary of Missouri's defensive line. The Tigers are third in the league with 23 sacks. Sophomore defensive end Charles Harris leads the team with 15 1/2 tackles for a loss, including six sacks.
"They create havoc with athleticism on the outside and size on the inside," Mullen said. "They can rush the passer and stop the run."
Mississippi State looks to counter with an offense that's quietly been among the most productive in the SEC. The Bulldogs have scored at least 42 points each time during their winning streak against Troy, Louisiana Tech and Kentucky.
It's not necessarily surprising that Mississippi State has a good offense. What is a little stunning is that the Bulldogs have turned into such a good passing team considering Mullen's run-heavy reputation.
Senior Dak Prescott has 2,048 yards passing - second in the league - and 14 touchdowns. His only interception came in the team's last game against Kentucky. That ended a streak of 288 consecutive passes without a pick, which was the third-longest in league history and dated to last season.
"That is something I've worked on and I wanted to be known as a passer first and a guy that can run instead of just a runner," Prescott said. "I really worked on that and coach Mullen loves airing it out."
Mullen, in his seventh season at the helm, has long said he has a bigger playbook than he uses in any one season.
He says that every year, he picks about 70 percent of the playbook that fits his team best. Since Prescott is a talented and experienced quarterback and the team has several veteran receivers, the coach has gravitated toward passing plays this fall.
Eight players have at least 10 catches. Fred Ross leads the team with 40, while De'Runnya Wilson is tops with 524 yards receiving and six touchdowns.
"I think it's everybody understanding where our strengths are and let's play to our strengths," Mullen said. "I am fortunate to have a coaching staff that's been together for a while and our offense has enough flexibility in it that we can highlight strengths of different players."