No. 21 Mississippi State expects challenge from UMass (Nov 04, 2017)
Mississippi State and Massachusetts have winning streaks on the line when they meet at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss., on Saturday.
How they got to this point are different stories.
Thanks to a decisive 35-14 road whipping of Texas A&M last week, the Bulldogs (6-2, 3-2 SEC) are ranked 16th in the initial rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee. Earlier this season, Mississippi State was at No. 17 in the AP poll after beating then-No. 12 LSU in the third game.
But then came losses to Georgia and Auburn, and the Bulldogs fell off the radar. Now after three straight wins, Dan Mullen's squad is getting better and moving in the right direction.
"We're a young team and we'll see our maturity this week coming off a big win," Mullen said. "We'll see how we handle success. Last time we didn't handle it very well."
Odds are, the Bulldogs won't be overlooking the Minutemen.
Not after last year.
The Bulldogs earned a 47-35 win over UMass, but it wasn't easy. The Minutemen led in the third quarter before Mississippi State, led by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, exploded for 28 third-quarter points to seize control.
Still, Mississippi State fans had to hold on to their seats as UMass tried to mount a comeback. But the Minutemen just didn't have enough firepower.
This year, UMass might still be holding the short stick when it comes to talent. But the Minutemen have heart, which was on display last week.
The Minutemen (2-6) earned an emotional 30-27 double-overtime win over Appalachian State, the favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference. Despite winning their second straight game, there was very little jubilation after the game.
The Minutemen had more important things on their minds, like the health of starting quarterback Andrew Ford.
With just over five minutes left in the second quarter, Ford threw an interception and while trying to make the tackle, he was blindsided by Appalachian State lineman Myquot Stout, who drew a personal foul penalty. Ford was immobilized for several minutes, face down while teammates and trainers gathered around him.
After more than 10 minutes, Ford left the field on a stretcher, giving a thumbs up to the cheering crowd.
Meanwhile, UMass tight end Adam Breneman gathered the team together and had some choice words.
"We rallied our guys," Breneman told masslive.com. "I said to them, 'Nobody is going to come into our stadium on an illegal cheap hit and still win the game.' I knew at that point we'd find a way to get the win for Andrew.
"They got pretty fired up. Our defense played lights out from that point. There wasn't a doubt. I knew we were going to pull it off."
Kicker Logan Laurent sealed the win in double-overtime when he connected on a 44-yard field goal.
Ford spent the night in a Boston-area hospital and was released on Sunday. His status remains day-to-day.
Ross Comis took over and completed 11 of 20 passes for 80 yards.
Whether Ford or Comis gets the start, the Mississippi State defense will be licking its chops.
The Bulldogs held the Aggies last week to 272 total yards, including only 33 at halftime.
Fitzgerald compiled 246 total yards and accounted for three touchdowns.
"We had a great game plan going in," Fitzgerald told reporters after the game. "We knew if we could move them up front and we could run the ball, that's what we were going to do. Obviously, it worked out for us."
Mullen is focused on the task at hand -- getting his team ready for the Minutemen. But there's been a lot of speculation about Mullen's future since Florida fired Jim McElwain on Sunday.
Mullen, a former Florida offensive coordinator, claimed he was not interested in leaving for Starkville for Gainesville.
"I'm really happy here," Mullen said at a press conference.
"I think when you look at what we have in the program and the administration, I haven't really thought much about it. I've been here long enough. As the year goes on it gets into that silly season and who is going where.
"Our focus remains on UMass and winning that football game. I'm really happy with what we're building here."
What Mullen and his staff have constructed is a stalwart defense with a solid, grind-it-out offense that has the program relevant.
Mississippi State will have plenty of chances to move up in the rankings, including a game in two weeks when the Bulldogs face Alabama, which is No. 2 in this week's CFP poll.