The Mississippi State Bulldogs enter the week facing Vanderbilt, which is struggling to escape the bottom tier of the SEC. Despite firing Derek Mason and replacing him with another defense-minded coach while other SEC offenses thrive, Vanderbilt has yet to improve its fortunes.
By Matt Zemek
The Commodores’ only wins this year came against UConn and Colorado State. Vanderbilt won those two games by a combined five points. Let’s take a look at how coach Mike Leach and the Bulldogs can avoid a loss to an SEC opponent they are supposed to handle without too much of a problem.
1 – Vanderbilt cannot be underestimated
Let the journalists dismiss Vanderbilt as a team. That doesn’t really matter. The athletes on the field can’t think that way. VU coach Clark Lea will have his team ready to go and he’s bound to get a win in the SEC before too long — he almost got that win against South Carolina this past weekend. Leach will want to have his team prepared. Commodores quarterback Mike Wright is going to have a chance to prove he’s the guy while Ken Seals is out with an injury. It’s a scrappy Vanderbilt team that will keep knocking on the door, trusting that an SEC win is on the horizon if it keeps competing well. This team might not be supremely talented, but the effort level is there. Players are giving their all for Lea and his staff.
Mike Leach has a good track record of keeping his guys focused, especially against defense-minded teams. He knows how to give those kinds of teams problems. Just ask Stanford head coach David Shaw, who had a hard time figuring out Leach at Washington State. Leach should be able to find a plan which puts MSU in position to succeed.
2 – Put Mike Wright in difficult positions
Wright, as a backup pressed into the starting quarterback role for Vanderbilt, has been put in a tough set of circumstances. Although he tried his best against the South Carolina Gamecocks, he completed only 52% of his passes, also throwing an interception and getting sacked twice. Wright will need to help Vanderbilt make the most of its chances and be much more efficient than in previous weeks. Wright’s track record suggests that a transformation in Vanderbilt’s offense is unlikely. Mississippi State needs to make sure that turnaround doesn’t occur. If the Bulldogs can get consistent pressure and force him off his primary read, they should thrive. Wright’s lack of experience becomes a factor if MSU’s defense creates situations conducive to making mistakes.
3 – Will Rogers must play mistake-free football
Alabama is Alabama, but still: Three interceptions and seven sacks taken is still a jarring result against the Crimson Tide. If Will Rogers doesn’t sharpen up, it’s not going to matter whether it’s Alabama or Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs will struggle. Obviously, Vanderbilt doesn’t have the speed or physical prowess of Alabama. It should be easier for Rogers to make better decisions and get rid of the football more quickly instead of holding the ball too long or trying to force plays that aren’t there. If he doesn’t fix these flaws, this game will become more complicated than it needs to be.