Mississippi State hosts Texas A&M on Saturday in Starkville. Here are your three keys to a Mississippi State win.
By Matt Zemek
Remember that game between Texas and Notre Dame a few years ago? It was a 2016 season-opening game, played on Labor Day night, which produced dazzling offense and a thrilling finish. Texas won, 50-47, over the 10th-ranked Irish. Lots of people thought the Longhorns and Irish were both “back.” Yet, after a few games, it was clear that neither team was all that good. The Week 1 deception was unveiled. We see games like that every now and then in college football. The early-season game which seems to suggest good things for the rest of the fall turns out to be a mirage.
That’s Mississippi State-LSU this year. MSU’s win seemed at the time like an indicator of success and prosperity in Starkville. LSU lost, but these were the defending national champions. The Tigers were probably going to get over the loss and become a good team in short order.
Whoops! Neither scenario played out. MSU-LSU now seems like a Week 1 mirage. The two teams look like bottom feeders in the SEC. It’s up to Mississippi State and Mike Leach to change that impression. Leach can be so good when everything is going right – we saw that against LSU – and yet so bad when things go wrong. We have seen that the past two weeks against Arkansas and especially Kentucky. Quarterback K.J. Costello threw for over 600 yards in Tiger Stadium. The past two weeks, he has struggled to tie his shoelaces, and the Leach Air Raid has been decisively grounded. The Bulldogs have to pick themselves off the canvas and get ready for Texas A&M on Saturday.
1 – Third-down defense
You might have noticed that Texas A&M converted 12 of 15 third downs against Florida. That’s absurd, and an indication of how weak Florida’s defense currently is. Mississippi State doesn’t have to turn into the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, but it does have to bring A&M’s third-down conversion rate under 45 percent. If MSU can hold A&M under 30 points in this game – that’s not going to be a piece of cake, but it’s also not an impossible ask – it will have a chance.
2 – Costello corrections
K.J. Costello was an inconsistent quarterback last year at Stanford. Part of his volatility was rooted in offensive line injuries in front of him, but he also made weird decisions at times instead of taking full command of the offense. That inconsistent identity has carried over to the SEC and Starkville. Costello needs to be patient and sound in reading the defense. Given that A&M’s defense has been smoked by Alabama and Florida the past two weeks, there should be plenty on film for Costello and Leach to study and exploit. It’s time to make adjustments, which we haven’t really seen the past two weeks when an opposing defense makes big plays against Costello.
3 – The Arkansas angle
When MSU lost at home to Arkansas, it seemed like a really bad loss, given how bad the Razorbacks were in 2019. However, after seeing Arkansas outplay Auburn in Jordan Hare Stadium (only to get wronged by a blown call late in the game), it’s clear Arkansas is a relatively decent team. MSU has therefore not lost to bad teams. That needs to be communicated in the locker room and on the practice field this week. MSU was never as good as the LSU win showed, but it also isn’t as bad as the past two weeks. The players need to realize that and buy into that. A positive mindset has to be part of this game; a lack of belief will enable A&M to dictate how this game is played. Mississippi State needs to mentally reset and thereby reshape the direction of this season.
Saturday‘s game kicks off at 3:00 PM CT (4:00 PM ET). Watch on the SEC Network.