Mississippi State faces Tulsa on Thursday at the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. Here are your three keys to a Bulldog victory.
By Matt Zemek
The Mississippi State Bulldogs have a losing record. In an ordinary year, they would be sitting home for the holidays, watching bowl games instead of playing in one. This is, however – you might have heard – not a normal year. The Bulldogs get a bowl bid because they were willing to play in one, all while various other teams have opted out of bowl games.
Is this Armed Forces Bowl an interesting game, and also a test of where Mike Leach’s program stands at the end of its season? Actually… yes. Tulsa is a fascinating team on numerous levels. Coming from a Group of Five conference, the Golden Hurricane could be viewed in many different ways. Precisely how they match up against an SEC team is an unknown question, which infuses real intrigue into a game that won’t generate a lot of national buzz. Another thing which makes Tulsa hard to pin down is that the Golden Hurricane had multiple regular-season games postponed because of COVID-19. Their playing rhythm wasn’t dependable; they went 6-2 in spite of many stops and starts to their season. Does this mean that in this bowl game – also played outside of a normal week-to-week framework – they won’t be sharp? It’s very hard to know which versions of both the Golden Hurricane and the Bulldogs will show up… which, weirdly enough, is entirely on brand for a bowl game. Let’s see what Mississippi State has to do to win it:
1 – Know where Zaven Collins is
The Mississippi State offense, which woke up against Missouri after several sluggish performances, has to keep tabs on Collins, Tulsa’s elite linebacker, who has stamped himself as one of the best defensive players in college football for the 2020 season. With a nose for the ball and ballcarriers, Collins has a sixth sense on how to sniff out a play and read it to perfection, closing down the tackle or coming up with a takeaway. Mississippi State needs to understand what Collins is likely to do and make sure to protect the ball when he is in the neighborhood.
2 – Be aggressive in the right ways for the right reasons
Tulsa has an excellent defense. Does this mean Mississippi State has to be patient? Yes… but the Bulldogs’ need to be patient should not mean they should refrain from being aggressive. It’s simply a matter of taking shots in the right situations. Throw long into man coverage on the outside but not into a deep zone coverage where safety help exists. Tulsa is not likely to be faked out by a trick play, but since this is a bowl game in which Mississippi State has absolutely nothing to lose – remember, it’s a game MSU wouldn’t be playing in a normal college football year – the Bulldogs should be liberated enough to go for it on 4th and 1 from midfield and test their offense, with an eye toward developing players for next season. There are good gambles MSU should make in this game, and then there are reckless plays the Bulldogs need to avoid. Knowing the difference between the two will be important in shaping this contest… and in determining how much information Leach and his staff gain from it.
3 – Play this game for 2021
This is an unexpected bonus for Mississippi State. It’s a chance to test the roster heading into spring ball. Leach needs to not only give 2021 players a reasonable amount of work; he needs to put them through pressure situations so that the 2021 team can get a head start on how to execute important plays in important moments. If the bowl doesn’t shed light on which players are best for the tasks Leach has in mind, this bowl trip will wind up being a waste.
Thursday’s game kicks off at 11:00 AM CT. Watch on the ESPN Network.