Kansas State is exactly where it hoped it would be after two games of the Chris Klieman era: undefeated.
But those victories came against overmatched opponents: first Nicholls from the FCS, then Bowling Green from the Mid-American Conference. K-State steps up a few levels in terms of quality Saturday, when it faces Mississippi State on the road. The Bulldogs won going away last season, topping the Wildcats 31-10 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Things obviously have changed since then for both teams, however. How big a role might those play come Saturday’s kickoff?
To get a better feel for Mississippi State, we brought in Tyler Horka, the Bulldogs’ beat writer for the Clarion Ledger.
Check out his insight on Mississippi State (plus a score prediction!) below.
Ryan Black: How much, if at all, has Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead altered the offense now that Nick Fitzgerald is gone? Did he tailor the offense to fit Fitzgerald’s strengths last year? Or is it the same offense, and Fitzgerald was more of a “square peg trying to fit in a round hole” situation, where Moorhead and the offense worked around whatever deficiencies Fitzgerald may have had?
Tyler Horka: Moorhead has completely altered the offense.
He tailored it to fit former quarterback Fitzgerald’s strengths. Why wouldn’t he, after all? Fitzgerald became the SEC’s all-time leading rusher for a quarterback midway through last season. Given the way Fitzgerald struggled with accuracy (he only completed 51.6% of his passes) and how physical of a runner he was, Moorhead called plays to suit his game.
That meant star running back Kylin Hill, the same guy who ran for 211 yards against Kansas State last year, had just over half as many carries (117) as Fitzgerald did (221). Through two games this year, Hill has more carries (41) than all other Mississippi State ball carriers combined.
Mississippi State’s approach in 2019 is simple. Graduate transfer Tommy Stevens is going to come out slinging it. He’s 29-of-40 for 341 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. And Hill is going to come out pounding it. He has 320 rushing yards, which ranks No. 2 in all of college football.
Black: The Bulldogs’ defensive line was stellar in 2018. Has there been a significant dropoff from that unit? Or is it less than outsiders may think?
Horka: There has been a significant drop off, yes. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which there wouldn’t be. Not only did Mississippi State miss the stars like first-rounders Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat who made last year’s defense one of the best in the country, but it also lost those players’ backups. The Bulldogs lost nearly the entire two-deep on the defensive line over the offseason.
That means two redshirt freshmen, Fabien Lovett and Jaden Crumedy, have gotten the majority of the reps on the interior of the defensive line. They’ve showed growing pains against lesser opponents. With a true test like Kansas State’s third-ranked rushing attack coming to town, the difference between the defensive line that held Kansas State to 113 rushing yards last year (which was the Wildcats’ second-worst total of the season) and the one Mississippi State puts on the field this year could be further exploited.
Black: Who’s an under-the-radar player for Mississippi State who might end up deciding the game’s outcome?
Horka: Senior linebacker Tim Washington.
Mississippi State utilizes a 4-2-5 scheme under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Wednesday night, junior linebacker and team captain Erroll Thompson hinted that the Bulldogs probably will employ more standard 4-3-4 looks against Kansas State due to the Wildcats’ propensity to run the ball. That means Washington, who has been overshadowed for most of his five seasons in Starkville, will get plenty of playing time.
Washington only has 29 tackles in his career. He’ll be in a position to drastically improve upon that total Saturday. Junior linebacker Willie Gay Jr. has been suspended for a violation of team rules for Mississippi State’s first two games and likely will miss this one for the same reason. That leaves Washington to fill in as State’s third linebacker next to Thompson and senior Leo Lewis. With the front four being as young and inexperienced as it is, the linebackers should meet Wildcat runners at the next level quite often. Washington thus has his chance to shine.
Black: The Bulldogs were a bit up and down in Year 1 under Moorhead. What would constitute a “successful season” in Year 2?
Horka: It would be perfectly acceptable for Moorhead to go 8-4 in the regular season once again. If he reaches that mark, it’ll likely mean that the improvements made on offense were enough to counteract the drop off that is imminent on defense.
Moorhead was brought to Mississippi State for his offensive prowess. What he did as the offensive coordinator at Penn State in 2016-17 impressed the entire college football landscape. What he did at Mississippi State last year was nothing like it. The Bulldogs had the second-to-worst passing offense in the SEC. They only threw for 173.8 yards per game.
Stevens should help reverse that statistic, and he could be the reason Mississippi State reaches eight wins again. A truly successful season for Moorhead probably would be getting to that number and winning the bowl game this time to make it nine total victories. The 27-22 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl probably still stings some folks in the Magnolia State.
Black: It’s prediction time: Can Kansas State go on the road and pull the upset? Or do you see Mississippi State holding serve at home? (Provide a score if you like. It is not required, however.)
Horka: I like Mississippi State in this game, but barely. It’s not going to be the 31-10 drubbing that occurred last year. Mississippi State’s defense isn’t good enough to create that sort of separation for the offense.
Mississippi State will score at a decent rate like it did in Manhattan, but it will do so in different ways. Fitzgerald only had 154 passing yards, and he only completed 40.7% of his passes. The offense will be much more balanced. Hill won’t run for 211 yards again, but he won’t need to. If he reaches the century mark and Stevens throws for over 200 yards at an efficient rate, then Mississippi State will score between 30 and 35 points again.
Kansas State, meanwhile, will get close to those numbers but not quite all the way there. The State defense, as inexperienced as it is, will come up with a big stop or turnover that seals the deal. The Bulldogs walk away with a 34-28 victory at home to improve to 3-0.