As is the case for most season openers, there was some good, some bad and some ugly in Mississippi State’s 38-28 victory over Louisiana on Saturday.
On the positive side, the Bulldogs’ offense appeared much more balanced than it was a year ago, rushing for 261 yards and throwing for another 236.
What helps with that balance is having a quarterback like Tommy Stevens who can consistently complete passes and keep the chains moving with his arm as well as his legs. Stevens made smart decisions with the football and connected on some passes that MSU simply hasn’t completed since Dak Prescott graduated.
The Bulldogs also gave the ball to running back Kylin Hill and let him consistently chew up yardage. Hill rushed 27 times for 197 yards – averaging 7.3 yards per carry – and was never tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
Deep at wide
The wide receiver group appears to be much improved with more depth as well, which helps open things up for both the passing and rushing game.
Creating more turnovers on defense was something coordinator Bob Shoop wanted to see improvement on this season. State ended up with four of those after it was determined on Monday that Maurice Smitherman did not intercept on the final play of the game. Still, four takeaways may have been the determining factor in a 10-point game – especially to a defense that surrendered 194 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Special teams showed improvement in the second half after being challenged by coach Joe Moorhead at halftime. Tucker Day pinned both of his punts at the 1-yard line, Malik Dear had a 40-yard punt return down to the 12-yard line, Jordan Lawless converted a clutch field goal late after missing his first and Scott Goodman’s kickoffs were much better.
Now for some of the bad.
Seven players were suspended for the game which affected the depth at nearly every position across the board.
Two of those suspensions were on the offensive line, where the Bulldogs were getting really thin by the game’s end. Starting left guard Dareuan Parker and center Darryl Williams both went down with injuries in the second quarter.
To make matters worse, Parker is the Bulldogs’ back-up center so walk-on Evans Wilkerson was called on to snap. Wilkerson did an excellent job in that capacity but even he sustained an injury late causing LaQuinston Sharp to snap the final few plays at center, a position he’d never practiced at.
State was only flagged five times for 40 yards but two of those penalties were inexcusable, even if it was Week 1. The Bulldogs got a delay of game on the first play of a drive and also a substitution infraction to back-up Lawless’ late field goal try.
But the ugliest aspect I saw in the opener was the poor tackling from the defense. I expected a step back on that side of the ball after what they lost last year, but there were far too many missed tackles and non-attempts to wrap up on Saturday.
The best news for the Bulldogs is that they started the year off 1-0, still have plenty of room to improve and even got their back-up quarterback Keytaon Thompson back on Sunday.