BATON ROUGE, La. -- Mississippi State (3-0) will attempt to earn its first win at Tiger Stadium in eons when it visits No. 8 LSU (3-0) in Saturday night’s SEC opener for both teams.
Let’s look at five key storylines for the Bulldogs and Tigers as Saturday’s kickoff approaches.
Defending Dak: On Thursday we took a look at the numerous ways that Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott can affect the game. Last week against South Alabama, the Heisman Trophy dark horse became one of only two SEC players in the last decade to have two games where they ran for a touchdown, passed for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass (teammate Jameon Lewis is the other).
Prescott is scary as a runner -- in fact, he’s eighth in the SEC with an average of 91 rushing yards per game -- and scrambler once a pass play breaks down. Like it did successfully against Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, the Tigers’ defensive front must contain Prescott in the pocket in order to limit the havoc he creates once he opts to tuck it and run. He rushed for 103 yards against LSU last season, including a 28-yard touchdown scramble after fleeing the pocket.
However, Prescott was only 9-for-20 for 106 yards and an interception against the Tigers’ secondary -- and that bunch has only improved since then. ESPN Stats & Information reports that LSU has limited opposing quarterbacks to an 11.2 Total QBR, which is the best for any FBS pass defense. The Tigers are allowing a 40.2 completion percentage and 3.5 yards per pass attempt, both of which rank second nationally.
With that in mind, if the Tigers’ front can force Prescott to try to beat them with his arm, they would probably consider that a win.
Battle of front sevens: Although containing Prescott will be a challenge, perhaps the biggest test for LSU on Saturday will be along the line of scrimmage.
LSU’s defensive front has dominated since getting gashed early by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon & Co., but Mississippi State’s running game will provide the toughest challenge since Gordon for the Tigers’ interior line. And State boasts an impressive defensive front seven that could overwhelm what has been a so-so LSU offensive line.
The Bulldogs’ defense ranks second nationally with 29 tackles for loss, fourth with 18 pass breakups and eighth with 11 sacks. Defensive end Preston Smith has been named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week in all three weeks this season and linebacker Benardrick McKinney (20 tackles, five tackles for loss) is an impact player. The Bulldogs are surrendering just 80.3 rushing yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry, both of which rank second in the SEC.
That doesn’t bode well for an LSU offense that clearly wants to pound the run. No SEC team has more rushing attempts than LSU’s 157, but the Tigers’ average of 4.3 yards per carry ranks 10th in the conference.
Throwing deep: Then again, if the Anthony Jennings-to-Travin Dural show makes an encore, LSU might not be in such a bad position after all. Mississippi State’s secondary has been susceptible to the big play -- in the UAB game alone, the Blazers passed for 435 yards and had touchdown passes of 88, 81 and 75 yards -- and is surrendering 311.7 passing yards per game.
Jennings connected with Dural for an 80-yard touchdown against Wisconsin and a school-record 94-yard touchdown against Sam Houston State, but Dural has accounted for 58 percent of LSU’s passing yardage (370 of 642 yards) to date. Rest assured that Mississippi State will do its best to force Jennings to spread the ball around to other receivers so that Dural doesn’t take over again.
Eliminating big plays: Mississippi State’s offense has been remarkably productive on first down. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bulldogs have an FBS-high 17 plays on first downs that covered 20 yards or more.
That creates an interesting matchup, as LSU has been stingy about allowing big plays on any down. John Chavis' defense is among three from Power Five conferences that have not allowed a completion covering 15 yards or more. LSU's sports information staff discovered that Louisiana-Monroe’s longest play last Saturday (a 12-yard completion) was the worst in a game against LSU since Mississippi State’s longest play in a 1971 loss also covered just 12 yards.
Mississippi State has spread around its big-play production. Prescott, Lewis, Josh Robinson (who is sixth in the SEC with 96 rushing ypg), Nick Griffin and Damian Williams all have runs of 20 yards or more, while 10 receivers have catches of at least 20 yards.
In contrast, LSU has only seven players who have caught a pass, period, much less one that went for a 20-yard gain. Aside from Dural, only John Diarse and running back Leonard Fournette have receptions that covered at least 20 yards.
Series history: Recent history certainly does not look too pleasant for MSU.
LSU has won 14 in a row against the Bulldogs and 21 of the last 22. State hasn’t beaten LSU since 1999 in Starkville and hasn’t won at Tiger Stadium since 1991. LSU’s average margin of victory over State in four home games since Les Miles became the Tigers’ coach is 20.75 points.
All of that said, coaches on both sides have emphasized that history has nothing to do with what will happen at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night. And while that’s true, the historical trends reinforce why Tiger Stadium developed a reputation as an unpleasant destination for opponents. With its wins coming against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama – teams ranked 120th, 87th and 94th in ESPN’s Football Power Index – State likely must play its best game of the season in order to leave Death Valley with a victory.