- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Here’s a look at three keys for Mississippi State in Tuesday’s matchup with Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl:
1. Setting the tone early: It’s been a while since Mississippi State last won a football game. The Bulldogs beat Arkansas 45-14 back on Nov. 17 and lost four of their last five games to end the regular season. They need to have some success early in this game and regain their edge. That means moving the ball on offense and establishing themselves on defense. In three of their four losses, they trailed by 10 points or more at halftime and don’t want to have to play from behind against a Northwestern team that likes to play up-tempo on offense and is very good at keeping the chains moving with its zone-option game. Moreover, the Bulldogs have proven to be money when they have the lead late. They’re 28-0 under Dan Mullen when leading after three quarters.
2. Finding some balance on offense: Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell was one of the more improved quarterbacks in the country this season and put up excellent numbers. Senior receiver Chad Bumphis also had his best season, with an SEC-leading 12 touchdown catches. But when things went bad for the Bulldogs toward the end of the season, their running game went into the tank. Against SEC competition, they were 13th in the league in rushing offense with an average of 111.2 yards per game and were held under 50 yards rushing in three of their four losses. They need to get running back LaDarius Perkins going in this game. He needs just 60 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, and being able to generate a running game will keep the Wildcats from loading up and coming after Russell.
3. Secondary revival: At one point this season, Mississippi State would have rated right up there as one of the top defensive backfields in the country, and the Bulldogs are still plenty talented back there. Senior cornerback Johnthan Banks won the Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back. The problem was that the Bulldogs didn’t play like one of the top defensive backfields to close the season. They had several communication breakdowns and gave up an average of 273.4 passing yards and 12 touchdowns in their last five games. They were burned for five touchdown passes in the 41-24 loss to Ole Miss to end the regular season. Establishing a stronger pass rush will help, but Mississippi State also needs to get back to playing to its talent level in the secondary and not allow Northwestern any big plays in the passing game. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC this season with 30 interceptions, but only picked off four passes in their last five games.