September 8, 2013 2:38:33 AM
For Mississippi State University football fans, it must be tempting to look at all that transpired Saturday in a 51-7 victory against Alcorn State University and pronounce MSU is fully recovered from last week's disappointing opener.
People who like to pore over statistics have much to like. MSU had 556 yards, evenly distributed between the run and the pass, and held ASU to 163 yards, including 28 rushing yards on 25 attempts. MSU had 30 first downs. ASU had six, zero in second and third quarters. The Bulldogs scored on five of seven first-half possessions, etc., etc. ad infinitum.
You get the picture.
But do you, really?
Given the nature of the game, those who look at the victory as a measuring stick would do well to make those calculations in pencil.
This one was the mismatch it was supposed to be, and the results are what you almost always get in matchup between a Southeastern Conference team and a Southwestern Athletic Conference team, especially an ASU team that is in its second year of a major rebuilding effort. Even by SWAC standards, the Braves aren't "there" yet.
And they weren't "there" Saturday, which attaches a pretty big asterisk to anything you might be tempted conclude about this game.
That is not to say there was no value in MSU playing the game. MSU used 70 players, including 25 freshmen (seven of them true freshmen). In other words, if you wore a Maroon uniform Saturday and didn't get in this game, you're probably a permanent spectator this season.
A week after the Bulldogs offense did the ol' Houdini act in a 21-3 loss to No. 13 Oklahoma State University, MSU coach Dan Mullen observed "wins are obviously hard to come by in any level of football."
OK, so he told a whopper there, but to his credit, Mullen didn't glory in the gaudy numbers MSU put up against Alcorn State.
"It's true you're never as bad as you seem after a loss or as good as you seem after a win," he said.
That's a somewhat accurate statement, I suspect. The Bulldogs aren't as good as they appeared Saturday. But they well may be as bad as they looked against OSU.
We'll have a much more reliable indicator of how MSU measures up next week after its game at Auburn University. If the Bulldogs are going to make it to their fourth consecutive bowl game, a victory against Auburn seems essential. It's hard to find six wins on this schedule without it.
So where are the Bulldogs going into that critical game?
It's anybody's guess.
I think MSU is pretty solid defensively. Although badly gashed by OSU's running game in the second half, it appears MSU's front seven has the talent and depth to keep the Bulldogs in most games, and win some others. They are big, fast, athletic, and deep.
Offensively, I have grave reservations. Here's one stat from the ASU game I find telling: MSU was 5 of 13 on third downs and just 2 of 7 on third downs in the first half when the starters were in the game. Last week, MSU was 2 of 16 on third down against OSU.
Whether it was OSU or ASU, MSU has struggled on third down. A team that converts 7 of 29 third downs is going to have trouble moving the ball and scoring points.
Third-down conversions, as much as anything, is an offensive line stat. The conversions are the best indicator of an offensive line that doesn't dominate the line of scrimmage. In some circles, much will be made of whether MSU should stay with senior Tyler Russell at quarterback or hand the ball to Dak Prescott, who acquitted himself well enough Saturday in his first career start. To some degree, it's a moot point.
The most critical question remains whether the Bulldog offensive line can produce on a consistent basis. The news Saturday didn't provide much encouragement: Mullen said after the game that right guard Justin Malone, injured against OSU, is out for the season with a foot injury.
So Mullen's assertion that "wins are hard to come by" may be spot-on accurate if the Bulldogs don't get a lot better up front.
Slim Smith is the managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Slim Smith is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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