August 26, 2014 6:49:38 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott made a huge impact during his sophomore season in 2013, scoring 25 touchdowns and accounting for nearly 3,000 total yards while starting just seven games.
He also made a huge impression on University of Southern Mississippi head football coach Todd Monken.
Speaking at his weekly press conference in Hattiesburg on Tuesday, Monken was asked about his biggest concern when his Eagles, 1-11 a year ago, face MSU's offense.
"They have a number of starters coming back, but the key is their quarterback," said Monken. "He is a handful back there. He can throw. He can run. He can do it all."
Following a breakthrough sophomore season in relief of original starter Tyler Russell, Prescott enters Saturday night's 6:30 p.m. season opener as the focal point of USM's defensive game plan, a position he will likely find himself in frequently as a junior.
Now the unquestioned starter heading into a season for the first time in his career, Prescott views the renewal of the in-state rivalry as an opportunity.
"It's our first chance to get back out there, to finally play against somebody else," said Prescott. "As far as defenses keying on me, I'm confident in the guys we have on this offense. I think we have too many weapons to focus on just one player. Whether it's Josh Robinson or Jameon Lewis or Malcolm Johnson, we have a lot of places to go with the ball."
To Prescott's point, the Bulldogs have a number of weapons that emerged in 2013, including Lewis, the leading returning wide receiver in the Southeastern Conference. Add in Johnson, who led MSU tight ends with 30 catches; Robinson, who averaged six yards per carry; and a receiving corps that returns six of its top seven pass catchers, and Prescott has plenty of help at his disposal.
With the wealth of returning talent offensively, MSU head coach Dan Mullen has options in how he chooses to attack a Southern Miss defense that finished 119th out of 125 Division-I teams in scoring D a season ago. Still, the sixth-year head coach believes his Bulldogs will be facing an improved USM defense.
"You look defensively, they've got some solid players on that side of the ball," said Mullen. "And year two, they're getting used to their system and what they've run and how they're run it. Now the guys have a little bit more experience and obviously finishing last year the way they did, they are going to be playing with a lot more confidence."
Ground and pound
So the question remains: How exactly will MSU's offense attack the USM defense?
The answer will likely be found on the ground. While Prescott completed 58 percent of his passes as a sophomore and returns plenty of targets in the passing game, the Haughton, Louisiana native was most effective as a runner, a facet of his game that plays into USM's biggest weakness.
Prescott rushed for a team-high 829 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 134 carries a year ago, and he is complemented by a running back committee that includes Robinson, senior Nick Griffin and freshman Ashton Shumpert.
"We've seen them on film, done a lot of work on them," said Prescott of the Southern Miss defense. "They will be better. They aren't exotic in their schemes, but they want to execute at a high level. With the experience they are bringing back, they will be better this year."
The Golden Eagles do return eight defensive starters, and that number extends to nine including defensive end Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who started in 2012 before sitting out most of 2013 due to injury. But while experienced, USM's defense was ineffective against the run, finishing among the nation's worst run defenses in Monken's first year.
The Eagles finished 115th nationally in rushing defense, yielding 2,695 yards, and those numbers deteriorated as games wore on. The USM defense gave up 21 second-half touchdowns on the ground, 102nd in the country, and yielded 196 plays of 10 yards or more in 2013.
By contrast, Prescott was a major part of MSU's offense finishing 23rd in the nation with 221 such plays.
The responsibility of slowing Prescott and Robinson, a duo that will run behind an MSU offensive line that brings back three starters, could fall to an experienced group of USM linebackers. DeBarriaus Miller, who will play in the Bandit role, was the team's leading tackler in 2013 with 92. Terrick Wright will play the weak side linebacker spot and was second on the team in tackles with 90.
MSU wide receiver Jameon Lewis, who grew up 50 miles from USM's Hattiesburg campus, could also play a key role for the Bulldogs. Exploding for 64 catches and 923 yards as a junior, Lewis takes special pride in renewing a rivalry that has been dormant for 24 years.
"I'm from South Mississippi, so this is a huge game for me," said Lewis. "I know a lot of guys on their team and they're talking a little bit. It's all in fun. I can't wait until Saturday night."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat