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Running backs carry load on ground for MSU

 

Brandon Walker

 

STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen was blunt when asked of quarterback Dak Prescott's less-than-featured role Saturday in the season opener against Southern Mississippi. 

 

Prescott, who led MSU in rushing with 829 yards as a sophomore, was featured sparingly in the ground game in the 49-0 victory. Although he finished with 39 yards on eight carries, Prescott had only two carries on designed runs, a number Mullen said was predicated by a sterling performance by MSU's tailbacks. 

 

"I think we were running the ball well with our backs, and when they're running well I'd rather feed them than Dak," Mullen said. "We just didn't really need to get in to many quarterback runs." 

 

Prescott's lack of designed runs didn't affect his performance. The Haughton, Louisiana, native set new career highs with 284 passing yards and four touchdowns. 

 

While Mullen added Prescott "basically only played half a game," the performance of tailbacks Josh Robinson and Nick Griffin helped MSU preserve Prescott's legs. Robinson, a junior from Franklinton, Louisiana, looked the part of every-down back in his first game as a starter. 

 

Like Prescott, Robinson played a little more than a half, exiting the game after MSU's initial drive of the second half when it took a 35-0 lead. Behind Robinson, though, MSU established its identity on the ground, as the redshirt junior rushed for a game-high 87 yards on 14 carries, often gaining yards after contact. 

 

"That's just Josh Robinson. That's how I describe him," Prescott said after the game. "He will do whatever it takes to gain yards. He will duck under tackles, dive over them, flip over them. He's an incredible runner." 

 

Griffin, a fifth-year senior from New Augusta, rushing for 45 yards on eight carries, including a 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. 

 

"It's my last year, so it's important to me to play as well as possible," said Griffin, who enters his final season after recovering from his second anterior cruciate ligament injury during his time in Starkville. "I thought we executed well, did a good job of following our blocks. Josh was outstanding, he did everything a starting running back in the SEC is supposed to do." 

 

Prior to Griffin and Robinson each leaving with the game well in hand, the Bulldogs averaged 6 yards per carry. Robinson tacked on three catches for 49 yards, leading the Bulldogs in both categories when he left the game 

 

"I'm trying to get back to my high school days when I was a receiver," Robinson said with a smile. "They didn't call me 'Bowling Ball' back then, they called me 'Touchdown'. But playing well in the passing game is one of my goals. With the way running backs are used, being a target in the passing game really helps the team." 

 

Whether Prescott, whose longest run Saturday was a 16-yard scamper on a pass play, is unleashed this week against Alabama-Birmingham, the Bulldogs figure to face a defense that looked improved from a season ago in its opener. In 2013, the Blazers finished No. 121 in the country (out of 125 teams) in scoring defense, yielding 43.8 points per game. UAB defeated Troy 48-10 last week in its season opener. 

 

"I see an improved, complete football program coming into this Saturday," Mullen said. "On the defensive side of the ball, I saw a very aggressive defense with guys making plays on the field. They give a lot of different looks to try to confuse you. This is a completely different team than you saw last year." 

 

UAB's defense allowed just one touchdown, a 1-yard run 89 seconds into the game. The defensive line allowed just 71 yards on 37 carries and sacked quarterback Brandon Silvers four times. 

 

And while his defense seems to be improved, first-year UAB coach Bill Clark believes his team faces a daunting task in trying to slow down a Prescott-led offense that collected 550 yards of total offense against Southern Miss. 

 

"Offensively, they have weapons everywhere," Clark said of MSU. "They are monstrously big. They have a quarterback (Dak Prescott) that has a chance to play for the Heisman Trophy." 

 

While MSU's ground game was effective against USM, the Bulldogs' passing game was explosive at times, as Prescott recorded career-highs in passing yards and passing touchdowns. That balance (349 passing yards, 201 rushing) is a facet of MSU's offense that UAB respects as it prepares for the 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday. 

 

"When you step on the field, you're always going to have jitters, especially at Mississippi State with a big offensive line," UAB defensive lineman Diaheem Watkins said. "Their quarterback is amazing. They have a good offensive line and good running backs." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker @bwalker@cdispatch.com

 

 

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