Earlier this week I exchanged emails with Evan over at the SBN Mississippi State web blog For Whom The Cowbell Tolls.
I'd like to thank Evan for taking the time to thoughtfully answer my questions. If you do the Twitter, Evan can be followed @eertel904. My answers to his questions can be read at their site.
By the way, I will be at the game Saturday, so if any ASoB'ers are around, give me a shout. We can bond over crummy concession stand food, and hopefully a win.
Without further ado...
1. Halfway through the season, with a record of 2-4, this must feel like a disappointing season for many Mississippi State fans. In your mind, why has the season unfolded the way it has, but also, what are some reasons for hope going forward?
Disappointing doesn't seem like a strong enough word, but it definitely describes how most State fans are feeling right now. It's hard to place the results of this season on one or two factors; it has truly been on almost all fronts. We have had inconsistent QB play, seniors fail to step up in their respective roles, dedication to a game plan that relies on a 5' 10" RB to run between the tackles 10-12 times a game, a coach that seems removed from the whole thing and a secondary comprised of some players that were never intended to see the field this season.
As far as improvement goes, I think it starts with the QB position. The QB position is the natural role for leadership on a football team and for the past two seasons, we've had one of the best to ever do it under center, and I think this team is still reeling from that. We have yet to see that one guy that grabs the huddle and says "get behind me; we're going to go win this game." The game we see that happen will be a major turning point for the season. I thought it was going to be either Fred Ross or Richie Brown that claimed such role but even they have seemingly regressed from last seasons performances.
2. Replacing a great player and leader like Dak Prescott is never easy, if even possible, but how would you evaluate new quarterback Nick Fitzgerald six games into his first season as starter?
Nick Fitzgerald is a curious case. He's incredibly physical and is not afraid to run the ball in the least, but that can take away from his ability to throw the ball downfield at times. There was a play in the BYU game on Friday that was a perfect example of this. First, let me just say that Fitzgerald's offensive line is not what I would describe as "ideal" for a first year starting QB. On this play, when the ball is snapped, almost every lineman gets a bad push and is already losing their individual battles, but Fitzgerald recognizes this quickly. He then avoids one tackler from his left by stepping up in the pocket but knows he only has so long before the whole thing collapses, so he rolls right and loads up to throw. Everything to this point has been what you would hope to see from your starting QB, but then he throws the ball to Donald Gray who had about three yards of separation on his guy about five short of the end zone. Thing is, Fitzgerald overthrew the ball by at least eight yards. This wouldn't have been so painful to watch if it wasn't the first time this happened. State scores a TD there, Friday night probably ends up an MSU win. But it wasn't, and we didn't, so here we are.
I think he has every tool he needs to be a very good QB in the SEC; my only question is in his ability to recognize his own mistakes, learn from them and improve. He manages to do that, MSU will be very solid at the QB position.
3. Fred Ross has five touchdowns on the season on 36 receptions this season, so he’s essentially scoring a touchdown every seventh catch. What factors make him an impact player for this offense?
Fred Ross stands out in two aspects that I think set him apart as a wideout: his catch radius and his ability to run after the catch. Throughout his career, Ross' biggest highlight reel plays have been due to the runs after he made the catch. The first that comes to mind was last year against Arkansas, where he caught the ball at about the Razorback 35, cut back to the inside and made three players miss on his way to the end zone. Ross is one of the type of players you buy a ticket for, just to see them make plays. The key now is becoming consistent with his hands. He has had far too many drops this season for a senior WR, in my opinion, and if he hopes to be drafted well, I think he needs to have a much better second half of the season.
4. The defense is allowing about 27 points per game, and is last in the SEC allowing 445 total yards per game. Yet, the defense held BYU's rushing attack to 146 yards when it was previously averaging over 200 yards per game. Is the BYU performance an indicator of improvement?
I'll hesitantly say yes to this one. The defensive line had a lot of parts that had to come together at the beginning of the season with little leadership to lead the way. But, as the season has progressed, AJ Jefferson has come into his own and has started to show some of the younger guys how to get after it. Jonathan Calvin is another guy that took a couple of games to truly hit his stride but is now becoming one of the best DL\LB hybrids on the team. Jeffery Simmons, after taking his one-game suspension, came out hot and has played very consistently every week since. So, between these guys stepping up in big ways and defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon finding new ways for them to line up and attack, I would say this group is actually starting to come together well.
5. What players on the defense should UK fans keep their eyes on Saturday night?
Aside from the three guys I named in the previous question, I would say Leo Lewis, Marquiss Spencer and J.T. Gray are all guys to keep an eye on. Leo Lewis is currently second on the team with 43 tackles and is coming off of a season-high 12 just this past week. He's a freakish athlete and has a motor like few players I've ever seen on a Mississippi State roster; the guy simply flies all over the field. Marquiss Spencer is a guy that has just recently found more playing time and has made the most of each opportunity. Watch for him to come out hungry again this week, ready to show the coaching staff he deserves a permanent spot n the lineup. Finally, there's J.T. Gray, who is number three on the team in tackles with 38. LB is probably one of the only positions MSU actually has some depth at and J.T. Gray is no exception.
6. Predict the outcome and share one or two contributing factors.
I think this game becomes battle of who coaches themselves out of a win first. Many games are often determined by explosive plays and defensive stands. Not this one. I think this weekend is going to be a race to see who can make the least mistakes because we all know they're coming. There's no way this game has less than four turnovers, and I don't see any player gaining more than 150 yards. It's not going to be pretty, and I feel bad for anyone that bought a ticket to this game.
‘Cats out-blunder the Dawgs, 17-13.