If quarterback Danny Etling makes his first start in an LSU uniform Saturday, it will be under difference circumstances than Brandon Harris’ first start in 2014.
Unlike Harris’ trip to Auburn, Etling and the Tigers will host a Mississippi State team that no longer features Dak Prescott. The Bulldogs new starting signal caller, however, was impressive in his second game under center against South Carolina. And State's defense is pretty stingy, too.
With that being said, we welcome back our Pick 6 series, a Q&A with a beat writer covering LSU’s opponent. Michael Bonner, who covers Mississippi State for The Clarion-Ledger, kindly joined us to answer our questions about the Bulldogs.
You can follow Bonner on Twitter @MikeBBonner and read his work here.
1.) The last time Mississippi State came to Baton Rouge, the Bulldogs ended a 23-year drought in Tiger Stadium, beating LSU 34-29 in 2014. Though the final score doesn’t reveal it, Mississippi State dominated the contest. Obviously, players like Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and De’Runnya Wilson are gone, but what did that win do for a Dan Mullen’s program?
The win two years ago set the tone for MSU's No. 1 season and remains as a landmark victory for the program. The knock on Mullen's career before that win was that he beat the teams he was supposed to beat, but never upset an opponent. The win at LSU on a Saturday night changed that.
It's carried into this weekend's game too. Many of the players that were on that team don't feel intimidated by a night game in Death Valley.
2.) Was the collapse in a 21-20 season-opening loss to South Alabama an aberration for Mississippi State or did it expose apparent weaknesses?
I think it was an aberration. Mississippi State took its foot off the gas pedal against South Alabama. The Bulldogs began playing the reputation of their opponent rather than just playing football. In years past, Dak Prescott would have made a play to cement the victory. He wasn't around and neither was any other playmaker.
While the team looked to someone else to make a play, South Alabama stole the victory. After the loss, MSU's players admitted they weren't playing hard in the second half and learned their lesson.
3.) QB Damian Williams’ numbers against South Alabama, on paper, looked impressive, but Dan Mullen went back to Nick Fitzgerald, who started in the opener, against South Carolina. All Fitzgerald did was complete 19 of 29 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for a school record 195 yards. What makes Fitzgerald the better option for Mullen and Bulldogs offense?
The key difference between the two is play-making ability. Willilams is game manager. He's accurate and won't turn the ball over. But he can't extend the field. Fitzgerald isn't as accurate, will turn the ball over, but offers that home-run ability.
This is where the personnel comes into play. MSU doesn't have the playmakers that can boost an offense. It needs to come from the quarterback position. That's why Mullen went with a home-run guy like Fitzgerald, who may strike out occasionally, rather than a singles hitter like Williams, who will get on base but no one may drive him in.
4.) Though it surrendered the 17-point lead against South Alabama, it’s clear Mississippi State is no slouch on defense. Led by SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week A.J. Jefferson, the Bulldogs are first in the SEC in tackles for loss and are No. 2 in yards allowed per game. With Leonard Fournette’s return to the lineup likely, do you believe this Bulldogs defense can contain the LSU rushing attack?
Mississippi State, for the most part, contained Fournette last year. He rushed for 159 yards but on a career-high 28 carries. The problem for MSU was Fournette still was able to break free for three touchdowns. MSU's defense is just as strong this year. It can contain Fournette for 80 to 90 percent of the game. But the Bulldogs need to do it for the full 60 minutes. They haven't shown the ability to put a complete game together, yet.
5.) If Danny Etling does start for LSU on Saturday, the Mississippi State defense won’t have much recent film on him, as he’s attempted just 14 passes in a Tigers uniform. What have Bulldogs defenders said about the possibility of facing Etling and what will be their approach against which ever quarterback plays?
If any team is prepared for a two-quarterback scheme, it's Mississippi State. The defense played against four quarterbacks through the entire offseason. As for LSU’s, Mullen said they have to trust the film they do have on Etling. More than that, they have to believe in their philosophy.
Les Miles, for a third time in five days Wednesday, indicated that Danny Etling will start a…
6.) Williams and Fitzgerald led the Bulldogs in rushing in each of the first two games. Beyond them lies a stable of running backs, highlighted by the starter, Brandon Holloway. The running backs’ numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page but how important is their production to the Mississippi State’s read-option attack?
It's very important. Combine Williams and Fitzgerald's numbers and MSU has the third-leading rusher in the SEC. Dak Prescott led the team in rushing in two of the last three years. The quarterback has always been a significant ball carrier for Mississippi State.
Without a true running back like Josh Robinson in the backfield, the quarterbacks will continue to share the load.