STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State’s veteran defense is one of the biggest reasons the program has emerged as a consistent competitor in the Southeastern Conference over the past three seasons.
But it’s also been a big contributor to the Bulldogs’ disappointing finish to this regular season, which included losses in four of five games.
Senior linebacker Cameron Lawrence says he’s glad Mississippi State (8-4) has one more chance to leave a good impression when it plays No. 21 Northwestern (9-3) in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.
“We’ve had time to get our bodies back together, get our bumps and bruises healed up,” Lawrence said. “Now we’ve got to keep working on the little things. It was a hard stretch for us — we played a really tough schedule toward the end of the season — but now we’ve just got to focus on the details. The sky is the limit for us.”
Mississippi State was scheduled to arrive in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday to begin preparations for the Gator Bowl. It will be the last game for Lawrence, cornerback Johnthan Banks, safety Corey Broomfield and defensive tackle Josh Boyd — a quartet of longtime starters.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Lawrence was a role player in his first two seasons, but moved into a starting role as a junior and has responded with a combined 234 tackles over the past two years.
Banks won the Thorpe Award earlier this month — which goes to the nation’s top cornerback — and the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder will almost certainly be an early selection in April’s NFL draft. He has 16 career interceptions, using a blend of size and speed rarely seen at cornerback.
Broomfield and Boyd don’t have the gaudy numbers but have been consistent the past four seasons, providing the constant production that Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen craves.
But the past five games haven’t reflected that experience.
Mississippi State won seven straight to start the season — rising to No. 13 in the nation — but then hit a brutal portion of the schedule that produced lopsided losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU. The Bulldogs responded to beat Arkansas, but then lost 41-24 to rival Mississippi in the Egg Bowl.
In those four losses, the Bulldogs gave up nearly 40 points per game.
“We’ve always been known for playing hard and giving great effort out there,” Boyd said. “But we’ve been forgetting little things. It’s frustrating because we know we can do better. We’ve been working really hard to make sure Northwestern gets our ‘A’ game instead of our ‘B’ game.”
Northwestern’s offense will provide another difficult challenge for Mississippi State. The Wildcats are averaging more than 31 points, which ranks third in the Big Ten, and are averaging more than 230 yards on the ground.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Mullen are two young head coaches who have developed a friendship over the past several years, discussing ideas and philosophy as they try to build their programs. That should lead to plenty of familiarity in the Gator Bowl.
“They’re a team that probably should have won their conference and played in the Rose Bowl,” Mullen said. “Very talented in every phase of the game — very explosive offense, one of the top rushing offenses in the country. They run at a high tempo, and they have stout, physical offensive linemen, some fast playmaking receivers, and a quarterback and running back who can score every time they touch the ball.”
Mullen was particularly concerned with Northwestern running back Venric Mark, who has rushed for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. He’s also scored two touchdowns as a punt returner.
“They get him the ball in the open field and he can score from anywhere,” Mullen said.
Mississippi State has stopped players like Mark before. That’s one reason the Bulldogs are playing in their third bowl game in three seasons.
And Boyd is ready to prove the defense can do it one more time.
“We want to show everybody that we’re still us — that we’re still a great defense,” Boyd said. “This is the last college game of our lives, so we want to go out on top.”