October 3, 2017 10:42:47 AM
Football coaches are known to harp on the little things, even when they don't define them.
That was the case for Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen Saturday night after MSU's 49-10 loss to Auburn. He spoke more than once on MSU failing to do, "the little things you need to win on the road," but didn't name any of those things other than penalties.
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald didn't stop there. He provided the list.
"Too many penalties, too many blown coverages, too many missed throws, too many dropped passes, too many missed blocks, bad runs," he said. "Every facet of the game, just playing terrible."
Even in a bye week, MSU (3-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) has no time for the theoretical. The idle week is MSU's precursor to a critical stretch of home games against BYU and Kentucky before a shot to right the conference ship at Texas A&M. Any singular loss in that stretch -- combined with a likely loss to the conference's destruction machine located in Tuscaloosa -- would leave MSU 6-4 staring down another conference road trip. The time for existential change is now, but this isn't a hard puzzle to solve.
It starts with generating explosive plays. The same ones Auburn did generate that ultimately unraveled MSU.
When MSU's offense has been at its best -- as it was in 2014 and 2015, when it ranked tied for second and fifth in the conference in points per game -- when it creates explosive plays. So far, it has not.
Using Bill Connelly's IsoPPP metric proves MSU is behind where it has been in the past. IsoPPP measures how many points per play teams score on what Connelly's Success Rate metric deems successful plays: at least 50 percent of yards to gain on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third down. Essentially, IsoPPP is a way of measuring, when a team is successful, if it's barely scraping by or if it lands a major blow.
When MSU was at its most successful, as in 2014 and 2015, it maintained an IsoPPP ranking 12th and 13th in the nation, respectively. So far this year? 106th. Out of 130 FBS teams.
Admittedly, there is nothing revelatory in an offense being better when it is generating explosive plays. That's kind of the most basic formula in this modern era, is it not? Yet, it remains true.
Fans have voiced displeasure in the wide receiver unit, blaming it for a lack of big plays through the air. Mullen is quick to point out MSU is playing without two starting wide receivers; one is theoretical in Malik Dear, who has not played at all this year, but another is most existential in Gabe Myles.
He also knows that's not the only problem.
"Young guys are getting opportunities to make plays and we do have to get better and start making plays," Mullen said. "There are opportunities to make plays."
The offense is not alone. The defense has not done it many favors, particularly against the two run-based teams that recently blew MSU out.
It would be easy to credit it all to the lack of defensive tackle Cory Thomas, who missed both of those games with an injury. Mullen expects it to keep him out of the bye week, too.
"Cory would've helped us a lot, but at the same time, the guys we got are all the guys we need," fellow defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said. "At the time, Cory's not in and we're praying for his recovery, but we have to roll with what we got."
In that sense, the problems are clear, but so is the most reasonable approach from here: all is not lost.
Looking at the September that was for MSU football through the spectrum of (reasonable) preseason expectations shows that the Bulldogs, recent shortcomings aside, remain on pace or better than what most expected. I predicted 8-4 and came out on the high end; the collaboration of my colleagues at SEC Media Days weren't as high, picking MSU to finish next to last in the SEC West, with many national writers settling closer to 6-6.
Even after two losses by a combined 67 points, Connelly's S&P+ ratings system gives MSU a 61 percent chance of finishing either 7-5 or 8-4. It gives MSU just a 0.8 percent chance of finishing worse than 6-6.
The same system has MSU as overwhelming favorites in three of its next four games -- home against BYU, Kentucky and UMass -- with the Texas A&M game listed as essentially a coin flip. The path to 7-2, 3-2 SEC is easy to see.
Maybe at that point we would see the final games of September for what they are: unfortunate run-ins with the second and third best teams in the conference.
Brett Hudson is the Mississippi State beat writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @Brett_Hudson.
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