With the Mississippi State football team’s 34-29 win at LSU and subsequent bye week, the Bulldogs are one-third of the way through the season.
All the early returns are good, as MSU has climbed to 4-0 and is No. 12 in The Associated Press Top 25. Here is a deeper look at each of MSU’s position groups on offense and a grade for their work.
On Tuesday, The Dispatch will grade each of MSU’s position groups on defense.
Quarterbacks – A+
An easy grade to hand out, especially after junior quarterback Dak Prescott’s thrilling performance in the 34-29 victory against then-No. 8 LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Prescott, a native of Haughton, Louisiana, passed for 268 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 105 yards and another score.
“That’s the best he’s played since he’s been here,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said of Prescott. “It’s not that he’s playing above is ability level, either. He’s playing how we expect him to play.”
MSU quarterbacks Prescott and backup Damian Williams have completed 60.2 percent of their passes for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns in leading MSU to a 4-0 start.
Star performer: Prescott. That’s no surprise coming from a player named to preseason watch lists for the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Awards. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder is living up to the hype, as he has passed for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns; rushed 62 times for 374 yards and three touchdowns; and added a 24-yard touchdown catch against South Alabama. His 15 touchdowns leads the Southeastern Conference. He also is sixth in the league in rushing.
What needs to improve: Not much, but there is room for improvement. Prescott completed 53 percent of his passes in victories against Southern Mississippi and South Alabama. Although that number has risen to 60 percent, he sometimes has a tendency to lock onto one receiver and force the football into spots that are best left unchallenged. But those lapses have been few and far between, and other than a late first-half throw against LSU, were non-existent against the Tigers.
What’s to come: There is nothing to suggest Prescott can’t be outstanding all year. In his first major test this season at LSU, Prescott not only showed the ability to move the ball through the air and on the ground, but he also showed resolve. After watching LSU cut MSU’s lead in half to 17-10 early in the third quarter with a fumble return for a touchdown, Prescott led back-to-back 75-plus-yard scoring drives to put the game away, delivering a 56-yard touchdown run and a 74-yard scoring pass to wideout Jameon Lewis.
Running backs – B+
Individually, MSU tailback Josh Robinson has been outstanding and has been worthy of an “A” grade. But the Bulldogs’ inability to produce a strong second option drags the grade down a bit. Still, MSU put up 302 rushing yards on LSU, the highest total in the 10-year tenure of LSU coach Les Miles. Robinson has gotten better each week, culminating with a 197-yard performance against the Tigers.
“A lot of hard-running, tough yards,” Mullen said of Robinson. “He’s a guy we have to rein in every now and then, but he’s a special player.”Star performer: Robinson. Blessed with great footwork and the ability to dodge tackles, the 5-9, 215-pounder has been the perfect complement to Prescott, as he has delivered 485 yards and four touchdowns and is averaging 7.82 yards per carry, good for second in the league. He has topped the 100-yard mark in three games and has set a new career-high twice, most recently at LSU. Robinson is fourth on the team with six catches for 98 yards.
What needs to improve: The Bulldogs need a second option. While Prescott and Robinson are doing a great job sharing the load, the Bulldogs need another dependable ball carrier. Senior Nick Griffin and sophomores Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway have combined for 181 yards and one touchdown.
What’s to come: If Robinson stays healthy, expect the Dak and Josh show to continue. But the Bulldogs still need an extra option, and if Griffin, Holloway, and Shumpert can’t provide that, there always is freshman Aeris Williams, who is expected to redshirt. Williams, who is from West Point, was Mississippi’s Mr. Football. He rushed for more than 4,000 yards in his high school career.
Wide Receivers – B
Hard to find any fault with this group. The wide receivers have been good from top to bottom — 14 players have caught passes — and have been a factor in each game. The only thing keeping this grade at a “B” is the individual numbers have been suppressed by the fact that Prescott has spread around the targets so much. Senior Jameon Lewis has a team-high 15 catches, sophomore De’Runnya Wilson has 10, and seven Bulldogs have at least four.
“We want to be the best group in the SEC,” said senior Robert Johnson after his 68-yard touchdown catch against Alabama-Birmingham. “That’s what we work for every day. In this offense, we know that if we show up and work, Dak will find us.”
Star performer: Wilson. While Lewis has the most receptions, Wilson’s have come with more production. The 6-6, 225-pound sophomore from Birmingham, Alabama, has been a matchup nightmare for opponents, as evidenced by the 9-yard touchdown catch he made with LSU cornerback Rashard Robinson draped all over him. Wilson has a team-leading four touchdown passes and averages 17.5 yards per catch.
What needs to improve: While Wilson and Lewis have been steady, the emergence of a third target would go a long way for Prescott and the offense. The smart money should be on tight end Malcolm Johnson, who has five catches and two touchdowns. Johnson finished last season third on the team in catches (30) and yards (330).
What’s to come: The opportunities should be there all season. With Prescott and Robinson demanding attention in the backfield, MSU’s wide receivers and tight ends should face favorable defenses. So far, they’ve delivered.
Offensive line – B
Not a lot to dislike. The offensive line has been steady for much of the year and was dominant at LSU, when the Bulldogs rolled up 302 rushing yards. The offensive line has plowed the road for a rushing attack that ranks third in the league with 270 yards per game, but the Bulldogs’ front also has allowed seven sacks, which is 10th in the conference. Still, when the Bulldogs needed a strong performance up front at LSU, the front five opened up hole after hole for Prescott and Robinson.
Star performer: Though he was in the news for the wrong reasons stemming from a one-game suspension handed down by the SEC this week, starting center Dillon Day has been a pillar up front, although the honor could go to guards Justin Malone or Ben Beckwith just as easily. Against LSU, 212 of MSU’s 302 rushing yards came via the guard-center gaps.
What needs to improve: Day needs to stay on the field. His suspension for stomping two LSU players will affect MSU’s game plan against Texas A&M, so MSU will have to keep Prescott upright. The number of sacks allowed has been something of an anomaly, though, as several came after Prescott held the ball for an inordinate amount of time.
What’s to come: The Bulldogs will keep running, and the ability to punish teams up front will have a bearing on how that goes. In the next two weeks, MSU will face top-10 teams – Texas A&M and Auburn — that have shown vulnerability against the run. If MSU’s offensive can dominate in those games like it did at LSU, look out.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat