STARKVILLE — The Mississippi state football team is looking to snap two two-game losing streaks.
In addition to erasing the memory of back-to-back losses to Alabama (51-3) and Arkansas (58-42), MSU will try to avoid a three-game losing streak to Ole Miss for the first time since 2002-04 when the teams face off in the Battle for the Golden Egg at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.
A win would help MSU (4-7, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) keep its slim hopes of earning a bowl bid alive. The Bulldogs can make a bowl game as a 5-7 team because of a 971 Academic Progress Rate (APR) score.
A win would help Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5), which is coming off a 38-17 loss to Vanderbilt last week, become bowl eligible for the fifth-straight year under coach Hugh Freeze. Ole Miss beat MSU 31-17 in 2014 in Oxford and won 38-27 in Starkville last season. MSU’s last win in Oxford was a 31-23 win in 2010.
Here are five things to watch:
1. Can MSU start fast?
Last season, MSU fell behind 21-0 and trailed 28-3 at halftime.
MSU quarterback Dak Prescott lost a fumble and threw an interception that led to two Ole Miss touchdowns in the first quarter. MSU scored 27 points in the final three quarters, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit.
“I think that’s every week,” MSU quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said about the Bulldogs’ attempt to get off to a fast start. “You’d like to get off to a fast start. It’s obviously no different this week. If you get a chance to get off to a fast start, it kind of permeates throughout the team the confidence that you play with, and it can definitely be used as a springboard throughout the rest of the game.”
MSU trailed Massachusetts 14-6 in the second quarter and 14-13 at halftime. The Bulldogs overcame the deficit and won 47-35 in Gillette Stadium. That is MSU’s only come-from-behind win.
MSU trailed LSU 23-3 at halftime, but a field goal and two Damian Williams’ touchdowns weren’t enough in a 23-20 loss in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Anytime you’re on the road, you need to establish yourself early. You need to establish the run game early and stay in the game,” MSU sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said. “Down by 21 on the road is really tough to come back from. I think we’ve got a good game plan, and I think we’ll be fine. I don’t think it’s going to happen this year.”
2. How will the quarterbacks perform?
Both teams have quarterbacks who will draw their first starts in the Egg Bowl.
MSU will start Fitzgerald, while Ole Miss will go with freshman Shea Patterson.
Fitzgerald was named the starter before the first game, taking over for Prescott, who broke 38 school records. Fitzgerald is 175 of 318 for 2,178 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He has a team-high 985 yards rushing on 163 carries and 12 touchdowns. He became the second MSU player to total 3,000 yards or more of total offense in a season. Prescott did it twice (4,435 yards in 2014 and 4,381 yards in 2015).
“I think Nick will be fine,” MSU senior wide receiver Fred Ross said. “He’s played in some big games this year, so I think all those early jitters are out the window. I’ll think he’ll be fine.”
Patterson took over for Chad Kelly two weeks ago. Kelly suffered a season-ending knee injury (torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn lateral meniscus) in a 37-27 victory against Georgia Southern on Nov. 5. Patterson led Ole Miss to a come-from-behind 29-28 win at Texas A&M Nov. 12 in his first start.
Patterson is 45 of 84 for 560 yards and four touchdowns (one interception). He has 96 yards rushing on 28 carries.
After evaluating the two game films, Freeze said there is a lot Patterson needs to work on, especially hitting his wide receiver in stride or putting it to where he is the only one who can catch it.
“It’s great we have some extra time this week with classes not in session that he can get some extra film,” Freeze said. “We can make sure he feels great about what we’re trying to do this Saturday. There were a lot of good things he did, but still a ways to go.”
3. Will it be a shootout?
A lot of points could be scored in the 113th meeting.
MSU is 14th in the SEC in scoring defense (34.3 points per game) and 13th in total defense (455.2 yards per game). Ole Miss is 12th in scoring defense (32.1 points) and 12th in total defense (451.7 yards). Ole Miss’ offense is fifth in the SEC with 33.7 points, while MSU is ninth with 29.4 points.
“I have no idea if we can score,” Freeze said. “We’re missing some key people to our offense. I believe it’s very realistic to expect them to score points on the way we’ve played. Their quarterback’s playing at a high level, they have talented receivers, and it’s dual-threat guys that have given us problems all year.”
Fitzgerald is third in the SEC in total offense (287.5 yards). He is second behind Missouri quarterback Drew Lock with 3,172 yards.
MSU has scored 35 or more points in three of the last four games. The exception was a 51-3 loss at No. 1 Alabama.
4. Will MSU’s defense play with a chip on its shoulder?
After giving up 382 yards in a 35-28 victory against Texas A&M on Nov. 5, the MSU defense has allowed more than 600 yards in the last two games.
Alabama had 615 yards of offense, while Arkansas had 661. MSU coach Dan Mullen hopes to see his defense play with a different attitude than it has the last two weeks.
“I thought we played a really solid defensive game against Texas A&M,” Mullen said. “We gave up just some explosive plays the last two weeks. A lot of that is just not giving up all the explosive plays and making sure we’re being disciplined in what we’re doing in our fits and then making the tackles and winning the one-on-one battles.”
MSU first-year defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said practices have been pretty clean and he hasn’t seen the mistakes that have showed up in games in practices. He said anxiety might play a role in the poor performance on game days, but he said it comes down to execution and tackling.
“There’s no magic calls,” Sirmon said. “It’s about execution. We talk about we need the defense to behave the way the defense is designed to behave. Every defense that we call should have a different behavior. And we need the guys to execute within the parameters of those calls.”
5. Can MSU limit tight end Evan Engram?
Ole Miss senior tight end Evan Engram is questionable with an apparent hamstring injury.
He was seen favoring his hamstring when he walked off the field late in the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt.
If he is able to go, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Engram could present problems for MSU.
The Powder Springs, Georgia, native leads the SEC with 926 yards on 65 catches and eight touchdowns.
“He can do the things he needs to as a tight end physically, but has the athleticism as a wideout, and that’s what makes it a tough matchup,” Mullen said. “If you try to match him up as a wideout, he’s got size on you and physicality on you. If you try to match him up as a tight end, he has a lot of athletic edge on people. They do a good job of moving him around and taking advantage of his skill set.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.