Mississippi State hits the road in Southeastern Conference play for the first time this season.
The Bulldogs (2-2) will play No. 15 Texas A&M (3-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday in College Station.
The Dispatch spoke with Texas A&M beat writer Travis L. Brown of The Eagle in Bryan-College Station to get his thoughts on the Aggies. Brown is in his sixth season covering Texas A&M.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Texas A&M is coming off its first loss of the season. What are your thoughts on the Aggies through four games?
Brown: The two things that are going to hamper them from the lofty expectations at the beginning of the season were how well the offensive line would jell and quarterback play, because they had to replace Kellen Mondy. Both things have been suspect to start the season. Haynes King started out great against Kent State but then of course had the injury in Colorado, and Zach Calzada has been a little up and down trying to find his footing in the role. The issues have really seemed to present themselves on the offensive line. If you look back at New Mexico, they were really unable to generate any kind of push for their run game in the first half of the game. Last week in pass block, they had a three-man rush that was giving them fits from Arkansas and was kind of putting some pressure on Calzada. No matter what the quarterback situation is, they are going to rely on their run game because they have two outstanding running backs in Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane, but they have kind of been subdued a little bit because of the offensive line’s inability to jell and some injuries on the offensive line as well.
Spiller’s numbers haven’t jumped off the page this year, but he’s still a productive back. How does he and the rest of A&M’s run game match up with a top-10 Mississippi State run defense?
Brown: It’s going to be interesting. Spiller and Achane still are two of the best in the conference, but they just haven’t been able to have the holes. If you go back and watch the first half of the New Mexico game, you’ll see Spiller getting brought down behind the line or only getting a couple yards. He’s pounding the ground; he’s really frustrated. He hasn’t necessarily had the most glowing comments about really the whole team, but you can tell some of it’s pointed at the offensive line — their attention to detail and their ability to get him any kind of space to run. It has been a little bit of a stop-and-start season for the rushing offense. The sign of a good running back is even when he hasn’t been able to get the holes to be a continual force, there is the 67-yard touchdown run he had against Arkansas. He can still be a home run threat. It’s definitely something that’s needing improvement, and that’s really starting on the offensive line.
Mississippi State has struggled to pressure the quarterback this season. Will Zach Calzada have a big game against a defense that is susceptible to big plays, especially through the air?
Brown: You’d like to think it could be a little bit of a confidence boost for him, especially back at home in a little bit more comfortable environment. I think the game got moving pretty quick for him against Arkansas. You could tell he was panicked a little bit, wasn’t necessarily seeing all of the right reads in his progressions. I think it has a little bit more to do with being comfortable than it does talent and maybe a little bit on having a little bit more touch on his throws. I think a home environment against a team that has had some struggles in pass defense might be something that the doctor ordered. The scheme Arkansas used against him last week was very similar to what LSU did against Mississippi State — what a lot of teams have done against Mississippi State this year in dropping a lot of defensive backs and using fewer defensive linemen on the rush. But that didn’t really stop Arkansas from getting some pressure, and it kind of confused A&M’s pass game a little bit. I’m curious to see if Leach and the DC take a page out of that book and put a lot back in coverage and force the offensive line to have to make some holes for the run game.
Is that what A&M did last year against Mississippi State? They only allowed 14 points, and seven of those came on a pick-six.
Brown: I kind of look back at what they did against Kent State in the first game of the season. Kent State led the nation in scoring last year and is a very pass-happy offense. They went dime most of the game. In that offense, they’re definitely going to give up the intermediate and short passes, wanting to force a lot of checkdowns. Mississippi State, I would guess, will probably have some success moving the ball between the 20s, but when it gets into the red zone, they’ll bring in that linebacker and try to stop stuff up a little bit. It could turn into a little bit of a field goal game if both teams’ offenses are sputtering a little bit. I would assume that things will stop up once they get in the red zone because of how A&M’s defense played Kent State, and I would think it will be pretty similar in this situation.
Is there anything else to know about A&M?
Brown: They have two starting wide receivers out in Caleb Chapman and Chase Lane. A key thing will be if Layden Robinson, their starting right guard, will be able to slot back in. With him being out the last two games, they’ve had to move their all-American, Kenyon Green, to right guard. That puts either Reuben Fatheree II or Blake Trainor out at right tackle.
If you’re comfortable making one, do you have a prediction for how Saturday’s game will play out?
Brown: I don’t like to shy away from predictions usually, but this A&M season has been so strange that it’s kind of hard to predict what team is going to show up. I think A&M is going to want to keep it a low-scoring affair because I think they haven’t necessarily proven that they can move the ball in any consistent fashion to make it a shootout, which Mississippi State wouldn’t mind doing. I bet you they’re going to try to milk the clock for all it’s worth and make it a possession game. A&M’s a nine-point favorite. I’ll take A&M by 10 in a low-scoring game.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.