Mississippi State has a huge opportunity awaiting it Saturday in Baton Rouge.
The Bulldogs (2-0) can win their first Southeastern Conference game with a win over LSU (1-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday.
For more on the Tigers, The Dispatch spoke with Wilson Alexander of The Advocate/The Times-Picayune. Alexander is in his fourth season covering LSU football and his second as the paper’s lead LSU football writer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
LSU has started off 1-1 with a loss to Florida State and a win over Southern. What are expectations for the Tigers looking like right now?
Alexander: They’re not that changed from what they were coming into the season. Of course, every LSU fan wants to win that opener against Florida State because that seemed like a game LSU could get, and obviously it was only a one-point loss by the end of a messy outing. Everyone understood that this was going to be an up-and-down year. It could be pretty rocky. You look back to the bowl game last season, and LSU had fewer than 40 scholarship players available in the Texas Bowl. This was a lot for Brian Kelly to change, and I don’t think anyone reasonably expected him to be able to overhaul LSU in just a year. This thing takes time. I had a conversation with the athletic director back in the preseason, and he said, ‘This isn’t going to be a Picasso coming out of the box. You’ve got to be patient with it.’ It’s not that changed from what LSU may have expected coming into the year, although it was less disciplined in that first game than you thought you would be getting with Brian Kelly.
Mississippi State just beat a Pac-12 quarterback named Jayden — Arizona’s Jayden de Laura. What have you seen so far from Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels, and what challenges does he present for the Bulldogs’ defense?
Alexander: He’s really fast. We knew that coming in because he hit 21 miles an hour on a GPS number in practice at one point. The way he creates with his legs really is dynamic and quite effective for LSU. He had 114 yards rushing against Florida State and really just sustained the entire offense and then really got it going late in the second half. He’s now led eight straight touchdown drives, which is pretty impressive. He’s been effective. He still takes off running a little bit earlier than he maybe should and lowers his gaze and stops going through progressions at times, but he and (wide receiver) Kayshon Boutte are certainly the guys who make this offense go.
LSU lost Maason Smith for the season in Week 1 but will return BJ Ojulari for this game. Can LSU get pressure on Will Rogers and make him uncomfortable, or is Rogers going to have the time to pick LSU apart?
Alexander: We’ll see. LSU hasn’t really created an excellent pass rush necessarily, and it had trouble wrapping up Jordan Travis in the opener against Florida State. The Southern game was their first one without Maason Smith, but it’s just hard to really take anything away from a game like that when you’re up 51-0 at the half. We’ll have to see. LSU’s going to find out a lot more answers about really everything now that we’re getting to SEC play and especially in this first game against Mississippi State. It’s still a deep defensive line. Ali Gaye and BJ Ojulari are talented rushers off the edge. Jaquelin Roy is a solid nose tackle. Even Mekhi Wingo, who’s stepping in for Maason Smith, was an all-SEC freshman last year at Missouri. They have some talent, but whether they can actually get up to the quarterback, a lot of it’s just been offseason talk. Now we’re going to actually find out if what we all suspected throughout the offseason is actually feasible.
What do you see as the biggest mismatches in this game in either team’s favor?
Alexander: Certainly, when you look at Mississippi State and that Air Raid offense, the fact that it’s going up against a secondary that does not have a lot of game time together is an advantage for Mississippi State. LSU’s corners felt like they proved something in the opener against Florida State. Other than getting beat on a flea-flicker, they really were stuck right on the receivers in coverage and didn’t allow anything deep. That was a plus for them and they felt like they proved something, but they haven’t faced this kind of scheme. They struggled a little bit with communication in the opener. Brian Kelly thought they could shore that up by making some adjustments in terms of personnel, but they don’t have a lot of snaps on the field together. That seems like an advantage for Mississippi State in this game as well as an experienced defensive front going up against LSU’s offensive line, which is still a work in progress. There’s a lot of shuffling going on there — again, not much cohesion going on on the offensive line at all. Those seem like two pretty big pluses for Mississippi State. For LSU, playing at home, that’s big. It’s sort of an evening game in Tiger Stadium. That helps. So does the fact that they’re starting to click a little bit on offense, using some tempo. They’ll get John Emery back. It will remain to be seen what he does in his first game back in over a year. He’s been out 643 days and has not played a football game. He is a talented running back who might give them more on offense.
If you’re comfortable making a prediction, how do you see Saturday’s game playing out?
Alexander: I don’t know a score yet, but I do think at this point in the week that Mississippi State’s going to win. That’s a talented team. I was surprised that they were not in the top 25 as were a lot of people earlier this week. This is a game where they can prove that they do belong in that top 25. This seems like Mike Leach’s best team since he’s been there, and they have a lot more experience. LSU is still in the midst of figuring things out at a lot of different places, and that’s a tough place to be in in the middle of a football season against a team that is already cohesive and already has answers everywhere. Whereas LSU is trying to find those answers, Mississippi State already has them. I would say Mississippi State wins the game.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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