Mississippi State gets a week off from Southeastern Conference play.
The Bulldogs (2-1) face Bowling Green (1-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
For more on BGSU, The Dispatch spoke with Patrick Andres, who covers Bowling Green athletics for The Blade in Toledo, Ohio. It is Andres’ first year covering the Falcons.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were the preseason expectations for Bowling Green after a 4-8 season in 2021? How did the win over Marshall last week change those expectations?
Andres: It was viewed as a pretty critical year for coach Scot Loeffler after the first three years of pretty marginal growth. In 2019, they really struggled. They got a nice win over Toledo. 2020 was kind of a wash: They went 0-5, but it was kind of a weird year with the pandemic and everything. In 2021, they made it to 4-8. They upset Minnesota. There were some signs of progress, but this was the year where they really had to deliver. It’s been a mixed bag so far, but the win over Marshall was a huge confidence boost for the program. We saw quarterback Matt McDonald finally play up to the level that people thought he would play up to in his fourth year in the program. I think it was a confidence booster for Bowling Green.
McDonald has thrown 10 touchdown passes against zero interceptions so far. What are the strengths of his game, and how does he match up against Mississippi State’s defense?
Andres: He’s a good amnesiac. Let me put it that way. Against Marshall, he started 4 for 12, and that’s a place where a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t have been able to find a groove. He just kept kind of chipping away at the Marshall defense, and he was eventually able to hit on some big plays. He threw three touchdown passes of 20 or more yards in the first half. He also is a threat to run, which is a part of his game that has always kind of been there but this year feels like it’s really taken a step forward when Bowling Green has desperately needed it. The guy who was expected to be their flagship running back, Terion Stewart, announced just before the season opener that he’d be out for the season, so McDonald has had to pick up a lot of slack in the running game. He’s done a very good job doing so. He’s definitely a dual threat. Mississippi State’s going to have to be ready for him to throw it or run it.
Bowling Green seems pretty susceptible to the pass so far, and Mississippi State passes more than just about anybody. How big a problem is that for the Falcons, and what can they do — if anything — to even out that potential mismatch?
Andres: The secret of their win over Marshall was getting sustained pressure on the quarterback. When they were able to get to both of the quarterbacks — Marshall used a couple different quarterbacks Saturday — they could force them into bad decisions. They could get stops. That was not something they were able to do against Eastern Kentucky, which was a pretty alarming defensive performance. They weren’t able to get sustained pressure. They let Parker McKinney, Eastern Kentucky’s quarterback, just kind of carve them up. At one point in the third overtime of the seven-overtime game, he threw an 18-yard two-point conversion, and it didn’t even look particularly difficult. Against Marshall, which is a run-first team, they were able to find a little bit of success stopping the run. Khalan Laborn had a big game — it was almost a quiet 158 yards. They were able to limit, after the first half, the big plays Marshall was able to get. Marshall was never really a threat to pass — they’re not a pass-first team — so Bowling Green wasn’t really tested in that area. Mississippi State will test them in that area. Any remote shot they have at an upset will depend on their veteran defensive front, guys like Karl Brooks and Walter Haire, getting pressure on Will Rogers.
What else would have to happen for Bowling Green to pull an upset in Starkville this week?
Andres: I’ll tell you what their calling card has been. In each of their first three games, they’ve come up with a big special-teams play or somebody from special teams has come up with a big play. They blocked a punt against UCLA. They blocked a punt against Eastern Kentucky. They’re going to need to come up with a big play in special teams for them to have any shot against Mississippi State. McDonald is going to have to be near perfect. He’s going to have to be as good as he was against Marshall — he closed on a 23 for 33 stretch. They’re going to need him to be that good and probably better to beat Mississippi State. They are going to need to get something in the running game — something besides McDonald. Ta’ron Keith has been a decent option, but they might need him to take the next step on the ground. He is also a formidable weapon out of the backfield. They need to get sustained pressure against Rogers. The secondary’s going to have to come up big. They came up big Saturday against Marshall. Trent Simms had a crucial interception. They’re going to need to be almost perfect in every facet of the game. For what they lack in talent in some areas, they haven’t made a ton of mistakes this year. I think that’s the reason they were able to get ahead of UCLA early, take a 17-7 lead. They eventually lost 45-17. If they’re going to have any chance against Mississippi State, that’s going to have to be a part of it.
If you’re comfortable making a prediction, how do you see Saturday’s game playing out?
Andres: I think that like against UCLA, Bowling Green might get off to a fast start. I think it might be the kind of game where it’s tied early, it’s close early. But this is an SEC team and a MAC team. The talent discrepancy is just too wide. I haven’t sat down and formulated my prediction for this week, but if I had to make a final score prediction, I’d say Mississippi State 42, Bowling Green 20.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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