STARKVILLE — Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers remembers the Bulldogs’ struggles in last season’s trip to Arkansas.
MSU failed on one of its four trips to the red zone, settling for a field goal and missing it.
The Bulldogs lost by three points, and that’s little coincidence.
“Ultimately, if we punch touchdowns in, we probably win the game,” Rogers said.
That’s something Mississippi State has been doing a much better job of this season.
The Bulldogs were merely tied for 59th nationally — solidly middle of the pack — in red zone score percentage in 2021. In touchdown percentage, their 62.07 percent mark was tied for 55th in FBS.
That has changed significantly in Year 3 under coach Mike Leach.
Mississippi State’s 94.12 percent efficiency in the red zone is tied for 19th nationally. The Bulldogs have scored on 16 of 17 trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard lines, with the lone exception being a fumble by Rogers at the Memphis 6-yard line in the Sept. 3 opener.
MSU has only kicked one field goal in the red zone, settling for a 22-yard kick by Ben Raybon after a first-and-goal series at the 2 fizzled out.
“I think just guys kind of being on the same page, whether it be on the ground or through the air,” Rogers said. “I think we’ve gotten into some pretty good plays and some pretty good looks.”
Leach stressed the importance of making positive plays in the red zone, particularly close to the goal line.
Incompletions or run plays stuffed for no gain do little to help.
“The important thing is, put it in play,” Leach said. “The most important thing in the red zone is, don’t squander plays. When people struggle in the red zone, it’s because they squander plays.”
Mississippi State hasn’t been doing that. The Bulldogs are tied for the fourth-best red zone touchdown percentage in the country.
And Rogers said MSU expects that success to continue.
“That’s the confidence that we’re playing with right now,” he said. “When we get in the red zone and really anytime we get the ball, we expect to score — and score touchdowns, quite frankly. That might not happen every time, but that’s the expectation we have as a team and as an offense.”
Offense improved so far
The Bulldogs’ red zone success is part of a step up across the board on offense.
Mississippi State is averaging 38.2 points per game, well above last year’s 29.1 mark. A pick-six and a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown against Texas A&M certainly helped, but the Bulldogs’ offense has been better in Year 3.
Why? Rogers said he wasn’t sure.
“We’re not even halfway through the year yet, but I think we’re on the right track, and we’ve just got to continue to get better,” he said.
MSU has several strong defenses left on the schedule, including Alabama (No. 5 in total defense), Kentucky (No. 20) and Ole Miss (No. 27).
But the Bulldogs through five games are tied for 11th in FBS in total touchdowns, and their scoring average is tied for 24th in the nation.
MSU is 42nd in yards per play at 6.21 and 45th in total offense at 440 yards per game.
The Bulldogs have the fifth-most passing yards in the country with 1,733.
Forbes continues to set records
Emmanuel Forbes knew he was tied for the Mississippi State career record in interceptions returned for a touchdown with three.
Forbes said he had his eye on a fourth pick-six.
“I was looking forward to trying to intercept the ball and go score,” he said.
The junior cornerback did so late in Saturday’s win over Texas A&M with a 33-yard interception return score.
The pick-six and a later interception by Forbes helped him continue his ascent in the MSU and Southeastern Conference record books.
He is one off the lead for career pick-sixes in the SEC (the record is five) and is tied for the active FBS career lead.
Forbes has the most career interceptions — a whopping 11 — among active SEC players.
“It means a lot, but I’m just here to help my team win and just keep getting better each and every week,” he said.
The Grenada product is second in the conference in passes defended with seven.
He was named the SEC defensive player of the week Monday.
“It means a lot,” Forbes said. “It’s something that we’ve been working hard for, that I’ve been working hard for, just putting in work each and every day, and it’s paying off.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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