STARKVILLE — All it took was one big play to get Lideatrick Griffin back to the top.
Griffin’s 92-yard kickoff return touchdown Saturday against Auburn helped him reclaim the national lead for average return yardage, an impressive 33.2 yards a pop.
Griffin is eighth in total return yardage at 498 yards, but he’s only had 15 chances in nine games this season. The seven players above him have all had 20 or more kickoff returns in 2022.
Only Griffin and Key’Shawn Smith of Miami (30.48 yards per return) are above 30.
The Hurricanes lead the nation in kickoff return average at 28.93 as a team, just above Mississippi State’s 28.90 mark.
But for the Bulldogs, it’s the man they call “Tulu” versus everyone else.
MSU has averaged just 18.2 yards on its six kickoff returns NOT by Griffin this season. That would rank 98th among the 130 FBS teams not residing in Starkville.
Griffin had a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown last season against NC State. His score Saturday against the Tigers was his first of the year, although he’s had other big plays called back via penalty. “I was really glad Tulu got one, felt he deserved it, because I think he’s kind of gotten screwed out of about three more, without commenting or saying anything inappropriate,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said.
MSU shying away from run game again
Mississippi State is not an awful rushing team.
While the Bulldogs are dead last in FBS in rushing attempts with under 23 per game, they’re a considerably more respectable 106th in yards per carry at 3.54.
MSU flashed that improvement with two straight dynamic performances on the ground in October, lending credence to the idea the Bulldogs were reshaping their offensive identity.
The Bulldogs ran for 144 yards on 24 carries against Texas A&M — an average of 6 yards per carry — and ran 36 times for 162 yards against Arkansas the following week.
Ever since, though, MSU has seen its rushing production sink back to pre-2022 levels.
Mississippi State totaled just 22 rushing yards on 10 carries at Kentucky, only 62 yards despite 26 attempts at Alabama and only 13 yards on 18 totes against Auburn.
Ten sacks between the three games factor in there, but overall, MSU has gone away from the run once again.
With the Bulldogs’ pass-first offense, that makes a lot of sense, but the Bulldogs seemed to perform best when they could be multidimensional.
“I think we have to do a better job running the ball,” quarterback Will Rogers said after Saturday’s game. “When it’s a five-, five-and-a-half, six-man box and we can get four or five yards on first down, we have to do it. Part of that’s on me.”
Sacks are back as Bulldogs’ O-line falters
Until recently, Mississippi State’s offensive line had been holding up fairly well.
The Bulldogs didn’t allow a single sack in back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Arkansas on Oct. 1 and Oct. 8.
Through seven games, including a one-sack performance at Kentucky, MSU had given up just 10 sacks all season.
But a recent dropoff in pass protection is reason for concern.
The Bulldogs gave up four sacks Oct. 22 at Alabama and five Saturday against Auburn.
“We had real good protection for, like, the first quarter,” Leach said after a 39-33 overtime win over the Tigers.
Some of the numbers are due to talent on the opposite side of the ball. Rogers said he’d put Auburn’s Derick Hall up there with Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. or LSU’s BJ Ojulari when it comes to the best edge rushers in the SEC.
“They obviously have some great players,” Leach said of Auburn.
Leach said MSU linemen “took turns” allowing pressure on Rogers, and it cost the Bulldogs on multiple occasions. Rogers was hit from behind and strip-sacked twice in the second quarter.
Against a fearsome Georgia defensive front, Mississippi State must return its pass protection to its early-season level.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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