Bulldog grab bag: Running game will be crucial for Texas A&M matchup

Mississippi State headed into halftime of last Saturday’s game against Bowling Green holding a comfortable 31-7 lead with just four rushing yards.

After three games that saw the Bulldogs favor the run much more than in years past during the Mike Leach era, the Air Raid offense took center stage and was incredibly effective, with quarterback Will Rogers throwing for four passing touchdowns and over 260 passing yards.

The Bulldogs ended up rushing for just 45 yards in a game that didn’t need them to rely heavily on the rushing game, but against Texas A&M this Saturday, the run could be the difference between a win and a loss.

“We’ve got to execute,” running backs coach Jason Washington said. “They’ve got a good ball club, obviously, up front, and I think one of their strengths is their secondary.”

That secondary has helped to make the Aggies 10th in the country in passing defense this season, giving up just 153.2 passing yards a game.

On the other side of things, A&M’s defensive line has generated just six sacks this season, T-100th in the country, and is 104th in rushing defense, giving up nearly 177 yards on the ground a game.

Despite being last in the SEC in rushing yards per game, Washington is happy with where the running back room is currently.

“We’ve talked about it from Day 1 about the standard, where it’s at and how we go about practice and go about games,” Washington said.

“They’ve lived up to it so far … Now it’s just keep on doing the little things and concentrating on technique and effort and doing the best they possibly can.”

Being able to take advantage of that vulnerability in the Aggies might look unorthodox for the Bulldogs, but has major difference-making circumstances.

—Alex Murphy

MSU special teams has its hands full with Devon Achane

Losing leading wide receiver Ainias Smith definitely has thrown a wrench into the mix on offense for Texas A&M, but when it comes to special teams, the Aggies have things covered with Devon Achane.

Not only A&M’s leading rusher but its leading kick returner, Achane has one return touchdown to his name already and has averaged nearly 40 yards per return during the 2022 season.

“He’s one of the best in the league and probably best in the country,” special teams coordinator Eric Mele said. “We’ve got one to counter him, so it’s our personal challenge: their guy versus our guy.”

Mississippi State’s counter in question is Lideatrick Griffin, who’s averaging 33.5 yards per return thus far.

Now in SEC play, kickoff returns will be few and far between, which means taking advantage of short kicks to the Bulldogs and stopping those long returns from the Aggies.

“If we get one shot, we have to be ready for it,” Mele said. “We have to make the most of that opportunity.”

One thing that is to Mississippi State’s advantage on Saturday is seeing Achane in the return game before he comes out in the backfield.

While extensive film on him has already been seen, getting a taste of what to expect from him on-field from the jump helps that much more in preparations on the defensive side of the ball.

In contrast, being able to give the Bulldogs a short field to work with as an offense, getting the crowd involved early and coming out swinging.

—Alex Murphy

MSU defenders preview A&M offense

Asked Tuesday to deliver a scouting report on Texas A&M, safety Collin Duncan was happy to oblige.

The senior went into detail on the Aggies’ offense — from speedy receivers to an “electric” running back in Achane to quarterback Max Johnson’s “cannon.”

“That’s a lot of people I just named,” Duncan pointed out. “You’ve got to be on your toes.”

Mississippi State held Texas A&M to 22 points last season in a four-point win in College Station, and the Aggies’ offense has averaged just below that mark this year.

But despite A&M’s struggles, Duncan and the Bulldogs aren’t about to take the Aggies lightly.

“Anytime you go up against a Texas A&M Aggies team, especially a team that’s led by coach Jimbo Fisher, you’ve got to be on your P’s and Q’s, especially on defense,” Duncan said. “They’ve got a lot of weapons. They can spread the field out.”

A&M is without one of those weapons in Smith — who is out for the season with a leg injury — but Duncan is acutely familiar with Johnson.

The former LSU quarterback beat the Bulldogs in Starkville last season while with the Tigers.

“If you give him time, he can kill you,” Duncan said. “ … I think we’ve all seen that the guy has a great arm. Any quarterback in this league but especially Max, if you give him time and let him see his feet, he’s dangerous.”

Defensive end De’Monte Russell offered commentary on another part of the Aggies’ offense.

Russell said he watched Saturday’s game between Texas A&M and Arkansas and was impressed by the quality of play along the lines.

“It was pretty physical down in the trenches, so we’ll have to bring our A game,” he said.

—Theo DeRosa

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