Mississippi State has looked like one of the better teams in the Southeastern Conference at times this season, and one of the worst.
The disparity can be largely boiled down to one thing: Location.
Mississippi State is undefeated at home, crushing all four opponents it has faced. But the Bulldogs are just 1-2 away from Davis Wade Stadium, including lopsided losses in both conference games against Auburn and Georgia.
”Road games, we’ve kind of gotten out of character, gotten a lot of penalties and false starts,” Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said. ”We’ve not been handling the environment very well.
”I think a lot’s changed since those two games.”
Mississippi State (5-2, 2-2 SEC) gets another chance to fix its road woes when it travels to face Texas A&M (5-2, 3-1) on Saturday. The Bulldogs are coming off an impressive 45-7 home victory over Kentucky last weekend.
The Aggies have recovered from their second-half collapse in the season opener against UCLA, winning five of six games, including a 19-17 victory over Florida last weekend.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said Texas A&M is a good team and that the stunning loss to UCLA has proven to be an aberration. Throw in a hostile crowd of about 100,000 people at Kyle Field and the coach is certain the Bulldogs have a tough task ahead.
”With the exception of about 17 minutes of this season, they’d probably be a Top-10 team, if not a Top-5 team right now, that we’re getting ready to play,” Mullen said.
Fitzgerald is right that penalties and other miscues hurt the Bulldogs in their previous losses, but those weren’t the only problems. The quarterback had just 240 yards passing combined against Auburn and Georgia – completing less than half of his throws – and the one-dimensional offense wasn’t able to move the ball.
Fitzgerald was much more efficient in the team’s recent wins over BYU and Kentucky. Now the junior needs it to carry over in a much tougher game – and environment.
”You never want to be thinking about your throwing motion when you’re trying to go out there and make plays,” Fitzgerald said. ”You’re always going to be doing what you naturally do. It comes down more to practice, getting extra reps and trying to tweak that throwing motion and getting the fine details down.”
When Mississippi State has the threat of throwing, it makes the Bulldogs’ potent running game even more effective. Fitzgerald ran for 115 yards against Kentucky and 103 yards against BYU, scoring two touchdowns in each game.
Mississippi State’s improved offense will be tested by a Texas A&M defense that specializes in making the big play. The Aggies have two players in the league’s top six in tackles for a loss, including Otaro Alaka, who leads the SEC with 11.
”They’re probably the most athletic team we’ve played so far on the defensive side of the ball,” Mullen said. ”They lead the league in sacks and tackles for losses with great athletes that can run all over the field.”
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