Mississippi State knocked off Middle Tennessee Saturday, 27-6, spoiling the festivities surrounding Floyd Stadium as the Bulldogs were the first SEC team to visit Murfreesboro.
Offense sputters, misses opportunities
It was almost a perfect storm working against the Blue Raider offense on Saturday.
Cold and windy conditions were a problem.
Being shorthanded because of suspensions to receiver Patrick Honeycutt (for the game), center Mark Thompson (for the first quarter), and quarterback Dwight Dasher (for the first quarter) was also difficult.
When the game kicked off, it didn't get much better. The offense tallied four turnovers, failed to score touchdowns on two trips inside the red zone, lost Tavarres Jefferson to a foot injury, and had terrible early field position.
"We're struggling so much right now trying to find a way to run the ball," head coach Rick Stockstill said after the game. "Without Phillip Tanner in there, we moved (Desmond Gee) back to tailback. We just couldn't block them up front. There wasn't anything we could do. The only way we can run the ball with any consistency right now is with the quarterback and you're not going to win games consistently or move the ball consistently throughout the game relying on your quarterback. We've got to find a way to get more productivity in the running game."
Discounting Dasher's 47 yards rushing, the Raiders had -5 yards on the ground.
But even with an anemic ground game, the offense had two chances to make the game more competitive in the second quarter, but had to settle for short field goals when drives stalled inside the 10 yard line.
"We could have punched those in," Stockstill said. "You can't (kick field goals) against an SEC team and expect to have a chance to win."
A strong wind blowing toward the South endzone affected the offense as well. Each of the Blue Raiders' four interceptions came as the offense was moving toward the North endzone into the wind.
Dasher, who was responsible for three of the interceptions, said it was a factor in the passing game.
"It was a big difference. I had to adjust the throws. I had to make sure I didn't lighten up too much (when the wind was at our back). I overthrew a couple of passes. All of the picks were my fault and I should have made better throws."
Brent Burnette, who started at quarterback in place of Dasher, presided over a pretty conservative attack in the early stages as the offense was moving into the wind.
Stockstill indicated after the game the conservative approach was more because of the bad field position MT had early in the game.
In the first quarter, the Raider offense's average starting point was its own 19 yard line.
Defense stands tall but yields two big plays
There will be a lot of positives for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to point to as he breaks down the game film from the loss, but two glaring plays will stand out as costly.
Mississippi State scored its first touchdown on a 39 yard run by quarterback Tyson Lee up the middle and then scored its second touchdown on a 57 yard run up the middle by Anthony Dixon, who tallied 135 rushing yards in the game.
"We missed some responsibilities on their option and they hit a couple of long runs on us," Stockstill said. "The quarterback kept the ball on the option for a keeper on their first touchdown and we had another guy mess up on the other long run for a touchdown."
Take those two plays away and the Raider defense only surrendered 237 yards in the rest of the game.
"On those two plays, Coach Diaz called a particular coverage and the Mississippi State offense executed their play better than we executed our coverage," safety Jeremy Kellem said. "As the free safety, I take responsibility for those because I am the last line of defense and have to get them down.
"Overall, we played a pretty good game, but when you look back over it, all it takes is two or three plays in a game to win or lose it. Those two plays really hurt us right there."
The defense forced Mississippi State to settle for two field goals on its first two trips inside the red zone and also stopped the Bulldogs early in the third quarter on a 4th-and-short play.
But the Blue Raiders could never force MSU into any turnovers, which had been a problem for the Bulldog offense in recent games.
"It's hard to win when we turn it over four times and they don't turn it over at all," Stockstill said.
Stockstill not hanging head
Some fans may be hanging their heads after two straight convincing losses have dropped the Blue Raiders to 3-3, but Stockstill certainly isn't among that group.
With half the season still remaining and the team still alive in the Sun Belt championship race, Stockstill says his outlook for the stretch run is still very bright.
"We're in second place in the conference and beat two real good teams out of conference. I am jacked up. I like our team. We've got some issues obviously because of some injuries, but we jump back into conference play the rest of the way. I am excited about our team and I like what we're doing. I think we are competing. We are 3-3 and I think we're in great position to finish this season off."
The Blue Raiders will return to conference action against Western Kentucky next week.
"We've got to focus on the conference," Dasher said. "We've got to win the rest of the season out. Hopefully we will still have a chance in the conference. Some things will have to happen with Troy and (ULM) is undefeated also. We just have to work hard this week and get better."