GAME PRIMER: OUTBACK BOWL VS. MISSISSIPPI STATE

By Mike Jones on December 31, 2018 at 1:35 pm
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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WHO: #18 Mississippi State Bulldogs 8-4 (4-4)
WHEN: Tuesday, January 1st, 2019
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
KICKOFF: 11:00 AM Central
TV: ESPN2
ONLINE: Watch ESPN
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
ODDS: Mississippi State -7
WEATHER: High of 81, mostly sunny.

SERIES/BOWL HISTORY

Iowa and Mississippi State have never played each other. In fact, Iowa has never played a team from Mississippi!

This is Iowa’s sixth appearance in the Outback Bowl and their third in the past six seasons. Their first appearance came back in 2004 when they crushed Ron Zook’s Florida Gators 37-17. They’d take on Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators two years later and see an amazing fourth-quarter comeback thwarted by a terrible offsides flag on an onside kick (seen here) that the Conference USA referees later admitted was the wrong call. Iowa lost 31-24 and GREENWAY WAS ONSIDES. The Hawkeyes took a three-year hiatus before returning to Tampa in 2009, charging into the game with Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. It was all Greene all day, as he ran for 132 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-10 rout of Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks.

In 2014, the Hawkeyes took on Les Miles and a ridiculously talented LSU team that had Odell Beckham Jr., Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and Jarvis Landry on offense. Somehow, the Hawkeyes held everyone but Hill in check, as he ran for 216 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns. The final score was 21-7 but it wasn’t really that close. This game was memorable for two reasons. First off, we figured out C.J. Beathard was our quarterback. Second off, it had the greatest fake injury ever (watch until the end for the twist ending):

Iowa’s latest trip to Tampa was against a familiar foe in the Florida Gators. The game was not a memorable one for Iowa fans, as the Hawkeye offense was nothing short of hapless and the defense was shredded by… [checks notes]… Austin Appleby? Florida was only favored by one point but ended up winning 30-3. Ouch.

MISS. STATE SEASON RECAP

We wrote about it in depth here but the summary is that Miss. State’s only losses were to Kentucky, Florida, LSU and Alabama, teams that won at least nine games. The counterpoint to that is that they only beat three bowl-eligible teams: Auburn, Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech. You know who else beat three bowl-eligible teams? Iowa.

MISS. STATE OFFENSE

The Bulldog offense starts and stops with redshirt senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. He’s a six-time SEC player of the week and a man possessed when it comes to running the ball. In 2018 he rushed 201 (!) times for 1,018 yards, good for 5.1 YPC, and 12 touchdowns. From the Miss. State season recap piece:

[Fitzgerald] leads the team in passing and rushing. Of the 226 yards they rush per game, he’s responsible for 93 of them. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns with 12. Actually, he leads the team in scoring, beating out the kicker. Of the 4,824 yards of Bulldog offense amassed this season, he’s responsible for 2,633 of it. That’s 55% of their entire offense.

Fitzgerald’s strength is clearly running the ball, as his passing statistics are less than stellar. He only completed 52.6% of his passes and threw 15 touchdowns to seven interceptions. How does he do it? How does Fitzgerald move the Bulldog offense? He runs up the middle.

No, really. Watch his tape vs. LSU where he rushed for 107 yards (and threw four interceptions):

There’s a run-pass option mixed in there every once in a while but for the most part, it’s just Fitzgerald keeping the ball and finding a running lane in the middle of the field. And man, does he have some impressive vision.

So if Fitzgerald is only responsible for 55% of their entire offense, where does the remainder of it come from? Sophomore running back Kylin Hill is the Bulldog’s second-biggest yard gainer, rushing for 691 yards on 105 attempts (6.6 YPC) and four touchdowns. At 5’11, 215 pounds, he’s your typical SEC running back that has a nice combination of power and speed. Hill’s backup, Aeris Williams, is equally impressive, rushing for 502 yards on 72 attempts (6.4 YPC) and three touchdowns. All three of the Bulldog’s leading rushers average at least 5 YPC.

As their offense is rushing based, the wide receivers don’t blow you off the page with their statistics. That doesn’t mean they should be overlooked, though, as starters Stephen Guidry and Osirus Mitchell are 6’4 and 6’5, respectively, and have the size to go over your defensive backs. Guidry, in particular, has impressive footwork and catching skills to go along with his size.   

Miss. State’s dedication to the run is reflected in their statistics. Their 227 rushing yards per game is good for 17th in the nation. They average 5.7 YPC, good for 9th in the nation. On the opposite hand, their passing offense is one of the worst in the nation. Their passes per game, passing yards per game, yards per pass and completion percentage rank 100 or worse out of 130 eligible teams. These polar opposites in the offense are how you end up with the Bulldogs being ranked 79th in total offense with 382 yards per game and 80th overall in points per game, with 26. If there’s one overall statistic that they excel in, it’s red zone offense, as they score 89% of the time.

MISSISSIPPI STATE DEFENSE

Name a defensive category and Mississippi State is probably top 10 in it. We talked about how scarily good they are before, but if you need a refresher: they allow 12.5 points per game, 1st in the nation. They allow 269.7 yards per game, 1st in the nation. OK, actually you know what, here’s a chart:

Defensive Statistic Value National Rank
Points Per Game 12.5 1st
Yards Per Game 269.7 1st
Yards Per Play 4 2nd
Yards Per Rush 3.2 7th
Yards Per Pass 5.4 1st
Sack % 9.3 9th
3rd Down Conversion % 28.87 7th
Red Zone Scoring % 70 4th

Is that good enough for you? The summary is that Miss. State is excellent on defense.

How you ask? Well, it starts up front.

The Bulldogs have TWO projected first rounders on their defensive line: tackle Jeffery Simmons and end Montez Sweat. Simmons already announced he was foregoing his senior season to enter the NFL Draft but is sticking around for the bowl game. He’s what you call a “penetration tackle,” as he has an explosive first step and at 6’4, he has the length to get to the quarterback or the ball carrier. Sweat actually signed with Michigan State as a 2-star tight end, transferred to a JUCO and ended up at Miss. State as a defensive end. At 6’5, 240, he has tight end size and quickness, which is how he’s notched 22 sacks over the past two seasons.

Elsewhere, middle linebacker Erroll Thompson was named second-team All-SEC following an impressive sophomore season that saw him amass 84 tackles, including 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions.  He’s the anchor of a strong core that includes longtime starting weakside linebacker Leo Lewis and strongside linebacker Willie Gay Jr.

The defensive backfield is an equally strong defensive unit, as strong safety Johnathan Abram is an NFL prospect and second team All-American. This season he made 93 total tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions. On the outside is cornerback Cameron Dantzler, a second-team All-SEC player that was 7th in the SEC in pass breakups with nine and had two interceptions.

MATCH-UP TO WATCH

It’s the lines, stupid. This is projected to be a rock fight and the biggest thing to watch will be how Iowa’s offense holds (hopefully, not literally) Miss. State’s defensive line. We didn’t even talk about 5th-year senior defensive tackle Braxton Hoyett and the end opposite of Sweat, Gerri Green, a defensive captain. This is one of the best defensive lines Iowa has seen in recent years and Sweat is arguably the best pass rusher they’ve seen since Nick Bosa, who Iowa had the fortune of not seeing a whole lot of during their 2017 matchup with Ohio State. The Bulldogs have no real defensive weaknesses, so the Hawkeyes will simply have to play a disciplined brand of football and not turn the ball over. That starts with keeping Nate Stanley upright and not forcing him to make hurried decisions.

Because when he is forced into making hurried decisions, he turns the ball over.

PREDICTION

This game has rock fight written all over it but I enter New Year’s Day with a feeling of existential dread. On one hand, the Bulldog offense is one-dimensional and revolves entirely around one person. That’s the good news. The bad news is that even if Fitzgerald is stopped, Iowa still has to score points to win the football game. Miss. State does not frequently allow teams to score points and the Hawkeye offense was downright mediocre against teams with top 40 defenses, averaging 18 points per game. Then I start to think about the TaxSlayer Bowl and the most recent Outback Bowl, where Iowa was only a slight underdog and got punched right in the face.

Statistically, it is Mississippi State’s game to lose. If you name a defensive statistic that Iowa is great at, the Bulldogs are better. Even with a one dimensional offense, they still gain more yards than the Hawkeyes, though Iowa barely averages more points than the Bulldogs, 31.5 to 29.1. In rock fights I typically look to turnover margin to be a deciding factor in choosing a winner but unbelievably, Iowa and Mississippi State are tied at 18th nationally in turnover margin. Iowa, a team known for running the ball, didn’t run the ball very well this season. So it will come down to quarterback play and against top 40 defenses in 2018, Nate Stanley only completed 48% of his passes and threw two interceptions to one touchdown. Iowa’s inability to throw the ball consistently will likely be what costs them the game.

Mississippi State 21, Iowa 10

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