Mississippi State

No. 21 Mississippi State going for 4th straight win vs UMass

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) hopes the Bulldogs can end the season on a winning note. MSU hosts UMass Saturday.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) hopes the Bulldogs can end the season on a winning note. MSU hosts UMass Saturday. Associated Press

What a difference a year makes for Mississippi State.

At this time last year, the Bulldogs (6-2, 3-2 SEC) were fighting off a losing record and closing in on missing a bowl game for the first time since Dan Mullen’s first season. They eventually earned that bowl eligibility with a fifth win over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl because of a high Academic Progress Rate.

A year later, the Bulldogs came in No. 16 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings and have already earned an eighth straight bowl game under Mullen.

It’s been a strange start for the Bulldogs filled with hit or miss. In eight games, no contest has been decided by less than 21 points. MSU has beaten SEC opponents LSU, Kentucky and Texas A&M by an average of 30 points. They lost to Georgia and Auburn by an average of 34.

It was after the 3-0 start to begin the season where MSU faltered on the road at Georgia and Auburn for consecutive blowout losses. With a three-game winning streak again coming into Saturday’s matchup with UMass (2-6), Mullen wants things to remain steady.

“Have we improved from the last time we were in this situation? Have we improved as a team? A big difference is we’re at home,” Mullen said. “Even though it’s an early-morning kickoff, I hope we get that homefield, SEC advantage.”

Mullen knows that the Bulldogs have improved on the road, beating Texas A&M 35-14.

“Last week was a big win for us. I was pleased watching film and pleased with how we played,” Mullen said. “I think this week offers, for us in our growth, the biggest challenge of the season so far. We’re coming off a big win with our players. We’ll see our maturity this week of how we handle success.”

The difference between last season and this year is astronomical on the defensive side. The Bulldogs went from one of the nation’s worst defenses to one of the nation’s best under Todd Grantham. They’re ranked sixth in total defense nationally, fourth passing and 22nd rushing.

Mullen believes the defense is finding the identity he set when he arrived in Starkville nine years ago.

“I do think that the team does think we’ve got a physical mentality to us with defense and physical running of the football,” Mullen said. “I think the team takes some pride in that on both sides. I do think they’re starting to learn that identity.”

Offensively, Nick Fitzgerald continues to blossom at quarterback and leads a balanced unit. Fitzgerald needs just two yards to pass Johnny Manziel for fifth all-time in the SEC for rushing yards as a quarterback. This year, Fitzgerald has averaged more than six yards a rush with 99 carries for 666 yards and 10 scores. He’s improved as a passer, throwing for 1,320 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Fitzgerald’s looking for more. The Bulldogs still have many goals and UMass stands in their way.

“If we want to continue building and growing this season and continue upward, we can’t take any week off,” Fitzgerald said. “This is not an opponent that you’re just going to throw the ball out there and win. I mean we have to work hard this week and keep building for the rest of the season.”

Game plan

Who: UMass vs. Mississippi State

When: 11 a.m., Saturday

Where: Starkville

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 1580 AM