A month ago, Mississippi State fans weren’t sure where their program would be in a year.
Dan Mullen was supposedly a candidate for every possible job opening and Dak Prescott — probably the best player in Mississippi State history — was about to play his final game. Yes, there was hope for the 2016 Bulldogs, but it came wrapped in uncertainty. Junior wide receivers Fred Ross and De’Runnya Wilson had their best seasons in Starkville and the chance of them leaving for the NFL Draft seemed ever more likely.
The Bulldogs’ running backs were rarely a factor, and the offensive line hadn’t found a consistent rhythm all year. But Wednesday against NC State, with two days left in the year, Mississippi State proved that next year’s fans may have nothing to worry about after all.
One of the biggest worries going into the Belk Bowl was how the offensive line would respond to myriad changes. Center Jamaal Clayborn, who started all 12 games for the Bulldogs, sat out the game with an injury, forcing left guard Justin Malone — who had never played center in his career — to shift over and replace him. Junior Devon Desper replaced Malone, and freshman Deion Calhoun got the start at right guard.
How would they fare against an NC State team that was averaging 2.6 sacks and seven tackles for a loss per game? Phenomenally. The line allowed only one sack and three tackles for a loss against the Wolfpack (Prescott had been sacked 16 times in the two previous games), and Malone even scored a rare big-man touchdown when he picked up a Prescott fumble in the endzone. Backup quarterback Nick Fitzgerald — the likely replacement for Prescott — should feel confident to place his safety in the hands of that young unit.
An even bigger concern before Wednesday (and throughout the entire year) has been the Bulldogs running backs. The unit — Brandon Holloway, Aeris Williams, Ashton Shumpert and Dontavian Lee — had accounted for just three touchdowns this season while averaging fewer than 80 yards per game. Prescott himself had averaged 45 yards on the ground per contest.
In the Belk Bowl, something changed. Maybe it was the rest of their team firing on all cylinders, maybe it was the rain, maybe the stakes, but Mississippi State’s running backs had one of their best games all season. Williams, Holloway and Shumpert rushed for 107 yards and the latter two each found the endzone. While Fitzgerald has shown the ability to move the ball with his arm and legs, having a competent backfield in his arsenal will surely help the quarterback adjust next year.
With Prescott gone, there is no question that an era is ending in Starkville. But with Mullen here to stay, the line getting better and the running backs coming to life, there’s no reason why the Bulldogs won’t continue to improve in 2016, and Wednesday’s Belk Bowl win showed us exactly what that might mean.