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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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A&M defense looks to rebound versus injury-bitten Mississippi State offense

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Photo by Katelynn Ivy

unior DL Fadil Diggs (10) attempts to sack South Carolina QB Spencer Rattler (7) during Texas A&M’s game against South Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023 at Kyle Field (Katelynn Ivy/The Battalion).

After dropping three of its last four games, Texas A&M football’s matchup with Mississippi State on Saturday, Nov. 11, could be just what the doctor ordered.
As the fall temperatures cool in College Station, coach Jimbo Fisher’s seat has gotten hotter and hotter. The Aggies couldn’t maintain halftime leads in losses to Alabama and Tennessee before their own comeback came up short in a 38-35 loss to Ole Miss last week. Junior kicker Randy Bond’s potential game-tying field goal was blocked to seal A&M’s ninth-consecutive road loss.
The good news for the Aggies is they’ll get to return to the friendly confines of Kyle Field for the next two weeks. Even better, they’ll take on 4-5 Mississippi State and FCS Abilene Christian. At 5-4, A&M is one win away from securing a berth in a bowl game, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted after last year’s 5-7 campaign.
The Bulldogs are also fighting for a bowl appearance, but it’s an uphill climb with their 4-5 record. After taking on the Aggies, they get Southern Miss and Ole Miss to wrap up the regular season. Adding to the difficulty are injuries to offensive cornerstones in senior quarterback Will Rogers and senior running back Jo’Quavious “Woody” Marks.
Rogers suffered a left shoulder injury on Oct. 7 that has kept him out of the Bulldogs’ last three games. In that time, they picked up their lone SEC win, a 7-3 snoozer against Arkansas. In six games, Rogers has 1,275 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“He’s practicing, and he’s able to do more and more and more,” first-year coach Zach Arnett said. “If it’s determined that he’s able to go, he’s our starting quarterback, no doubt about it … Everyone gets excited about your starting quarterback potentially being able to go.”
A&M fans not-so-fondly remember Rogers leading the Bulldogs to wins over the Aggies the past two seasons. In 2021, he passed for 408 yards and three touchdowns at Kyle Field under the late coach Mike Leach’s air raid offense. Mississippi State rushed for only 30 yards on 17 carries, but it didn’t matter given the success it found through the air.
Things look a bit different now under Arnett. The Bulldogs have since shifted to a more well-rounded offense with more reliance on the run game, averaging 143.8 yards on the ground per game. Mississippi State may not be as one-dimensional as it once was, but that hasn’t exactly equated to points on the scoreboard. The Bulldogs are dead last in the SEC with 22.7 points per game and 12th with an average of 335.7 yards.
Mississippi State has put up just 23 total points since Rogers went down, with Vanderbilt transfer Mike Wright and true freshman Chris Parson splitting time at the quarterback spot. Wright’s struggles in a 24-3 loss to Kentucky last week gave way to Parson’s college debut, although the pair combined for just 145 passing yards and five sacks.
“How do [you prepare for two quarterbacks]?” Fisher said. “You do it, but you don’t get as many reps or looks or feel. You judge what a guy does on film. You get a feel for him on certain pressures and what he wants to do. All those things matter, and it’s kind of going in blind.”
Struggles in the passing game have forced the Bulldogs to place added emphasis on rushing the ball, albeit without Marks. Wright’s dual-threat ability gives Mississippi State another option in the offensive backfield alongside junior running back Jeffery Pittman, with the duo averaging 21 carries over its last two contests.
Wright has played a role in each game this season rushing the ball, averaging five yards a carry with three touchdowns. Through eight games, Pittman has picked up 3.8 yards per carry to go with two touchdown receptions.
Whether Rogers, Wright or Parson starts on Saturday, there won’t be much question who they’ll be looking for downfield. Senior wide receiver Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin paces the Bulldogs with 38 catches for 554 yards and three scores, leading the team in each category. Sophomore wide receiver Zavion Thomas is another steady option with 27 receptions.
Mississippi State’s offensive uncertainty isn’t a good matchup against an A&M defense that ranks fourth in the conference with 21.6 points allowed per game. Junior linebacker Edgerrin Cooper continued his monster season against Ole Miss by tackling seven Rebels, including half a sack and one tackle for loss.
However, the Aggies couldn’t stand tall when it was needed the most. After A&M grabbed its first lead of the game, Ole Miss marched 75 yards downfield on nine plays to go on top with 1:40 remaining. The Rebels cut through the defense with ease before scoring the winning touchdown.
“We’re just going to play to our standard that we know how to play to,” sophomore defensive lineman Albert Regis said. “That wasn’t our best performance, but all we can do now is learn from it and grow from it as a team and as a defense.”
Defensive coordinator DJ Durkin will no doubt be looking for an improved showing out of a secondary that has been iffy all season, particularly against the Rebels. Junior quarterback Jaxson Dart torched the Aggies for 387 yards, 213 of which went to senior Tre Harris in a career day for the wide receiver. His performance had shades of Alabama senior wide receiver Jermaine Burton’s 197 yards against A&M on Oct. 7.
Facing Mississippi State and Abilene Christian over the next two weeks could be just what the unit needs to get back on track before taking on LSU to close the season. The Tigers are far and away the SEC’s top offense at 45.2 points, a figure that is third in the nation as well. If A&M’s defense can limit the Bulldogs and Wildcats, it will enter Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Nov. 25 with a bit of confidence.

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