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

The Battalion

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

The Battalion

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Dogging Mississippi State’s passing game

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Photo by Robert O’Brien

Junior DB Jaylon Jones (17) lines up to cover Arkansas WR Matt Landers (3) during the Southwest Classic on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

What happens if you cut the head off of a chicken? It runs around aimlessly and dies. While it can momentarily function without its head, it can’t maintain functionality in the long term. Now, what if that chicken was actually the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the head was a 6-foot-2-inch junior quarterback named Will Rogers?

The Bulldogs are 1-4 against SEC teams over the last two seasons when Rogers throws for under 375 yards — yes, 375 yards. The last time a quarterback at Texas A&M threw for 375 yards was when Kellen Mond, now a Cleveland Brown, threw for 430 yards against No. 2 Clemson on Sept. 8, 2018.

Since becoming the Bulldogs’ full-time starter in 2021, Rogers has played in nine SEC games and has thrown for over 375 yards four times, winning three of them. Disregarding conference, Rogers is 6-2 when throwing for over 375 yards. He is the head of Mississippi State’s metaphorical chicken.

While it’s easy to argue that it’s simply easier to win when you throw for 375-plus yards, the counterargument is that the Bulldogs’ offense is entirely predicated around the production of its quarterback. Rogers has thrown the ball on 66% of the team’s total plays this season. In contrast, A&M has only passed on 45% of its plays. The Bulldogs’ head coach Mike Leach’s offense, known as the Air Raid, is one of the most pass-happy systems in the country.

“It’s a different kind of spread [offense than Arkansas’],” A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “One was much more running; the other is much more throwing … What Mike [Leach] does, he’s going to throw the football; you’re going to have to give him different looks, different packages.”

A&M currently sports one of the best pass defenses in the country. Through four games, the Aggies have allowed just 153 yards per game through the air, good enough for 10th best in the country and third best in the SEC. However, in 2021, the Aggies held their opponents to an average of 193 passing yards per game — yet, Rogers threw for 408 yards in a 26-22 Bulldog victory in College Station. The Aggies travel to Starkville, Miss., this time and will put A&M’s defense to the test on the road.

In Week 4, A&M found success in limiting junior quarterback KJ Jefferson to 171 yards passing a week after he threw for 385 yards. Defensive coordinator DJ Durkin knew coming into the game how much of a threat Jefferson and the passing game was, and he adjusted accordingly.

“We had ran more defensive backs on the field [against Arkansas],” sophomore cornerback Tyreek Chappell said. “We played basically a three-down front, so we basically wanted to stop their explosive plays, so that’s how we really planned on winning.”

Durkin will continue to have to cook up a game plan for the Bulldogs who have an offense unlike any other in the SEC. The question will be whether or not the Aggies have the right dogs for the fight.

Junior safety Antonio Johnson has been the team’s ultimate chess piece on defense. He offers the versatility of having a player who can operate as a safety, slot cornerback and linebacker all in one player. With 13 tackles against Arkansas, he will likely be a centerpiece for the Aggies’ game plan once again.

But, the players who will be tested the most are the Aggies’ cornerbacks. Chappell, sophomore Jardin Gilbert and junior Jaylon Jones will be put in tough positions by the Bulldogs’ offense. Part of what makes Mississippi State difficult to defend is how much they spread the ball out. Five different receivers have between 15 and 21 catches through the first four games. Because of this, all the team’s defensive backs will need to be locked in on every down, or Rogers will exploit their mistakes.

“[The game’s] going to come down to the secondary,” Jones said. “You know we’re going to get the rush up front; the back end, we’re just going to have to execute. We know they like to throw the ball, … so it’s just going to come down to us doing our jobs.”

If there is one weakness to Mississippi State’s offense, though, it’s the offensive line. Rogers has been sacked eight times this season, including four times in the Bulldogs’ Week 3 loss against LSU. If the Aggies want to find success, it’ll have to be by limiting Rogers, either by containing the receivers or getting the pass rush in.

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