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The Battalion

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

The Battalion

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Journey to the land of cowbells

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Junior RB Earnest Crownover (24) is tackled after catching a pass from junior QB Max Johnson (13) during the Southwest Classic on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

“I’m disappointed in the outcome,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said.

On Oct. 2, 2021, exactly a year minus one day before its next matchup against Mississippi State, Fisher spoke these words to the media following the 26-22 loss at Kyle Field.

On Saturday, Oct. 1, Fisher and his Fightin’ Texas Aggies’ will be given a golden opportunity to draw up a better outcome and grasp their second conference win against an SEC opponent, who trampled them on their own turf last season. 

Historically, Mississippi State has the upper hand. The Bulldogs lead the all-time series with eight wins to the Aggies seven losses. However, the record is tied 5-5 as SEC opponents, and on Saturday, one of the maroon and white-coated schools will come out superior. 

For their first road test of the season, the Aggies will be entering a stadium packed with a capacity of over 61,000 fans and a countless amount of cowbells.

Yes, cowbells. 

Its origin dates back to the time of World War II when a Jersey cow wandered onto the field during a matchup between their interstate rival Ole Miss, and ever since then, cowbells have been rung loudly and proudly by the Bulldog fanbase.

This will serve as a perfect evaluation for the large number of freshmen on A&M’s depth chart in its first game in an opposing stadium. 

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach is entering his third season as a head coach in Starkville, Miss., after coaching 10 seasons at Texas Tech and eight seasons at Washington State. With him, he brings the renowned and prominent “Air Raid” offense. 

Through his 20 years as a head coach, this offense has averaged 4,870.4 passing yards per season, which leads the nation over the past two decades. Ten different quarterbacks have been able to reach at least 4,000 passing yards, one of them being a Mississippi native that is entering his third season as a starter for the Bulldogs.

Junior Will Rogers starts his third year in this system, and to say he has mastered the art of the Air Raid would be an understatement. In two of his last four games, he has thrown over 400 passing yards with a 74% completion rate over the last four games. He sits comfortably at the top of the SEC in passing yards with 1,386 and is tied for first in the nation in passing touchdowns with 16. 

If  Rogers is given enough time in the backfield, expect him to pick apart the Aggie secondary like he did last season as he threw for 408 yards and three touchdowns on 59 passing attempts. 

Returning to Leach’s offense is a junior wideout who accumulated three receptions for 52 yards in last year’s matchup against the Aggies. Lideatrick Griffin sits third on the depth chart in receptions with 19 and fourth in receiving yards with 177. Along his side are multiple receivers who can make a similar impact in the passing game as Rogers enjoys spreading the ball around.

Senior receiver Caleb Ducking leads the Bulldogs in every statistic that relates to his job. Ducking has 21 receptions this season for 258 yards and five touchdowns, two of them coming from his last matchup against Bowling Green.

“I think Ducking’s gotten better and better,” Leach said. “It was kind of a work in progress when he got here, but he’s worked hard, and he’s [a] fast, relatively dynamic guy … When he uses his hands, he’s awfully tough to cover … He’s gotten better and better the longer he’s been here.”

Minus the center, the offensive line is inexperienced, and it shows. Through four games, the Bulldog front line has given up nine sacks this season with four of them coming from their first loss of the year against LSU. 

Mississippi State’s wall likes to line up with a substantial size gap between each individual player. If A&M defensive coordinator DJ Durkin makes the right calls, the Aggie defensive line could have a field day in the opposing backfield. 

As for its run offense, Mississippi State has two returning backs from the 2021 season that have been dynamic in both the run and pass game. Juniors Dillon Johnson and Jo’quavious Marks have a combined 65 carries for 373 rushing yards and a combined 29 receptions for 163 receiving yards. In their last two games, Johnson and Marks had only 20 rushing attempts for 157 yards. However, this doesn’t mean they won’t utilize them. In the Air Raid offense, the run game consists of a number of screens and flats to set the running backs up with an open sunset to run to. 

As for the defense, expect a similar scheme from last year. Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator Zach Arnett runs a 4-3 scheme that utilizes numerous blitz packages from the linebackers, corners and safeties in order to suffocate the Aggie backfield and limit junior quarterback Max Johnson’s time in the pocket. 

Senior linebacker Nathaniel “Bookie” Watson is back for his fifth season, third season as a starter. Watson is second on his team in total tackles with 29, tied for first in sacks with two and has one interception. Watson led the Bulldogs in his last matchup with 10 tackles, four solo, and had one sack and tackle for loss. 

As for the No. 17 Aggies, they will be entering their second SEC matchup of the season without their versatile and experienced wideout in senior Ainias Smith after he left last week’s Southwest Classic with a season-ending leg injury.

“Diversity and leadership and experience,” Fisher said. “He’s a unique player, a unique competitor and I love him to death.”

Smith has been a reliable punt returner for the Aggies this season, Fisher said he plans on plugging in junior running back Devon Achane or sophomore wide receiver Moose Muhammad III at this position.

“He’ll be around to help those guys and mentor those guys, and that’s the best he can do,” Fisher said. “As far as that goes, he’ll be right there with them.”

Johnson will be entering his third start for the Aggies after defeating No. 13 Miami and No. 10 Arkansas. In his last three starts as a collegiate quarterback dating back to his time at LSU, the Georgia native has taken down three top-15 ranked opponents and will carry this momentum to Starkville this weekend. 

“He’s getting better,” Fisher said. “He definitely understands what we’re doing, there’s no doubt.”

Achane is coming off his best performance of the season after he dashed for 159 yards rushing on 19 attempts in last weekend’s 23-21 victory against the Razorbacks. 

As for the defense, junior safety Antonio Johnson has lived up to his high expectations at the beginning of the 2022 season. So far, Johnson has 38 tackles and a sack through just four games and currently sits second in the SEC in total tackles. After his dominant performance against Arkansas, Johnson was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week.

The Fightin’ Farmers will look to carry this two-game momentum on their backs as they set foot in Mississippi on Oct. 1 at 3 p.m. to battle out their second conference game of the season against Mississippi State. 

Will they redeem themselves after last season’s disappointing loss, or add their second straight loss to the Bulldogs in two years?

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