By Jack Holmes/Contributor
Texas A&M (4-3) will host Mississippi State (3-4) at Kyle Field on Saturday afternoon.
The Aggies are coming off a 24-17 win at Ole Miss, while the Bulldogs will try to put a tough 36-13 home loss to LSU behind them. Texas A&M is looking to beat Mississippi State for the first time since 2015.
Here are five things to look for in Saturday’s SEC matchup:
1. Can Texas A&M sweep the Mississippi schools for the first time since 2013?
For whatever reason, both of the SEC’s Mississippi schools have had the Aggies’ number in recent years. After taking down Ole Miss last weekend, Texas A&M will look to beat the Rebels and Bulldogs in the same season for the first time in six years.
The Aggies have dropped three consecutive games to the Bulldogs, who lead the series 7-5. Linebacker Buddy Johnson said the team is not afraid of those numbers.
“I’m not really sure,” Johnson said of why Mississippi Stat have been a bad matchup. “But we’re definitely up for the challenge. We just have to have a great week of practice, and we’ll be fired up and ready to go this weekend.”
The Bulldogs are 3-4 entering Saturday’s game, including losses to Kansas State and Tennessee. This year is as good as any for the Aggies to buck the trend and leave October with two wins over their Mississippi foes.
2. Will the Aggie defense contain another quarterback who can run the ball?
Aggie fans will be happy to know that quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has finally graduated from Mississippi State. In three starts against the Aggies, he rushed for 375 yards and five touchdowns and was a big reason why the Aggies have not beaten the Bulldogs in recent years.
Aggie fans will not be happy to hear that the Bulldogs have a new quarterback who is also capable of running. Freshman Garrett Shrader has rushed for 440 yards and three touchdowns this season. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback is averaging 85 yards per game against SEC opponents.
Texas A&M has allowed just 73 total rushing yards against SEC quarterbacks this season, including just 38 yards to John Rhys Plumlee, a noted running threat, last week.
“It was big for us to play a quarterback like this and then play another quarterback like that the next week,” linebacker Buddy Johnson said of facing running quarterbacks. “Our defensive line stepped up and did a great job of keeping them contained. We have to do the same thing next week. Just stick to the game plan and make plays.”
“Having to play against a freshman quarterback is big,” Johnson added. “You put the fire on him, and you see how he unfolds under pressure.”
The Aggies should be cautious, yet confident, heading into Saturday’s matchup.
3. Can Texas A&M continue to run the ball effectively?
Despite ranking 12th in the SEC in rushing offense, the Aggies have improved their ground attack in recent weeks. In their first two conference games against Auburn and Arkansas, they managed just 56 yards and 89 yards on the ground, respectively. In their last two conference matchups against Alabama and Ole Miss, the Aggies managed 125 yards against the Crimson Tide and 165 yards against the Rebels.
Much of that is thanks to quarterback Kellen Mond getting more involved in the ground game and using his legs to make plays. Freshman running back Isaiah Spiller has also upped his production. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry in last week’s outing and sealed the game with a 22-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.
“It’s huge,” wide receiver Jhmaon Ausbon said. “For a young guy like him to take over and help us out in the passing game, and make things easier for Kellen and us. It’s very helpful. Kellen did a good job of running the ball too.”
A balanced attack has never hurt an offense, and the Aggies would love to see that continue has the season moves forward.
4. Will the Aggie offense be able to attack the Bulldogs downfield?
Texas A&M ranks fourth in the SEC in passing, totaling 1,900 yards and averaging 217 yards per game. However, they have struggled at creating chunk plays in the air. The Aggies rank ninth in the SEC in yards per attempt, averaging just under seven yards.
Even against Ole Miss, whose passing defense ranks second-to-last in the entire country, the Aggies averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt and totaled 172 yards. Wide receiver Jhmaon Ausbon did not have an answer for why the Aggies do not attempt more downfield passes.
“That’s a question I’m also interested in,” Ausbon said. “We’ll see. When it is called, just make the play. That’s all our focus is on.”
Quarterback Kellen Mond said it could be good to mix in some deeper passes during games.
“Obviously, I’ve still got to be able to hit them,” Mond said “It’s easy to say what we should be doing, but we still have to be able to execute and be a little more consistent.”
Mississippi State ranks 11th in the SEC in passing defense, so Texas A&M has another shot to prove they can produce big plays downfield.
5. Can the Aggie freshmen keep their strong play rolling?
Of Texas A&M’s 26 touchdowns, 11 have been scored by true freshmen. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer and running back Isaiah Spiller have scored four each, while wide receiver Ainias Smith has three. In their two most recent games, Wydermyer caught two touchdowns against Alabama, while Spiller ran for a 22-yard score last weekend against Ole Miss.
“No. 85 [Wydermyer] and 28 [Spiller], the true freshmen, you can see them getting better and better each and every week,” Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Both played very critical roles in the game [against Ole Miss].”
Smith has seen inconsistent playing time this season but has shown his ability to make plays when he is on the field. Fisher acknowledged that his young pass catcher will be seeing more opportunities.
“We have got to get Ainias playing,” Fisher said. “We had him on the punt return, but as the game got tight we wanted some experience there. Ainias is going to be in the mix and will be getting playing time. I promise you.”
Look for all three guys to have an impact on Saturday afternoon’s game.