Iowa football: Inside enemy territory with a Mississippi State Bulldogs expert

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 10: Kylin Hill #8 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs dives for a touchdown over Shyheim Carter #5 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The touchdown was called back on an offensive penalty. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 10: Kylin Hill #8 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs dives for a touchdown over Shyheim Carter #5 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The touchdown was called back on an offensive penalty. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Iowa football team takes on Mississippi State for the first time ever tomorrow morning so we sat down with a Bulldogs expert to ask a few questions.

The 2019 Outback Bowl is taking place tomorrow, and it will be a historic meeting for both teams as they have never faced each other before. In fact, the only real line you can draw between the two teams is the fact that head coach Joe Moorhead spent two years running the offense in Penn State before taking over the responsibilities of Mississippi State’s head coaching position this year. For Iowa football fans, it’s a little bit more difficult to know what exactly to anticipate from the Bulldogs.

It’s tough to even look at common matchups considering the Big Ten rarely takes on a SEC foe and the Iowa football team faces SEC opponents even less often.

We know they’ve got a stingy defense, and we know they have a strong dual threat quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald, but what offense do they run, how good are some of their other playmakers, and what exactly makes their defense tick?

We sat with down with FanSided’s Maroon and White Nation’s Co-Site Expert Ethan Lee to chat about exactly those questions. Here are his fantastic responses that can give us quite a bit more insight into what we can expect tomorrow morning when the Iowa football team takes the field.

What would a win against this Iowa football program to end the season mean for the program moving forward?

Assuming that Mississippi State comes out on top of Iowa in the Outback Bowl, the Bulldogs would have won at least nine games in four of the last five seasons. That would arguably be the most successful stretch in program history. Dan Mullen did a lot to elevate the program and a ninth win to cap off the 2018 season would show that Joe Moorhead has, at bare minimum, maintained that new level of success. There are some questions about the future and there’s going to be great players that will exhaust eligibility and move on in life once this game is done, but a ninth win would make a somewhat underwhelming season seem pretty great.

What have you seen from Mississippi State so far this year that gives you the most confidence the Bulldogs can come away with a win against the Iowa football team?

Mississippi State’s defensive line. The Bulldogs have plenty of future NFL talent up front and should be able to wear down Iowa’s offensive line. Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat, Gerri Green, Chauncey Rivers, and Kendell Jones combine to have 49.5 tackles for loss. MSU has an abundance of depth of front and should have plenty of fresh bodies ready to get after Nathan Stanley.

Does Nick Fitzgerald scare teams with his throwing anymore? Statistically he has regressed throwing.

All things considered, I’m not too worried about Nick Fitzgerald throwing the ball. He’s had a month to rest and prepare for this game and he showed some improvement during the final stretch of the season as he grew more familiar and accustomed to Moorhead’s offense. After completing just 33.3 percent of his passes against LSU, Fitzgerald completed 60.8 percent of his passes in his final five games of the regular season for 847 yards and 11 touchdowns against 0 interceptions.

And even if he isn’t able to throw the ball effectively, he’s still one of the greatest rushing threats in college football. He’s run for 3504 yards and 45 touchdowns in his career. That should be concerning enough for any opponent.

Fitzgerald is leading the Bulldogs in rushing. Are those designed runs and if so, how do the Bulldogs scheme their run game?

Some of them are designed quarterback runs, but a lot of Fitzgerald’s yardage has come off him keeping the ball on RPO reads. The vast majority of Moorhead’s offense is built upon using RPO principles to take advantage of his players’ strengths. In MSU’s case this year, that includes Fitzgerald’s feet. Iowa football fans should expect to see plenty of RPO looks as well as some more traditional speed and power option runs sprinkled in as well. State runs for 226.4 yards and 2.1 touchdowns per game. Don’t be surprised to see Fitzgerald, as well as running backs Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams (who have combined for 1193 yards and 7 touchdowns), moving the ball up and down the field.

Are there any other playmakers on offensive the Iowa football team should be worried about?

Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams are both solid and quick running backs that the Iowa football team will need to keep an eye on. It’s hard to get ahold of Hill once he gets out into the open field and both are strong enough to carry the ball 20+ times a game up through the middle of opposing defenses.

Mississippi State’s defense is one of the best in the nation. What stands out from the two losses where they allowed over 20 points (Kentucky and Alabama) that concerns you about potential weaknesses in the defense?

The Kentucky game was a bit of an anomaly for this team this year. The Bulldogs were uncharacteristically pushed around, committed 16 penalties for 139 yards, and routinely made mistakes in that game. MSU has come a long way since that early season loss, but many of the issues present in that game were caused by self-inflicted mistakes. Kentucky only had 300 total yards of offense in that game.

As for Alabama, by the time the Bulldogs took a trip over to Tuscaloosa, MSU’s defense was clicking and the Bulldogs had cleaned up the penalty issue, but the Crimson Tide just have a completely different level of talent on their roster. We would gladly send Alabama to the Big Ten if y’all wanted to trade them for Ohio State or something. Oh, and even in that game, Alabama only gained 305 yards of offense. Most of those points came early on with big plays.

What’s the strength of Mississippi State’s defense?

This is going to sound a bit preposterous, but just about all of it. Mississippi State, in the past, has had issues with its secondary. This year, Mississippi State’s defensive backs have made up one of the best secondaries in all of college football. MSU has 12 picks and holds opposing quarterbacks to 164.2 passing yards per game as they complete 54.2 percent of their passes. Johnathan Abram is someone that Iowa fans will want to familiarize themselves with prior to the bowl game.

It’s probably safe to argue that the defensive line is the strongest point of the defense given how much NFL talent exists there. And, well, the linebacking group is full of talent as well. Erroll Thompson, Willie Gay, and Leo Lewis are versatile and surprisingly solid in coverage as well as being big enough and strong enough to routinely stop opposing running backs.

Are there players on the defense that can match up with TJ Hockenson?

Funny story: I actually had Hockenson on my fantasy college football team for most of the season and he helped me finish second in my league. So, thanks for that, Hockenson.

Anyways, matching up with him will be difficult. The Bulldogs are going to do what they can to prevent the ball from even being thrown in his direction and a lot of that will have to do with the pass rush. As for trying to cover him, I imagine MSU will try to keep Erroll Thompson on Hockenson to some extent while also using corners Jamal Peters and Cameron Dantzler from time to time. I honestly don’t know how effective any of them will truly be given Hockenson’s height, but they’re MSU’s best bet and the Bulldogs have done well at defending the pass all season.

Offensively, are you concerned about the Iowa football team’s strong pass rushing unit featuring two guys with 9.5 sacks?

Mostly I’m concerned about Joe Moorhead coming up with some sort of harebrained scheme that will put MSU down 14-0 early on and force the Bulldogs to try to pass the ball more than run it in the second half. The Bulldogs have been pretty good on the offensive line all season and, for the most part, have handled opposing pass rushes pretty well. Nick Fitzgerald is incredibly mobile and agile, even with him being 6-5 and 230 pounds. All of that said, yes, I think Iowa’s pass rush could cause issues for the Bulldogs.

Are you surprised that Montez Sweat, projected to be a first round pick, decided to play in the bowl game?

Not really. Sweat has been dedicated to Mississippi State and I would guess that he wouldn’t have made this decision if he didn’t feel that it was right for him while also being right for the team.

What’s your final score prediction for the game, and how do you think both teams end at that result?

I think Mississippi State comes out on top 27-13. I suspect that this game is close all the way into the fourth quarter with it being something like 17-13 going into the final 15 minutes. Mississippi State’s defensive line should cause some turnovers and good field position, setting the Bulldogs’ offense up with prime scoring opportunities throughout the game. I don’t think the Bulldogs have anything of an offensive explosion at any point and MSU will likely ride its defense to victory here.

How well does the Mississippi State fan base travel for bowl games?

Historically, the Bulldog faithful has done a great job of traveling to notable sporting events. If you need convincing, ask the folks over in Omaha about how this team travels to the College World Series and takes over Omaha. Or, take a look at how MSU fans have travelled in recent seasons for the women’s basketball tournament.

MSU’s last couple of bowl games haven’t had that same sort of success. It’s hard to get people excited about the St. Petersburg Bowl (now the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl) against Miami (Ohio) or the TaxSlayer Bowl for the third time in seven years (twice it was the Gator Bowl) after the best coach in program history left for the Florida Gators and the starting quarterback had his ankle snapped in a rivalry game that the team lost.

Next. Three key matchups in the Outback Bowl. dark

The Bulldogs ended up winning both of those bowl games and the athletic department did all of the bargaining possible with the bowl selection committee to convince them that MSU fans would show up for this game. I’ve seen tweets and such where fans have discussed going to the game and being present in the Tampa Bay area, so I would assume that State is going to have a decent crowd at this game, but it’s hard to tell what’ll happen if you look just at the past two bowl games MSU has played in.