The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, the Orange Bowl preview.
WHAT: Capital One Orange Bowl
WHEN: Wednesday, December 31 – 8:00 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: Sun Life Stadium – Miami Gardens, FL
A pair of ten-win teams are set to clash in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve. For Mississippi State, 2014 was a dream season. The Bulldogs started the year 9-0 for the first time in school history and enjoyed an October to remember. The team recorded victories over then-No. 8 LSU, then-No. 6 Texas A&M, and then-No. 2 Auburn in a three-week stretch that catapulted the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll. But a five-point loss to Alabama ended their undefeated streak, and a season-finale loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl ended their national title hopes.
Georgia Tech rode their powerful running attack to ten victories and a top finish in the ACC Coastal division. The only blemishes on their record are losses to Duke, North Carolina and Florida State (in the ACC Championship) by a total of 13 points. Paul Johnson’s team ended the regular season with back-to-back wins over then-No. 19 Clemson and then-No. 4 Georgia, but lost in the ACC Championship Game to Florida State. The victory over their in-state rival was Georgia Tech’s first since 2008.
When Mississippi State Has the Football
The college football universe learned the name Dak Prescott in 2014. The junior quarterback exploded onto the national stage during the year, completing 211 of 345 passes for 2,996 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The QB also accrued 939 yards on the ground over 195 carries, adding 13 TDs. He was a Heisman contender until his three-interception game against Alabama. The signal-caller is a big and strong athlete who can remain in the pocket and put the ball where he needs to:
Here, Prescott stands tall in the offensive backfield and delivers a strike along the sideline to Fred Brown for the catch-and-run score.
But the quarterback is equally adept at running the football, both at the edges and between the tackles. On this crucial 3rd and 3 play against LSU, Prescott executes a simple QB run off-tackle:
He breaks through the line and into the secondary and implements a textbook stiff-arm on Jalen Mills (#28). From there he uses a few cuts near the goal line and dives into the end zone for the score.
A host of Bulldogs contributed in the passing game this season. De’Runnya Wilson led the team with 38 receptions for 575 yards and seven touchdowns. Fred Ross, Josh Robinson, Malcolm Johnson, Jameon Lewis and the aforementioned Brown also caught scoring throws this year.
Robinson also bore the workload from the running back position, carrying the football 177 times for 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was a force against LSU, with 16 carries for 197 yards and one TD. This 20-yard run against the Tigers is a fine example of his hard-nosed running style:
The RB uses a juke move to make one defender miss, but then turns to brute strength to drag defenders and extend the play.
A pair of linebackers led the Yellow Jackets defense. Sophomore Paul Davis topped the squad with 108 tackles, 75 of which were solo stops, while senior Quayshawn Nealy notched 90 tackles, and a pair of interceptions. Defensive backs Jamal Golden and D.J. White were crucial in the secondary, with each player securing four interceptions and returning one for a touchdown. Golden’s pick-six was a huge momentum swing in Georgia Tech’s win over Clemson. The Tigers are in the red zone and face a 3rd and 4 while holding a three-point lead:
The offense attempts a throwback screen pass but the defensive back stays home in coverage and steps in front of the throw. With nothing but green grass in front of him, he races home for the TD.
One weakness for the defense is their inability to pressure the quarterback. The unit ranked 104th in FBS with only 18 sacks on the season. Freshman KeShun Freeman leads the defense with 4.5 sacks, while Davis was close behind with four.
When Georgia Tech Has the Football
Johnson’s option offense has been ridiculed by some as a “high school” offense, but you cannot deny its success. The Yellow Jackets gained 4,337 yards on the ground in 2014, behind only Georgia Southern and Navy in terms of yardage gained. They average over 333 yards per contest on the ground, also good enough for third in the FBS.
Sophomore Justin Thomas is the point man for this offense. The quarterback carried the football 176 times for 965 yards and five touchdowns. He had four 100+ games on the ground, including a 22-carry, 165-yard outing in their win over Virginia Tech. His 65-yard run against Clemson opened the second half and was a crucial play en route to their victory:
This play is a good example of their option attack. Georgia Tech runs a triple option to the right, with Thomas putting the football in his fullback’s belly and reading the play. He decides to keep the football, and explodes into the secondary for a huge gain.
Other threats in the ground game include Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey, known as “Ebony and Ivory.” The two seniors rotate at the B-back position in Johnson’s offense, a crucial role in this scheme. More commonly known as the fullback spot, most option plays begin with Thomas putting the ball in the B-back’s belly and scanning the defense for his options. Laskey notched 161 carries for 788 yards and nine touchdowns, while missing three games with a shoulder injury. Days carried the football 136 times for 753 yards and six touchdowns.
While the Yellow Jackets largely focus on running the football, their air attack can expose a defense looking to stop the run. Thomas completed 89 of 175 passes on the year for 1,594 yards and 17 TDs against only five INTs. This offense was tied for fifth in FBS in yards per passing attempt, averaging over nine yards per throw putting the Yellow Jackets on par with pass heavy teams such as Oregon, Colorado State and Western Michigan.
DeAndre Smelter was often on the receiving end of these throws. The senior caught nearly 40 percent of Thomas’s completions in 2014, hauling in 35 throws for 715 yards and seven touchdowns. This 65-yard reception against Virginia exemplifies the difficulties a secondary faces against a team like Georgia Tech:
As Thomas and the backfield carry out the option fake, the defense flows to the left edge:
This leaves the middle of the field open for Smelter on the post route.
Mississippi State’s defense is a classic “bend but don’t break” unit. The Bulldogs ranked 83rd in FBS, yielding over 411 yards per game to the opposition. But the group was 9th in scoring defense, holding opponents to just over 19 points per contest. A trio of linebackers spearhead the squad. Junior Benardrick McKinney was tops with 61 tackles, on the way to his All-SEC selection. Sophomore Beniquez Brown added 59 tackles and senior Christian Holmes contributed 58 stops.
What the Bulldogs do well is stopping an offense once they reach the red zone. The unit was the best red zone defense in the FBS, allowing the opposition to score on only 60% of red zone trips. On 40 occasions an offense entered their red zone, and these teams came away with only 15 TDs and nine field goals.
McKinney is a versatile defender and a likely first round selection should he declare for the draft. CBS currently has a second-round grade on Prescott, but the QB will likely return to school for his senior year. Other prospects include Smith, defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls, free safety Justin Cox, and offensive guard Ben Beckwith.
The combination of Georgia Tech’s running game and Mississippi State’s “bend but don’t break” defense keep the clock running and the chains moving. The Yellow Jackets keep this close, but in the end Prescott makes too many explosive plays.
Mississippi State 34, Georgia Tech 28
All video and images courtesy ESPN.com.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.