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Doeren, State Looking for Signature SEC Win

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb gives his preview and prediction for NC State versus Mississippi State.

While it’s a small sample, NC State is only 1-4 against the SEC in nine seasons under Dave Doeren.

That lone win didn’t exactly come versus one of the elite SEC programs either -- NC State beat Vanderbilt (although a good Commodores team) in the 2016 Independence Bowl.

One of those four losses was against Mississippi State in the 2015 Belk Bowl. Doeren and the Wolfpack will receive a chance to avenge that defeat Saturday in Starkville.

Both teams come into Week 2 having won its season opener, but the way in which each program achieved those victories was very different. NC State routed South Florida, 45-0. As is typical of such a lopsided affair, it’s hard to find many errors the Wolfpack made in its first game.

Mississippi State made plenty of mistakes to begin the season against Louisiana Tech, but the Bulldogs of Starkville scored three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter to complete a 35-34 comeback win.

Although those results could give Mississippi State a mental advantage, NC State possesses the statistical edge. In other words, the Wolfpack have reason to be confident for Saturday’s game.

NC State was about as efficient as it could be offensively against South Florida. Quarterback Devin Leary needed just 26 attempts to throw for 232 yards and two touchdowns. He posted 8.9 yards per pass, which is the sophomore’s best average in any college game where he attempted at least 20 throws.

On the ground, running backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person combined for 268 rushing yards, as both reached the century mark. Each runner also averaged more than 6.5 yards per carry, with Knight leading the way at 10.2 yards per attempt (163 rushing yards on 16 carries).

Three different NC State pass catchers had receptions of at least 30 yards. A fourth receiver, Christopher Toudle, caught a touchdown.

The Mississippi State defense will have its hands full with that assortment of opposing offensive weapons. The Bulldogs gave up 369 yards to Louisiana Tech in Week 1. Mississippi State tightened defensively in the fourth quarter, giving up just a field goal at the beginning of the quarter, but the Bulldogs still yielded 92 yards in the fourth. A Louisiana Tech missed field goal in the final seconds sealed the victory for Mississippi State.

On defense, NC State will want to find a more consistent pass rush than it had last Saturday. Despite the blowout win, the Wolfpack didn’t record a sack versus South Florida. NC State was ranked fifth in the ACC in sacks last season, but no single defender had seven sacks in the team’s 12 games.

Senior defensive lineman Daniel Joseph led NC State with 6.5 sacks last year, and he returned this season because of his extra year of eligibility due to COVID. Still, it will be a collective effort for NC State to pressure the quarterback.

That could be particularly key this Saturday, as Mississippi State struggles to protect the pocket. The Bulldogs were tied for last in the SEC with 34 sacks allowed in 2020 and gave up three sacks Saturday versus Louisiana Tech.

Another issue recurred for the Mississippi State offense in Week 1 -- giveaways. The Bulldogs were last in the SEC during 2020 with 25 turnovers. With a minus-7 turnover margin, only Vanderbilt was worst in the conference.

On Saturday, Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers threw an interception and three different ball carriers lost fumbles. The defense had two takeaways, but Mississippi State still started the season in the hole with a minus-2 turnover differential.

NC State wasn’t great at taking the ball away last year, but the Wolfpack had three interceptions against South Florida to open 2021.

Still, as showcased last week, even with multiple giveaways, Mississippi State’s offense can explode at any time, which always keeps them within striking distance. Rogers threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns, including the eventual game-winning score to Jaden Walley from 15 yards away with 3:37 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Doeren and NC State’s lack of success against the SEC may be largely irrelevant but can’t be ignored either, especially with this matchup in Starkville. Although based on our limited 2021 one game sample, the Wolfpack should win, Rogers and the home crowd should also keep this matchup close.

Prediction: NC State 38, Mississippi State 35