Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs return to Starkville after last week's big win to take on the Ragin' Cajuns
Mississippi State returns home after last week's impressive road victory over Kansas State to host the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns from the Sun Belt. Joe Moorhead's Bulldogs ventured into Big 12 territory and left Manhattan, Kansas, with a convincing 31-10 victory.
For Louisiana, it's just the Ragin' Cajuns' second game after a bye last week. First-year head coach Billy Napier opened his Louisiana coaching career with a 49-17 win against FCS opponent Grambling in Week 1.
Mississippi State is 3-1 against Louisiana. This is the first time since 1987 the two schools have played each other.
Louisiana at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Mississippi State -33
Three Things to Watch
1. Nick Fitzgerald’s progression
Fitzgerald returned to action after sitting out Week 1 for an unspecified violation of team rules that occurred earlier in the year. His return was a welcome sight, as he missed last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl and spring practice while rehabilitating an ankle injury he sustained during the 2017 Egg Bowl.
Fitzgerald’s 2018 debut left a little to be desired in terms of his passing production. He went 11 of 27 for 154 yard, two touchdowns and an interception. However, he was his usual effective self when running the ball, as he finished with 159 rushing yards on 19 carries.
Given Fitzgerald’s injury and absence on the playing field, much shouldn’t be made of his struggles in the pocket last week. He should bounce back with a strong performance through the air against the Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday.
2. Louisiana in the red zone
Head coach Billy Napier has to feel good about his team’s red zone production against Grambling. In seven trips inside the Tigers' 20-yard line, the Ragin’ Cajuns netted points on each and enter Saturday a perfect 100 percent (tied for No. 1 in FBS) in red zone conversions.
Grambling’s defense, however, isn’t as talented as Mississippi State’s, and trips to the red zone alone for Louisiana will be more difficult to earn. The Bulldogs have allowed just eight points per game, which is good enough to rank fifth nationally in scoring defense.
In two games this season, Mississippi State has given up three field goals in as many red zone opportunities and has allowed just one touchdown in total. Louisiana's sterling red zone conversion rate will certainly be put to the test Saturday night in Starkville.
3. The emergence of Kylin Hill
Last year, Hill was the third-leading rusher for Mississippi State, as his 393 yards on 78 carries placed him behind Aeris Williams and Fitzgerald. What a difference a year makes. Hill became just the second player in school history to for 200 rushing yards, as he gained 211 on just 17 carries (12.4 ypc) in the win over Kansas State. he had two rushing touchdowns and added a 16-yard TD reception for good measure.
Hill has supplanted Williams as the Bulldogs' starting running back, and his numbers this season offer a glimpse as to why. Hill tallied 50 rushing yards and a touchdown against FCS opponent Stephen F. Austin in Week 1, and he also scored on a 53-yard reception. For the season, he has 261 rushing yards and is averaging a robust 10 yards per carry. He's also tied for No. 1 in the nation with five total touchdowns.
There’s plenty to like about this year’s Louisiana squad. Against Grambling, quarterback Andre Nunez hit on 19 of his 22 pass attempts for 184 yards and two touchdowns while running back Trey Ragas had 142 yards and a score on just 13 carries. The Ragin' Cajuns defense also joined in on the fun with two forced fumbles.
However, playing an FCS team is one thing. Mississippi State has looked impressive in each of its first two games, highlighted by last week's road win against Kansas State. Players appear to be on the same page with the new coaching staff and both sides of the ball have shined. For all the success the offense has enjoyed early, the defense has been very stingy (8.0 ppg) and already has collected eight sacks (tied for seventh in the FBS).
There's little doubt that this is a mismatch and should play out as one from the opening kick. Bulldogs should have little trouble improving to 3-0.
Prediction: Mississippi State 45, Louisiana 20
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on "The Paul Finebaum Show." Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.