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Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. UMass Minutemen Preview and Prediction

Nick Fitzgerald

Nick Fitzgerald

As Mississippi State heads up to Foxboro's Gillette Stadum to play UMass in a non-league tilt, the Bulldogs will be looking for both a win and some semblance of continuity at the quarterback position.

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So, too, will their independent opponents from the Northeast.

In last week's 23-20 loss at LSU, Mississippi State rallied behind backup Damian Williams after a hit-and-miss effort from starter Nick Fitzgerald.

Meanwhile, UMass saw some nice moments under center at the beginning of the season out of Ross Comis, but he injured his shoulder, which allowed Andrew Ford to come in and lead the Minutemen to a 21-13 win over FIU, the team's first of the year.

Both teams aren't quite where they want to be, as Mississippi State also owns a season-opening loss to South Alabama while UMass had to hold on late against FIU to get into the win column. However, the Bulldogs may be able to take some momentum from their second-half rally against LSU as something to build on going forward.

Mississippi State at UMass (at Gillette Stadium)

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET

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TV Channel: ESPN3

Spread: Mississippi State -24.5

Three Things to Watch

1. On the run
This week, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said Nick Fitzgerald is still the starter despite the fact that he pulled him for Damian Williams late in Death Valley. One has to wonder what exactly Fitzgerald's confidence level is like with the mixed messages he's getting from his coach, but he should still be able to handle the job well this week. Although he missed some open receivers against LSU, Fitzgerald has some impressive speed when he takes off and runs, as seen in the Week 2 win over South Carolina where he rushed for 195 yards, including a 74-yard gain, on just 17 carries. If Williams comes in, he's not exactly immobile either, so whoever is behind center this week for the Bulldogs, UMass will need to account for the player's legs just as much as him arm.

2. Sack attack
One of the more disappointing aspects of the Bulldogs' loss to LSU is that despite some injuries to the Tigers' offensive line, Mississippi State didn't register a single sack and the overall pass rush was underwhelming. On a team that has one of the better edge rushers in the SEC in A.J. Jefferson, that production needs to come back against the Minutemen. Jefferson still had a solid outing with five tackles and combined on a tackle for loss, but the Bulldogs didn't even register a single quarterback hurry. Even with the injuries LSU suffered that game up front, UMass doesn't have the same type of talent on the offensive line, so this will be a good opportunity for the Bulldogs to get back to the type of pass rush that they're capable of, as seen in their win over South Carolina that saw them rack up 4.5 sacks in the 27-14 win.

3. Ford tough
Yes, the Minutemen were playing their least talented opponent of the season in FIU after starting with Florida and Boston College, but the fact of the matter is that the offense showed real life for the first time this fall with Andrew Ford at the helm. He completed 28 of 42 passes for 278 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Could Ross Comis have done the same thing against FIU? Maybe, but for now, it appears that Whipple should ride the hot hand and go with Ford, who connected with Andy Isabella, Adam Breneman and Jalen Williams for touchdowns in the win while distributing the ball to nine different pass catchers overall. That's the type of performance UMass will need to have any chance of pulling off the upset, even though the FIU will not be confused with the Bulldogs anytime soon.

Final Analysis

In one of the side notes to this matchup, the Bulldogs will come out wearing alternate uniforms patterned in the New England Patriots' style as a way of paying homage to the NFL powerhouse's home stadium. One can look at Mississippi State’s loss to South Alabama and UMass’ ability to hang with Florida for most of the game in the Swamp to open the season as reasons for optimism on the Minutemen side. Ford may give the home team the shot in the arm the offense needs, but don't expect it to result in an upset as the visiting Bulldogs likely pull away in the second half.

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Prediction: Mississippi State 31, UMass 10

— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.