The NC State Wolfpack will take their scoreless start to the 2021 season on the road when they travel to Starkville to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs. NC State opened the campaign with a dominant 45-0 performance in Raleigh against USF last Thursday, while Mississippi State likewise took care of business at home — albeit in a much closer fashion — in a 35-34 win over Louisiana Tech on Saturday in Starkville.
Mississippi State came away with the win but with hardly any nails remaining in what was a back-and-forth, roller-coaster affair in the battle of the Bulldogs. Mississippi State led 14-7 after the first 15 minutes only to see Louisiana Tech score 14 straight points to go up by seven at halftime, followed by 10 more in the third quarter for a 31-14 edge heading into the final frame. But Mississippi State stormed back with three touchdowns and blocked a would-be game-winning field goal attempt to come out on top in a thrilling season opener.
Speaking of back and forth, these two teams have met six times dating back to 1930, with the series — no surprise — knotted at three wins apiece. NC State came out on top in the first two meetings, with 14-0 and 6-0 wins in 1930 and '31, respectively. But Mississippi State bounced back with a 26-10 win in 1940 — the teams’ most recent regular-season matchup — and tied the series with a 16-12 victory in the 1963 Liberty Bowl. Bowl games have continued to be the common setting for these two teams squaring off — the Wolfpack edged out a 28-24 Peach Bowl win in 1995 before Dak Prescott finished his college career with 380 yards and four touchdowns en route to a 51-28 win in the 2015 Belk Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Mississippi State at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: NC State -2.5
When NC State Has the Ball
The Wolfpack’s ground game was a dominant force against the Bulls, with Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. each eclipsing 100 yards to combine for 268 of the team’s 293 rushing yards. That performance represented a stark contrast from the team’s ground attack in 2020 when NC State rushed for just 122.5 yards per game — a bottom-25 mark in FBS — which left the Wolfpack as the only FBS team to play 12 games and fail to rush for at least 1,500 yards for the season.
That strong showing on the ground provided a solid complement to Devin Leary’s passing threat in the redshirt sophomore’s first game in nearly a year after he suffered a fractured fibula in last October’s win over Duke. Like Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers, Leary was quite efficient, completing 17 of his 26 passes for 232 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception. His vertical threat has been a consistent element to his game, as he’s averaged more than 12.7 yards per completion during his career and eclipsed 13.6 in Thursday night’s win. Those 17 completions found nine different receivers, with Person and Christopher Toudle on the other end of Leary’s scoring strikes while Emeka Emezie led the team with 71 yards on five receptions.
Louisiana Tech’s early outburst on offense left a stark reminder that Mississippi State’s defense isn’t this team's strength. The Bulldogs allowed 263.4 passing yards per game in 2020, the fifth-worst mark in the SEC.
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
The Bulldogs gave themselves quite the hill to climb last week against Louisiana Tech, thanks in large part to turnovers. Mississippi State lost three fumbles, and a pick-six by Rogers put the home team down by three scores. That continues a troubling trend from the 2020 season, in which the Bulldogs lost 25 turnovers in 11 games, by far the worst mark in the SEC and tied with Georgia Tech for the second-highest total in FBS.
But the fourth-quarter rebound that resulted in a come-from-behind win provides reason for hope. Rogers completed 39 of his 47 passes — to eight different receivers — for 370 yards and three touchdowns. He spread the ball around plenty, as six Bulldogs notched at least three catches and five tallied at least 50 yards. Jamire Calvin and Jaden Walley led the way with 67 and 64 yards, respectively, and a touchdown apiece with Jo’quavious Marks grabbing the other scoring strike. Marks also scored twice on the ground as he gained 71 yards on 12 carries.
NC State's defense will be more than ready for Mississippi State on Saturday night, especially after allowing just 271 total yards and recording three interceptions against USF. Cyrus Fagan, Tanner Ingle, and Drake Thomas each picked off a pass, and Thomas also led the team with eight tackles (1.5 tackles for a loss) in the shutout performance.
Both offenses enter this week with plenty of momentum thanks to solid openings to the 2021 campaign. The true question will be which — if either — trend might continue on the defensive side of the ball, considering the Bulldogs surrendered three offensive touchdowns (plus a pick-six) while the Wolfpack pitched a shutout. Rest may also play a role, as Mississippi State first took the field on Saturday while NC State’s Sept. 2 win offers two extra days off.
Prediction: NC State 33, Mississippi State 24
Podcast: Week 2 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.