Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s quarterback situation has been in flux much of the season, with junior Maty Mauk being suspended twice as true freshman Drew Lock nipped at his heels.
Mississippi State has had no such worries.
When the Tigers host the Bulldogs on Thursday, they will face one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in Dak Prescott.
A 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior, Prescott is coming off a season in which he finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting. This year, he has accounted for 126 points, second-most in the Southeastern Conference, passed for 2,048 yards, also second in the league, and thrown 14 touchdowns, third in the conference.
Oh yeah, and he’s only been intercepted once.
“He’s impressive,” defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “Doesn’t make mistakes too often. Is a really, really strong runner, physical, puts them in position to play really well offensively. I admire the way he plays the game.”
Prescott’s 371 rushing yards are tops among Mississippi State players this year. That ability to make plays with his feet gives the Bulldogs plenty of flexibility on offense.
“A lot of times the play’s probably called ‘Dak run’ and he just literally picks wherever he wants to run and runs the ball, wherever the open hole is,” linebacker Michael Scherer said. “We’re going to have to swarm to the ball, because we’re going to be spread out all over the place. When he takes off he’s a good runner, good at finding the hole — I mean, he’s pretty much their running back.”
That kind of player can be hard to simulate in a practice setting.
“He’s one of the, not only the top players in the SEC, but the top players in the country,” Missouri cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said. “Anytime you’re trying to duplicate that in practice, that’s hard to do. We’ve got a couple guys that we think are — again, I’m not calling them him, by any means — but they do a decent job for us and getting us pretty good looks, so it keeps us fresh.”
Odom and head coach Gary Pinkel also said the Tigers will use multiple quarterbacks in practice to try to prepare for Prescott, who drew multiple comparisons to Cam Newton — the former Auburn star who now plays quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.
“He certainly changed the game when he came through, and Dak is very much like that,” Ford said. “A very accurate thrower as well, which makes his game even more difficult.”
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said: “You see this big, giant guy, and he’s hard to tackle, and he is physically impressive. You don’t see him getting up from the ground ever slow, you don’t see him getting intimidated by any of the defenses that they’ve played. You don’t see him showing any signs of weakness, to be honest with you, and so he’s a real competitor.”
Prescott has averaged 256 passing yards per game — including a game against Troy in which he played just four drives due to illness. That average mark would be a season-high for passing yards allowed by the Missouri defense this year. Patrick Towles came closest, throwing for 249 yards in Kentucky’s defeat of the Tigers. Prescott is also completing 66.5 percent of his passes, a number reached only by Towles and Georgia’s Greyson Lambert against Missouri this year.
For all Prescott’s prowess, however, the Tigers don’t anticipate making too many adjustments to keep him in check Thursday.
“If you get into changing things a whole lot based on who you’re playing, then you’re no longer who you are,” Ford said. “And so what we try to do is, within the scheme of what we’ve done from Day 1, try to use that and just focus on our fundamentals and what we do.”
Pinkel added: “You’re not going to stop him. Hopefully you can play him well enough so there’s less damage that he’s capable of doing.”
One option in keeping a mobile quarterback in check is to have a defensive “spy,” who keeps an eye on the gunslinger at all times. But that has its downsides, too.
“There’s goods and bads about it,” Kuligowski said. “The goods are if you can flush him out with the other people, then that guy has an easier job of going to make the sack or getting the hit or forcing a bad throw. The possible negative side of that is you lose a guy in pass coverage when you do that.”
The trick, Kuligowski said, will be to play aggressively, despite Prescott’s big-play potential.
“If you coach caution into the players, you’re going to coach mistakes,” he said. “So we try to be aggressive in everything we do. They’re going to make some plays, but we need to be able to create some situations where we can put ourselves in good positions.”
Kuligowski compared Mississippi State’s offense to that run by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer throughout his 14-year head-coaching career. Odom said Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen and his offensive coordinators have been consistent with their system in Mullen’s time at Mississippi State.
“They’re going to find out what you don’t do well,” Odom said. “I think he’s got a pretty good idea on that, and then he attacks that, and you can see it come up over and over and over, and I think that’s why they’ve had success.”
The Bulldogs have talent on the other end of Prescott’s passes, as well. Six-foot-5 senior De’Runnya Wilson has six touchdown catches this season, tied for most in the SEC. His 524 receiving yards are more than twice as much as any Missouri receiver this season, and he’s averaging 15.9 yards per catch.
“I’m glad we had a bye week last week to try to come up with some things to put ourselves in position,” Odom said.