No. 24 Mississippi State faces Missouri after weekend off

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Mississippi State is rested, riding a three-game winning streak. The Bulldogs are pushing to be a factor in the Southeastern Conference Western Division during the final month of the regular season.

Following a weekend off, the 24th-ranked Bulldogs (6-2, 2-2 SEC) travel to Missouri to take on the Tigers (4-4, 1-4) on Thursday night.

Mississippi State needs some help to win the West, but still has opportunities to make up ground in November, including home games against division rivals seventh-ranked Alabama and No. 19 Mississippi.

''We want to peak at the end of the season, not at the beginning or the middle,'' Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. ''I think our guys have really bought into that and they've paid close attention to how they can improve themselves.''

First, Mississippi State must handle Missouri, which has been awful on offense but one of the league's best teams on defense. The Tigers are giving up just 12.5 points per game, which ranks first in the SEC.

Mullen was especially complimentary of Missouri's defensive line. The Tigers are third in the league with 23 sacks. Sophomore defensive end Charles Harris leads the team with 15 1/2 tackles for a loss, including six sacks.

''They create havoc with athleticism on the outside and size on the inside,'' Mullen said. ''They can rush the passer and stop the run.''

Mississippi State hopes to counter with an offense that's quietly been among the most productive in the SEC. The Bulldogs have scored at least 42 points in all three games during their current winning streak that's come against Troy, Louisiana Tech and Kentucky.

It's not necessarily surprising that Mississippi State has a good offense. It is a little stunning that the Bulldogs have turned into such a good passing team considering Mullen's run-heavy reputation.

Senior Dak Prescott has 2,048 yards passing, which ranks second in the league, and 14 touchdowns. His only interception of the season came in the team's last game against Kentucky.

That ended a streak of 288 consecutive passes without an interception, which was the third longest in league history and dated back to last season.

''That is something I've worked on and I wanted to be known as a passer first and a guy that can run instead of just a runner,'' Prescott said. ''I really worked on that and coach Mullen loves airing it out.''

Mullen, who is in his seventh season at Mississippi State, has long said he has a bigger playbook than he uses in any one season.

He says that every year, he picks about 70 percent of the playbook that fits his team best. Since Prescott is a talented and experienced quarterback and the team has several veteran receivers, the coach has gravitated toward the passing plays this fall.

Eight different players have caught at least 10 passes this season. Fred Ross leads the team with 40 catches while De'Runnya Wilson is tops with 524 yards receiving and six touchdowns.

''I think it's everybody understanding where our strengths are and let's play to our strengths,'' Mullen said. ''I am fortunate to have a coaching staff that's been together for a while and our offense has enough flexibility in it that we can highlight strengths of different players.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org.

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