CHARLESTON, S.C. - Charleston Southern opens the season this weekend at Mississippi State on the SEC Network. In preparation for the 4 p.m. ET/3 p.m. CT kickoff, here are three things to watch in Saturday's contest.
NICK FITZGERALD VS. THE CSU FRONT SEVEN
Named the most important player on the Mississippi State roster in the 2017 season, Nick Fitzgerald returns for his junior campaign after a breakout season that saw him finish with 2,423 yards passing, 1,375 rushing yards, and 37 total touchdowns.
His level of production during the 2016 season made him just the sixth quarterback in the SEC since 2000 to throw for over 2,000 yards and rush for over 900 yards, joining Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Dak Prescott, and Jalen Hurts as the only ones to achieve the mark. Lining up at 6-5, 230 lbs. – Fitzgerald is a potent threat that CSU will have to account for every down in the season opener.
The Buccaneers defense enters the contest after sitting among the top defenses in the Big South Conference over the last four seasons. Headlined by the two-time Preseason and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Anthony Ellis, the Bucs finished seventh in the FCS in total defense with 294.1 yards per game.
CSU's front seven is loaded with senior talent and depth with linebackers Zane Cruz and Bobby Ruff returning to the fold, while BUC Solomon Brown was among the conference leaders in tackles for loss and sacks. Key to the battle up front will be the play of defensive linemen Johnny Robinson and Noah Oliver against the Mississippi State offensive line.
THE CSU RUSHING GAME VS. THE MISSISSIPPI STATE DEFENSE
The Buccaneers had nearly 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns leave the roster following the 2016 season as Mike Holloway, Darius Hammond, and Ben Robinson wrapped up their playing careers in the CSU Blue and Gold.
The Bucs have ranked among the FCS' best on the ground over the past four years finishing sixth overall with 266.5 yards per game on the season. OT Erik Austell is now on the NFL's Houston Texans, but All-Conference linemen Jackson Williamson and Frank Cirone return to headline a Gold Rush unit that looks to continue their success in 2017.
Key to CSU's rushing success will be the development of redshirt sophomores Ronnie Harris and Chanin Hamilton. The duo both saw limited time in the 2016 season, but both experienced success against Florida State in the Bucs' FBS matchup.
Mississippi State finished 70th in rushing defense in the FBS rankings in the 2016 season and seventh in the Southeastern Conference after allowing an average of 177.5 yards per game. The Bulldogs gave up at least 150 yards rushing in eight games in the 2016 season including a season-high 357 last year against Arkansas.
The Bulldogs' defense returns a pair of talented sophomores in linebacker Leo Lewis and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons as Mississippi State will look to stop a CSU offense that recorded at least 150 yards rushing in all 11 games, including 152 last season at Florida State.
MISSISSIPPI STATE PASSING GAME VS. THE BUCCANEER SECONDARY
If there was one flaw for Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald last season, it was accuracy. Fitzgerald completed just 54.3% of his attempts in the 2016 season and threw 10 interceptions last year. It's an area that the Mississippi State faithful hope have been addressed this season as the junior quarterback has already started to pick up Heisman buzz early in the 2017 season.
Key to the MSU passing game this season will be wide receiver Donald Gray. The 5-10 athlete was a dangerous weapon last season after finishing second on the team last season with 41 catches for 709 yards and five touchdowns. An explosive playmaker, Gray led the SEC with two 70-plus yard touchdown catches on the season.
CSU's passing defense was stout in 2016 finishing third overall in the FCS in allowing just 158.8 yards per game. The Buccaneers allowed less than 100 yards on four separate occasions in the 2016 season with Florida State (269) one of only two teams to breach the 250-plus mark last season. Key to CSU's resurgence over the past few seasons has been their ability to shut down opponents passing games; CSU has not allowed a 300-plus yard passing effort since the 2014 season when Charlotte threw for 305 on September 27.
The Bucs graduated three of their four starters in the secondary but return Preseason All-Conference defensive back Shadarius Hopkins after a standout season that saw the junior break up 10 passes and record interceptions against Liberty and Kennesaw State. Fellow juniors Brandon Rowland and Jonathan Slaton, as well as redshirt freshman Demetri Royer are expected to make their first starts this weekend and will bear watching as the Bucs look to continue their success against the passing game.