Redskins

No. 15 Mississippi St readies for Middle Tennessee

No. 15 Mississippi St readies for Middle Tennessee

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill needed all of about five seconds to describe why No. 15 Mississippi State has moved from the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference to contending for the Western Division title.

``They've really improved their throwing game,'' Stockstill said.

It's a simple explanation, but also quite true. The once ground-bound Bulldogs are now able to throw the ball with some of the SEC's best, thanks to a breakout season from first-year starter Tyler Russell.

He'll lead Mississippi State (6-0) against Middle Tennessee (4-2) on Saturday in a non-conference game at Davis Wade Stadium as the Bulldogs try to continue their best start since 1999.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior from Meridian, Miss., has thrown for 1,382 yards, 12 touchdowns and just one interception this season. He spent two seasons as the backup for Chris Relf in 2010 and `11, and has seamlessly stepped into the starter's role.

Russell's best performance came in last week's 41-31 victory over Tennessee. He completed 23 of 37 passes for a career-high 291 yards and two touchdowns, outdueling Tennessee's better-known Tyler Bray.

The breakout performance has brought some attention. The soft-spoken Russell said he's not seeking the spotlight, but doesn't mind that it's found its way to Starkville.

``That comes with it,'' Russell said. ``Being in the SEC, we're 6-0 and we have a chance to be 7-0. If we take care of business this week, we go and play Alabama. This is why we came to Mississippi State. This is the reason I wanted to be here.''

And Russell is fortunate to have several playmakers around him. LaDarius Perkins is third in the SEC with 599 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Chad Bumphis is sixth in the SEC with 468 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

Then there's tight end Malcolm Johnson, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore who missed the first five games with a torn pectoral muscle, but returned for the Tennessee game and made two big catches for 34 yards.

The last one was a 9-yard touchdown catch in the final minute that sealed the victory. It was an acrobatic, one-handed grab in the back of the end zone.

``You expect those things from Malcolm,'' Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. ``He does have such great ball skills and even in practice you see him make those catches.''

While Mississippi State has a plethora of playmakers, Middle Tennessee must adjust to life without its best offensive player.

The Blue Raiders lost running back Benny Cunningham for the season after the senior suffered a knee injury near the end of last week's victory against Florida International.

Cunningham was having a sensational season, with 600 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in just five games.

``It's very unfortunate for him and our football team,'' Stockstill said. ``But it's a situation that we can't make excuses about. We can't whine. We can't cry in our milk right now.''

The Blue Raiders won't be totally helpless without Cunningham. Drayton Calhoun and Jordan Parker have combined for more than 400 rushing yards behind Cunningham and junior quarterback Logan Kilgore has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in his career, including 1,422 yards this season.

Stockstill is familiar with Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won back-to-back meetings between the two programs in 2008 and '09.

``Those years they solely relied on their running back,'' Stockstill said. ``They'd turn and toss it to him or turn it and hand to him, and then rely on their defense.''

Not anymore. Russell has made the Bulldogs' offense much more dynamic.

And now he's working on making sure Mississippi State is more consistent. The Bulldogs have had some hiccups already in non-conference play, needing a fourth-quarter rally to beat Troy 30-24 one week before a lackluster 30-10 victory over South Alabama.

``We have to take care of the business,'' Russell said. ``We have to play like (the No. 15) team in the nation.''

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

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Inside the numbers: Will a 1,000-yard receiver make or break the 2018 Redskins?

Inside the numbers: Will a 1,000-yard receiver make or break the 2018 Redskins?

In 2017, the Redskins missed the playoffs while no receiver went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Jamison Crowder led the team with 789 receiving yards.

In 2016, the Redskins missed the playoffs while two receivers went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Pierre Garçon gained 1,041 yards that year while DeSean Jackson posted 1,005 receiving yards. 

In 2015, the Redskins did make the playoffs. That season the team had no receivers go for 1,000 yards, though Jordan Reed got close with 952 receiving yards. 

Is there a lesson here? Is there a takeaway that can help to predict the 2018 season?

Going into this season, no Redskins wideout has ever accounted for 1,000 yards in a single season. In their career.

Former first-round pick Josh Doctson accounted for just more than 500 receiving yards last season, catching 35 of the 78 balls thrown his way.  Crowder was mostly productive, but there was an expectation, fair or not, he would make more of a jump in 2018 than he did. Jordan Reed hardly played. 

To help the group, the Redskins added Paul Richardson in free agency. Last year playing for the Seahawks, Richardson went for 703 yards on 44 catches. The speedster gives the Redskins a true downfield threat the team lacked in 2017, and that could help the whole offense. In fact, it better help the whole offense. 

Still, looking at a top three of Doctson, Crowder and Richardson, it's hard to confidently predict a 1,000-yard receiver from the bunch. 

Could it happen? Absolutely. Any of the three could pop to a four-digit total.

Would you put your own hard-earned cash on the line? That would take some guts. 

Though the Redskins have a new quarterback in Alex Smith, head coach Jay Gruden has been crystal clear the team is not in a rebuilding mode. Washington must win, now, this season, and a minimum goal should be a Wild Card playoff spot. 

How imperative is a 1,000-yard wide receiver to that goal? Let's look back at the past 12 NFC playoff teams. 

Only three of six NFL playoff teams in 2017 had a 1,000-yard wideout. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles did not, but the Vikings, Saints and Falcons all did. 

In 2016, however, five of six playoff teams had 1,000-yard receivers. The only team that didn't, the Cowboys, deployed a heavy run offense that resulted in Ezekiel Elliott going for more than 1,600 rush yards. 

Added together, in the past two seasons, eight of 12 NFC playoff teams had a receiver on their squad go at least four digits. 

One more note: the New England Patriots played in the last two Super Bowls, winning one and losing one. Both years they had at least one receiver get to 1,000 yards (Julian Edelman in 2016, Brandin Cooks in 2017). In 2017, tight end Rob Gronkowski broke the 1,000-yard mark too.

Again, what's the takeaway? Having a 1,000-yard receiver is certainly good, but it's not a must for a playoff berth or a deep playoff run. The Eagles proved that. 

On some teams, an elite wideout makes a huge difference. Watch Giants tape and it's clear what Odell Beckham does for the offense. Watch Falcons tape and Julio Jones does the same. 

On other teams, an elite quarterback makes a huge difference. Duh.  

Of the teams examined, the 2016 Packers came the closest to the 2017 Patriots with having two players go for over 1,000 yards.

2017 New England did it with Cooks (1,082) and Gronkowski (1,084), 2016 Green Bay almost got there with Jordy Nelson (1,257) and Davante Adams (997). 

While Gronkowski and Nelson are excellent players, the common denominator is obviously the elite play of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. 

For the 2018 Redskins, what does it mean?

The Redskins don't have an elite wideout like Jones or Beckham. The Redskins don't have an elite quarterback like Brady or Rodgers. 

The best path for Washington's offense might be balance, and trying to emulate the Eagles model from 2017. Carson Wentz played most of the season at an elite level, but he spread the ball around to a number of targets and leaned heavily on his tight ends. It helped that the Eagles ran the ball very well too. 

Could the 'Skins do something similar? Alex Smith is known to spread the ball around, and if Jordan Reed and Derrius Guice can produce this fall, the offenses might be similar. 

The answer can't be force enough balls to one wideout to ensure a 1,000 yard season. That won't work. 

There might be another way to consider. Of the three NFC teams that made the 2017 playoffs without a 1,000-yard wideout, two found a lot of success throwing to a running back.

The Panthers leading WR was Devin Funchess with 840 receiving yards. Their second best receiver? Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. 

The Rams leading WR was Cooper Kupp with 869 receiving yards. Their second best receiver? Running back Todd Gurley.

See a pattern?

Before breaking his leg in November, Chris Thompson had more than 500 receiving yards. He still finished as the team's fourth-leading receiver despite playing only 10 games. 

The offensive path to playoff success for Washington might not hinge on a true 1,000-yard wideout like it does for many teams. Full, healthy seasons from Jordan Reed or Chris Thompson could make up for deficiencies at other skill positions. It also remains possible Doctson, Crowder or Richardson make the four digit leap. 

Having a 1,000-yard receiver seems like a nice option for a good offense, and that's proven by nearly 70 percent of recent NFC playoff teams. Still, other paths remain to the postseason, and increased production at tight end and running back can go a long way. 

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Juan Soto's 2-run double carries Nationals past Orioles

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USA TODAY Sports

Juan Soto's 2-run double carries Nationals past Orioles

WASHINGTON -- A teenager among men, Juan Soto has impressed his teammates on the Washington Nationals with his maturity and, even more so, his potent bat.

Soto hit a tiebreaking two-run double in the eighth inning, and Washington beat the Baltimore Orioles 4-2 Thursday night in the deciding matchup of a three-game interleague series between neighboring rivals.

Soto, a 19-year-old rookie, is batting .326 with 16 RBIs in 28 games. Starting in the cleanup spot for the first time, he drew a walk and delivered the game's pivotal hit.

"I think we're all amazed every single day," Washington ace Max Scherzer said. "He puts together great ABs. He has antics and has some flair. He's a great young player. He's just enjoying himself."

Bryce Harper led off the eighth with a double off Mychal Givens (0-4) and Trea Turner followed with a single. After Anthony Rendon struck out, Soto hit a liner into the gap in left-center.

"He's got unbelievable poise," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of Soto. "No matter what the situation is, he goes out there with a game plan."

Whatever that plan is, it's effective.

"I just try to be focused and keep working," Soto said.

Rendon homered for the Nationals, who received seven strong innings from Scherzer and flawless work from their bullpen.

Newcomer Kelvin Herrera (1-0) pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning and Sean Doolittle got three straight outs for his 20th save in 21 tries.

Seeking to end a rare run of two straight losses, Scherzer left a tied game after allowing two runs -- both on solo homers -- and striking out nine.

Afterward, the right-hander heaped praise upon Soto for the manner in which he's adapted to playing in the big leagues.

"He has a great feel for the strike zone," Scherzer said. "To have that type of eye, it's remarkable for him to be able to do that at this time and this age and this level."

Activated from the 60-day disabled list before the game, Colby Rasmus homered for the Orioles in his first at-bat since April 6.

"Me and Max, we go way back, so I felt real good," said Rasmus, who had been sidelined with a hip injury.

In addition, Rasmus made an outstanding throw from right field to the plate, nailing Wilmer Difo on a tag-up play in the seventh inning with the score tied.

Mark Trumbo also homered for Baltimore, his sixth of the season and third in four games.

Baltimore starter Kevin Gausman gave up two runs and four hits over six innings. The right-hander was lifted with the score tied, leaving him winless in his last seven starts.

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