Wide receiver Fred Ross (above) is one of the keys for the Mississippi State offense
Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn Tigers will be looking to break a two-game losing streak to the Mississippi State Bulldogs when Coach Gus Malzahn’s team travels to Starkville on Saturday. Last winning at Davis-Wade Stadium in a hard-fought 17-14 game in 2010, the Tigers will try to turn the tables against an athletic group of Bulldogs led by one of the top defensive front seven groups in the Southeastern Conference.
Allowing 23.2 points and 356.2 yards per game, the Bulldogs have been victimized at times in the secondary, but up front they have been salty. Giving up just 110.8 rushing yards per contest, Mississippi State’s numbers are skewed in a big way with South Carolina only getting 34 yards on 31 carries in week two.
Leading the way is veteran linebacker Richie Brown with a team-high 28 tackles this season. Coming off a 109-tackle effort a year ago, the 6-2, 245 senior has 225 career tackles, 10 sacks and five interceptions. Alongside him is athletic freshman Leo Lewis, who is tied for second on the team with 25 stops. Outside speedy J.T. Gray plays the “star” position for the Bulldogs and has done it well. He is tied with Lewis with 25 tackles this year.
Richie Brown made a dozen tackles vs. Auburn in last season's game.
The main man on the front four for the Bulldogs has been 6-3, 280 A.J. Jefferson. A senior who had
five sacks a season ago, Jefferson has been a terror so far with three sacks and nine tackles for losses already in four games. On the other side juco transfer Johnathan Calvin has added one and a half sacks with the duo combining for half of the season total for the Bulldogs.
In the middle McAdory High School product Cory Thomas and senior Nelson Adams are the first guys up for Mississippi State, but true freshman Jeffrey Simmons is a star in the making after missing the opener because of a suspension.
In the secondary senior Kivon Coman and junior Jamoral Graham are playmakers for the Bulldogs with Coman and two-year starter and Graham a former wide receiver now making plays on defense. A strong safety Brandon Bryant (6-0, 215) is among the top athletes in the country and has 18 tackles already this year.
Offensively, the Bulldogs had to replace now NFL start rookie Dak Prescott, but big Nick Fitzgerald has been one of the bright spots for Coach Dan Mullen’s offense so far this season. At 6-5, 230, Fitzgerald not only has thrown for 603 yards and five touchdowns this year, but he is also the leading rusher on the team with 329 yards.
Nick Fitzgerald played in eight games as a backup last season and has started four times this season.
Already this season he has had games of 195 yards rushing against South Carolina and 110 yards against UMass. He also added 305 yards passing against the Minutemen, becoming just the second QB in MSU history to throw for 300 yards and run for 100 in the same game.
When Fitzgerald throws the ball the top target for him is senior all-everything receiver Fred Ross. One of the best kept secrets in the SEC, Ross has 25 catches for 288 yards and four touchdowns already this year. For his career the 6-2, 205-pounder has 152 receptions for 1,899 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The other top target is speedy junior college transfer Donald Gray. The 5-10, 193-pounder has caught 18 passes this year after totaling 21 a season ago. His career average of 18.2 yards per reception makes him a player to watch for the Tigers.
Up front on offense the Bulldogs are led by senior center Jamal Clayborn. With 16 career starts under his belt he’s one of three players for the Bulldogs’ offensive line who has double-digit starts in their careers. The most experienced of the bunch is right tackle Justin Senior with 30 career starts and 29 of them on the right side.
Left tackle is one of the question marks on offense with Elgton Jenkins and Martinas Rankin both expected to see action for the Bulldogs. Jenkins has five career starts while Rankin earned his first career start the last time out at UMass.
On special teams kicker Westin Graves has gone from walk-on to one of the most dependable in the league. This season he’s 8-10 on field goals and a perfect 12-12 on extra points. Punter Logan Cooke is averaging 40.6 yards per attempt this season with an impressive 15 of his 19 kicks finishing inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.