Giving up 52 points and 640 yards of offense to the potent Florida Gators in an embarrassing shutout defeat last week, the Bulldog defense will be out for blood when the group visits Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
That could be bad news for Auburn offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who has a history of struggling to score points against Dunn's defenses. In six meetings against each other, Mazzone's teams have yet to score 20 points in any game. That probably needs to change this week for the Tigers to come out with a win.
What is normally a strong suit for the Mississippi State defense is somewhat of a question mark this year as the defensive line has been pushed around more than usual through three games. Forced to move All-America candidate Mario Haggan (6-3, 253, Jr.) from linebacker to defensive end earlier in the season to get a more athletic lineup on the field, the Bulldogs have been less than impressive so far this season. But it's not because of a lack of talent.
Playing an unusual 5-1-5 defense that relies on speed and quickness to make plays, Mississippi State has the talent to step up and take over at any time. In addition to Haggan at left end, tackles Dorsett Davis (6-3, 303, Sr.) and Tommy Kelly (6-6, 306, So.) along with nose guard Kahlil Nash (6-4, 281, Jr.) and right end Conner Stephens (6-4, 260, Sr.) form one of the most athletic defensive fronts not only in the SEC, but in the nation. The problem has been that the unit, especially the interior guys, has not played up to expectations this season and the Tigers hope that trend continues this weekend. Stephens leads the group with 28 tackles and one sack while Haggan has added 23 stops and one sack as well.
At linebacker, sophomore Jason Clark (6-1, 236) is coming off the best game of his career when he had 10 tackles, one quarterback pressure and one pass break-up against Florida. He is backed up by sophomores Kamau Jackson (6-4, 244) and T.J. Mawhinney (6-1, 235), who have both seen action this season. Mawhinney was a starter early in the season and had 20 tackles through the first two games before giving way to Clark against Florida.
Pig Prather is a Bulldog to watch on Saturday.
In the secondary, safeties Pig Prather (6-2, 186, Sr.), Shawn Byrdsong (5-9, 186, Sr.) and Josh Morgan (6-1, 199, Jr.) lead a hard-hitting group that is tough against the run but is prone to giving up a big play in the passing game. Florida quarterback Rex Grossman had five touchdown tosses just last week vs. the Bulldogs.
Prather, an All-America candidate from his left dog safety position, is dangerous in many ways. With 21 tackles, two sacks and one tackle for a loss, the former running back is a player to be reckoned with any time an opponent makes a game plan for the Bulldogs. Not to be outdone, right dog safety Byrdsong has quietly put together a fantastic early part of the season with 17 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two sacks. Morgan plays his free safety spot with reckless abandon and is known for his big hits in both the run and pass game.
While the safeties have been solid as usual, the corners have left a lot to be desired for Bulldog coaches and fans alike. Looking more like they were imitating Colonel Sanders rather than Deion Sanders last week against Florida, you can expect the duo of Korey Banks (5-11, 175, Jr.) and Demetric Wright (5-10, 170) to step up their play dramatically this week or else give way to back-ups Julius Griffith (5-11, 170, Sr.) and Richard Ball (5-10, 181, Jr.). If Auburn is unable to exploit this area on the Bulldog defense, it could be a long day for the homestanding Tigers.
Place kicker John Michael Marlin and punter Jared Cook handle the special teams duties for the Bulldogs and while Cook has been solid, Marlin has really struggled through three games. Making just one of four field goal attempts, the sophomore is on shaky ground coming into the Auburn game. Cook on the other hand is averaging 41.9 yards on 15 punts with a long of 57. Walker and Prather share in the kickoff return duties and each has the ability to take a return the distance at the drop of a hat. Walker is averaging 22.7 yards on six returns while Prather averages just over 20. Bivines gets the nod at punt returner and has averaged 10.5 yards per return on two returns this season.
With losses already to South Carolina and Florida this season, the Bulldogs should come into Auburn with a must-win attitude. A loss would drop them three games behind Auburn in the Western Division race and virtually assure them of a lower-tier bowl game--at best. For the Tigers a win would jump-start the bandwagon towards a possible return trip to Atlanta, making this game one of the more important the Tigers will play this season.