The Bulldogs enter the game following a 51-13 win over Division I-AA Jacksonville State last Saturday. Unlike in years past, this State team relies on the deep passing game as a team strength in 2002. Led by quarterback Kevin Fant, who missed his team's opening day 36-13 loss at Oregon because of a NCAA rules violation, the Bulldogs rely heavily on making big plays in the passing game instead of their normal grind-it-out routine on the ground behind a big offensive line.
A 6-2, 207 junior, Fant threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-26 passing against the Gamecocks to signal that times have changed in Starkville for Coach Jackie Sherrill and company. A solid passer who is very accurate, Fant will give the Tigers problems if they can't get pressure on him in the pocket.
Kevin Fant is in his first season at State's full-time starting quarterback.
If he has time, Fant has a plethora of receivers to look for, but the best is senior Terrell Grindle (5-10, 191). Currently second in the league with 86.5 receiving yards per game, the speedy Grindle is one of the top big-play threats the Tigers will face this season. With three catches for 118 yards against Jacksonville State Saturday, he moved into sixth-place on the career receptions list and ninth-place on the all-time yardage list at Mississippi State.
Former standout high school quarterback Ray Ray Bivines has developed into the perfect compliment to Grindle at split end. At 5-11, 176, he doesn't have the classic size you want on the outside, but his blend of athleticism and speed makes him a difficult player to contain in this offense. Against the Gamecocks he had two catches for 109 yards and one touchdown, which went for 89 yards and established a school record for longest pass play. He's also a dangerous punt returner and brought back two for 30 yards in the game. He is the most dangerous punt returner AU has faced so far this season.
Junior Justin Jenkins (6-1, 206) is also a player to watch with five catches on the season for 44 yards. Watch out for sophomore Antonio Hargro (6-3, 190), who has just one catch for eight yards, but is due for a breakout game in the coming weeks. Tight end Donald Lee (6-4, 248, Sr.) has three catches in two games, but is a capable receiver as well as outstanding blocker.
The running back position is one of the deeper in the league, despite some lackluster numbers, with big Dontae Walker (5-10, 248, Sr.) leading the Bulldog charge this season with 25 carries for 70 yards and two touchdowns. Currently eighth all-time in MSU history with 19 rushing touchdowns and 12th in rushing yardage with 1,797, Walker has the experience and talent to give the Tigers trouble Thursday night. When he needs a breather the Bulldogs will turn to speedy sophomore Fred Reid. The perfect change-of-pace back, the 5-9, 185 Reid uses his quickness to dart and dance through holes as compared to the bruising style of Walker. For the year he has just 12 yards on 11 carries, but has scored one touchdown in limited action.
Fullback Justin Griffith (5-11, 225, Sr.) may be the key to the Bulldog rushing attack. Always a superb blocker, he has been given a chance to carry the ball this season and has come up big with 54 yards on 11 carries and one touchdown.
Up front the Bulldogs are a little greener than they have been under Sherrill with just one senior in the starting lineup in right guard Michael Allen (6-3, 349). The best of the bunch is junior left tackle Donald Tucker. The 6-4, 319 standout was moved from guard to tackle in spring practice and appears to have settled in nicely.
Center Blake Jones (6-2, 291, Jr.) has started eight straight games and gives the Bulldogs a solid player in the middle of the line. The problem areas for MSU are at right tackle and left guard where sophomore David Stewart (6-6, 294) and redshirt freshman Chris McNeil (6-3, 289) hold down the fort. Stewart, who started three games last season as a redshirt freshman, still needs to get stronger in the run game to be a dominant offensive tackle while McNeil is learning the ropes in his first season as a starter. The unit has given up three sacks in two games and the Bulldogs are rushing for just 103 yards per game.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are centered around the play of linebacker Mario Haggan. The 6-3, 253 senior has 14 double-digit tackle games in his career and is averaging 15 tackles per game this season with a 17-tackle performance against Oregon in the opener. A preseason Butkus and Lombardi Award Candidate, Haggan roams from sideline to sideline and will be a key player for the Tigers to watch Thursday night. Joining him at the other linebacker spot in MSU's 4-2-5 defensive alignment is steady T.J. Mawhinney (6-1, 235, Jr.).
Mario Haggan leads the MSU defense after moving back to linebacker full-time this year. Last season, he also played defensive end.
Up front big Kahlil Nash is the player to watch for the Bulldogs. The 6-4, 281 senior has six tackles through two games and has started 10 games in his short career in Starkville after transferring in from Arizona Western Junior College last fall. As a junior he had 41 tackles and two sacks. Sophomore Ronald Fields (6-2, 299) joins Nash as the other tackle. Through two games he has nine tackles.
At end former linebacker Jason Clark and Robert Spivey are the starters with Kamau Jackson the top reserve. Clark (6-1, 244, Jr.) and Spivey (6-1, 248, So.) aren't the normal big bullish defensive ends of days gone by for the Bulldogs and they could be vulnerable to the run against the big Auburn offensive line. Jackson (6-1, 277, Jr.) has the size to handle the spot, but has problems adjusting to playing end after coming out of high school as one of the top middle linebackers in the South.
Senior Josh Morgan (6-1, 199) leads a veteran Bulldog secondary from his free safety position. With 26 starts to his credit in his career, Morgan has become the anchor of the MSU defense and will line up all over the field for defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn in an effort to confuse the opposition. Morgan has 15 tackles on the season and 220 for his career to go along with three sacks and five interceptions in his fourth season in Starkville.
Cornerbacks Korey Banks (5-11, 183, Sr.) and Slovakia Griffith (5-11, 186, So.) are solid with Banks one of the top cover men in the SEC in 2002. Griffth may be the player the Tigers take shots at down the field when the time presents itself. Senior Richard Ball (5-10, 179) and redshirt freshman Rico Bennett (6-0, 206) hold down the dog safety spots for MSU and give the group an excellent cover man in Ball and the physical presence in Bennett. Bennett has been bothered by a turf toe injury and could split time with junior Milas Randle (6-2, 205) on Thursday.
Even with talent and experience, this group has underachieved through two games this season with no interceptions or sacks to show for its efforts while giving up good-sized chunks of yardage to both Oregon and Jacksonville State. The key to this game is up front where the Bulldogs allow opponents to rush for 162.5 yards per game. If that continues it will be a long night for the home crowd Thursday night. Expect the Dogs to stack the line of scrimmage early and often in an attempt to shut down Tiger tailback Carnell Williams. That should open the door for quarterback Daniel Cobb to take some shots down field. If his offensive line can give him some time, he could have a big night for coordinator Bobby Petrino and the Auburn offense.