KICKOFF: Saturday, 1:30 ET
SITE: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
SERIES: First meeting.
RECORDS: Michigan 7-5, Mississippi State 8-4
POLLS: Mississippi State (21 AP, 22 USA Today)
PREDICTION: Mississippi State 14-10
KEYS TO THE GAME:
-- For Michigan: The buzz over coach Rich Rodriguez and his future in Ann Arbor just won't go away. That adds to distractions for the Wolverines as they prepare for the bowl.
Michigan's running game all starts with QB Denard Robinson for Michigan. The speedy sophomore had more than 1,600 yards rushing this season, averaging nearly 7 yards per carry. Robinson rushed for nearly 140 yards per game. He works behind a veteran line with a good push, and he became the first quarterback in NCAA history to both rush and pass for more than 1,500 yards in a single season.
While his speed and running ability got most of the headlines, Robinson demonstrated that he has worked very hard at becoming a more accurate passer. He threw for 2,300 yards with 16 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Sophomore WR Roy Roundtree is the prime target, with 63 receptions and six touchdowns.
Michigan allowed the opposition about 187 rushing yards per game this season while surrendering almost 450 yards of offense per outing. To slow the Mississippi State run game down, Michigan needs a big game from its best defenders -- DT Mike Martin, LB Jonas Mouton and S Jordan Kovacs.
When Michigan manages to put on a pass rush, it is usually junior DE Ryan Van Bergen leading the charge. The Wolverines have been hit hard in the secondary by injuries and allowed better than 260 passing yards per game this season. Kovacs is a big hitter who totaled 17 tackles in the Ohio State game.
The Wolverines were severely handicapped in their season finale against Ohio State when freshman P Will Hagerup got suspended for violating team rules, throwing the duties on freshman Seth Broekhuizen. Coach Rich Rodriguez has displayed little faith in his kickers, who have gone just 4-for-13 on field-goal tries this season.
-- For Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are a program on the rise with tons of momentum going into the postseason.
The runnning game is the Bulldogs' big thing on offense. RB Vick Ballard is formidable. The junior college transfer has scored plenty of touchdowns for the Bulldogs and is a warhorse. But again, he's not alone. QB Chris Relf can run fairly well out of the option, too. Mississippi State's rushing game is second best in the SEC (215.3 yards per game). It'll help that the Bulldogs are facing the 94th-best rushing defense in the nation, one that has given up 187.7 yards per game on the ground. As for matchups, this is the best one for Mississippi State by far.
The passing game has been spotty this season, though Relf and his receivers seem to have developed some rapport in recent weeks. But who will catch the ball? WRs Arceto Clark and Brandon Heavens are the top options in a receiver corps that has been depleted due to injury. Again, enter Michigan's defense into the equation: It's 111th in the nation, giving up 260.3 passing yards per game.
Michigan QB Denard Robinson will give the Bulldogs fits up front. He's the Big Ten's leader in rushing yards per game (136.9), and Michigan's run offense as a whole is one of the best in the nation. Mississippi State, though, has played a tough, hard, smash-mouth brand of football with a fierce defensive line, especially on the interior. This will be a fun matchup to watch.
Mississippi State has shown a weakness in pass defense despite having some bright spots personnel-wise. SS Charles Mitchell is a team leader and an all-SEC caliber player. If Robinson is as dangerous throwing the ball as he has been this year running it, this will be a good area for the Wolverines to exploit.
Coach Dan Mullen coaches the special teams, and his attention to detail has been noticed. The Bulldogs were the only team in the SEC this year to make every extra point they attempted. PK Derek DePasquale has made 10 of his 12 field-goal attempts. But the Bulldogs haven't made much noise in the return game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Denard Robinson -- Robinson has had a hand in everything the Wolverines did on offense this season, when he became the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for more than 1,500 yards each in a season. Robinson has what is arguably the quickest first step in football, and he can reach fifth gear in the blink of an eye. He was clocked at 6.81 seconds in the 60-meter dash earlier this year.
DT Mike Martin -- Martin was slowed by ankle injuries as the season came to a close, but with a full month to get healthy, he should be a critical element in the Michigan plan to slow down Mississippi State's potent running game. Martin draws double-teams and is strong enough to force teams to tweak a game plan to avoid him.
WR Roy Roundtree -- Roundtree could be Michigan's most important offensive player in the bowl game, outside of Robinson. Since Mississippi State will have a month to prepare for slowing Robinson, the Wolverines will need Roundtree to make the Bulldogs pay for every time they overextend their defense to account for Robinson.
QB Chris Relf -- Relf had flashes of being a dynamic, dual-threat player during the season -- and his career as a whole at Mississippi State. It helped the Bulldogs that most of those flashes came in the final games of the season. Mississippi State's reliance on Relf can be rewarded with another strong game from him with both his legs and his arm.
LB Chris White -- White won the Conerly Trophy, which is given annually to the top college football player in the state of Mississippi. White is the team's leading tackler and easily its leader on defense. But he'll need to be at his best to contain Michigan QB Denard Robinson.
LT Derek Sherrod -- Sherrod is looking for a big bowl game against a quality opponent to further advance his NFL hopes.
WR Junior Hemingway (concussion, day-to-day), WR Martavious Odoms (foot, questionable).
WR Chad Bumhis (collarbone, out), WR Leon Berry (ankle, questionable).
The TSX Files: Michigan vs. Mississippi State
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