Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Michigan (7-5) vs. #21 Mississippi State (8-4)
(W) Connecticut 35-10
(W) at Notre Dame 28-24
(W) UMASS 42-37
(W) Bowling Green 65-21
(W) at Indiana 42-35
(L) Michigan State 37-17
(L) Iowa 38-28
(L) at Penn State 41-31
(W) Illinois 67-65 3OT
(W) at Purdue 27-16
(L) Wisconsin 48-28
(L) at Ohio State 37-7
|Mississippi State Schedule:
(W) Memphis 49-7
(L) Auburn 17-14
(L) at LSU 29-7
(W) Georgia 24-12
(W) Alcorn State 49-16
(W) at Houston 47-24
(W) at Florida 10-7
(W) UAB 29-24
(W) Kentucky 24-17
(L) at Alabama 30-10
(L) Arkansas 38-31
(W) at Ole Miss 31-23 2OT
Miss. State Players to Watch:
The Mississippi State Bulldogs went 4-4 in Conference play and won all of their non-conference games to finish the regular season at 8-4. All four losses came within divisional play in the SEC West, and that led to a 5th place finish in the division, but they may just be the sixth best team in the conference.
In what is a clear indication of a power shift in the SEC, all four teams the Bulldogs lost to are currently ranked in the BCS Top 20, and they swept all three opponents in the SEC East. Mississippi State beat Florida and Georgia in the same season for the first time in school history. South Carolina was the only team in the SEC East to finish above .500 in conference play.
Miss. State runs a zone-read spread that is very similar to Michigan's. This team doesn't have a high-octane, quick strike offense that Michigan has shown. In conference play, the Bulldogs are 11th in scoring, total offense, and passing offense. They do, however, control the ball and take time off the clock by keeping the chains moving. Miss. State is second in the conference in rushing and third in 3rd down conversions.
Chris Relf (Jr. #36) is a mobile quarterback who can get first downs with his feet. He isn't nearly explosive as Denard Robinson (So. #16), but he has shown tangible improvement as the season as moved on. His passing needs work as the numbers reflect (126 ypg). Relf is listed at 6'4 and 240 lbs. Michigan's linebackers can't let him escape into the undersized secondary. Relf will sometimes split time with Tyler Russell (Fr. #17) (635 yds, 5 TD's, 6 INT's).
JUCO transfer Vick Ballard (Jr. #28) clearly won the lead running back job in what was an open competition at the beginning of the season. Ballard set the single season touchdown record with 17 (16 rushing, 1 receiving), breaking a 58 year-old school record. Ballard needs 108 yards to hit the century mark this season. Named as an Honorable Mention to the All-SEC Conference team, Ballard rushed for the same amount of conference yards (579) as 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
Leading receiver Chad Bumphis broke his collarbone in the final game of the regular season and will not play. How that affects their production is a guess, but consider that the top two receivers available for the game, Arceto Clark (So. #19) and Brandon Heavens (So. #3) combine for less catches and yards than Bumphis.
If you believe in linemen's weights and measures, the Bulldogs offensive line (starters and backups) weigh between 300-305lbs. What's for certain is the ability of Derek Sherrod (#79). It's early, but the senior left tackle may be the first lineman drafted. Sherrod isn't likely to be drafted # 1 like Jake Long or like Wisconsin's Joe Thomas (#3 to Cleveland in 2007), but he will go in the first round. Sherrod was named the SEC's Offensive Lineman of the Week four times this season and was also a finalist for the Academic Heisman, so we're sure his film study of the Wolverines will be beneficial to him and the team.
Head Coach Dan Mullen is one of the youngest coaches in NCAA football. If it's possible to have a legacy at the age of 38, Mullen is known for grooming quarterbacks. As a QB coach for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, Mullen has coached Josh Harris at BG, Alex Smith (the #1 player chosen in the 2005 NFL Draft) at Utah, and Tim Tebow at Florida.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are led by middle linebacker Chris White (Sr. #50). He's not only the best player on Mississippi State, but the Magnolia State apparently votes on best football player in Mississippi and White won this year's Conerly trophy over his teammates, any Rebels, and any Golden Eagles. White, the defensive captain, had a monster game against Florida with 11 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery late in the fourth quarter. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for that effort and did so again after the Kentucky game for making 15 tackles and an interception.
After struggling on defense in '09, new Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz has installed a very aggressive and physical defense that has produced. The rush defense ranks in the Top 20 and their scoring defense ranks in the Top 30. This isn't all-star line-up. Other than White, Senior Pernell McPhee (#90) is the only other defender named to the All-SEC 1st team (Coaches). Corey Broomfield (So. #25) leads a youthful secondary that can give up plays. Eight defenders started every game this season.
Tragedy Hits Team
On November 2nd, just five weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, defensive end Nick Bell died on the day he was supposed to begin chemotherapy. Although not necessarily more tragic but articulating to the suddenness and shock, Bell played for the Bulldogs in the team's first four games this season, including his last three as a starter. Instead of just wearing stickers or a patch with his number, select members of the team have worn his jersey, #36, in each game since his passing. A fraternity brother, a roommate, and a line-mate have each worn the jersey. For the Gator Bowl, the jersey will be worn by Relf, the quarterback. So when you see the starting QB wearing #36, you'll know why.
Bulldogs' fans love their cowbell. So much that the SEC banned their use starting in 1977 as an artificial noisemaker that created a distracting and unfair advantage against their opponents. Fans continued to smuggle cowbells in the stadium much like Michigan fans smuggled flasks in the 70's and 80's. In 2010, the SEC allowed the cowbells to be rung in certain situations, like after scores, team introductions, and so-on as long as they didn't use them during and in between plays.
Since the bowls are less restrictive, Gator Bowl President Rick Catlett said Mississippi State fans could bring their cowbells and use them any time they wanted to. Michigan fans have practiced in December with cowbells ringing in their ears, so they're prepared. Michigan fans may not be and may replace the Penn State growl or the USC fight song as the most annoying thing to deal with.
Memorable Moments This Season
Sept 9th Auburn 17 Miss. State 14
The Bulldogs defense held Cam Newton and Auburn scoreless in the 2nd half. A dropped pass in field goal range late in the game makes the home crowd mutter, "What if?"
Sept 25th Miss. State 24 Georgia 12
Relf leads the game in rushing and is starting to solidify his position battle against Russell while the defense plays well for the fourth straight game.
Oct 16th Miss. State 10 Florida 7
The Bulldogs wins at the Swamp as Florida misses the game-tying field goal in the final seconds. Relf completes four passes but White has a dominating performance on defense.
Oct 30th Miss. State 24 Kentucky 17
Team improves to 7-2 and is on a six game winning streak after the defense intercepts a pass in the end zone on Kentucky's final possession.
Nov 13th Alabama 30 Miss. State 10
It's the first game after Bell's death. Bama dominates.
Nov 20th Arkansas 38 Miss. State 31 2OT's
Relf and Ballard have great games. Relf throws for over 200 yards for the first time over a FBS team. Ballard rushes for 156 yards. Only seven points were scored in OT as both teams went scoreless in the first OT.
Nov 27th Miss. State 31 Ole Miss 23
Relf throws for three touchdowns and 288 yards, both season bests. LaDarius Perkins (Fr. #27) emerges with nearly 100 yards rushing, 140 yards receiving on 3 catches with two scores.
Keys to the Game
Both teams have had a chance to get healthy and Michigan may benefit the most. Robinson's shoulder is healing and not taking hits week after week may allow Robinson's 40 time to get back into the 4.3's. Martavious Odoms (Jr. #9) will play after breaking his foot during the season. The big question is was Michigan's offense more successful in September because they were healthier or was it because they played against poor defenses? The answer will come at the end of the game because Michigan is healthy again, but Mississippi State's defense can play.
The Bulldogs are very good against the run, 19th best in the NCAA. They were also very good at stopping teams on 3rd down, good for 2nd in the SEC in conference play. Robinson will have to show he can pass the ball in order not to become too predictable. Having another target with Odoms coming back helps considering Darryl Stonum (Jr. #22) isn't 100%.
Robinson can't get hurt. With Tate Forcier (So. #5) not being eligible and Devin Gardner (Fr. #7) wanting to preserve his hopes of getting a medical redshirt, there isn't a viable QB to replace Robinson. With Denard unable to play every offensive snap in a game, does Gardner play or does back-up receiver Jeremy Gallon (Fr. #10)?
Michigan must do better in the red zone than they did against Ohio State and Mississippi State will present a stiff challenge. Bulldog opponents are only scoring touchdowns 44% of the time once in the red zone. The Bulldogs have given up only 28 touchdowns all year. Michigan's defense has given up 48.
If we are to believe that youth and inexperience is the main reason for the demise of the Michigan defense, than we should see an improved team for this game. The Bulldogs aren't an offensive juggernaut. More importantly, despite giving up 85 points in their last two games, the defense has shown some signs of improvements by making places. Whether it's Cameron Gordon (Fr. #4) returning a fumble 58 yards for a touchdown, Jordan Kovacs (So. #32) with an interception, Kenny Demens (So. #25) breaking up passes or Craig Roh (So. #88) becoming a factor again, the bowl practices should heighten everyone's learning curve more than it does for experienced players.
If Michigan can bank on a healthy Robinson and an improved defense, there's enough for the Wolverines to pull off the upset.
ENJOY THE GATOR BOWL!