Bulldog Football Scouting Report

The Game: Mississippi State and Auburn kick off the 2010 Southeastern Conference season, with a Thursday evening matchup on Scott Field. Game time is 6:30 for national telecast, with the MSU radio broadcast on XM 199 and Sirius 214.

*This is the third time in five seasons that Mississippi State has begun its SEC schedule on a Thursday night and at home. The other two offered little to celebrate as the Dogs were shut out by both South Carolina in 2007 and LSU in '08.

*MSU and Auburn have played one of these midweek games, back in 2002 when the Tigers took a 42-14 win at Scott Field. *State is 6-8 in regular-season games played on Thursdays, with half the wins coming in Egg Bowls.

*State is going for its 250th home field victory, in 111 seasons.

*Coach Dan Mullen opened his second MSU season with a 49-7 win over Memphis. State coaches who held the head post more than one year have posted winning records in year-two 14 times; losing records nine times; and one tie.

*There are 16 Bulldogs on this 2010 roster who hail from Alabama addresses. Very unusually for Auburn, only one Tiger is a Mississippi native.

*MSU running backs coach Greg Knox worked at Auburn 1999-2008, coaching receivers and coordinating recruiting.

The Opponent: There were doubters (including here) when Auburn brought their former defensive coordinator back as head coach. Today? They've gone quiet (including here) as Gene Chizik has stepped in to settle a suddenly-shaky situation and get back to winning. As in, 8-5 with an Outback Bowl triumph and a cat's whisker close-call at upending the BCS scene. It was still a year-one so stumbles against Kentucky and LSU could be excused as lessons not to be repeated the second time around. Interestingly, instead of playing it cautious as an old D.C. would be expected, Chizik began by kicking the Tiger offense into a higher gear. And as this is Auburn, the defense will be back in time. No doubt.

Offense: That half-hearted flirtation with a spread-type offense which cost Auburn so dearly in 2008? Funny how things work out in the long run, because it might actually, accidentally have eased the '09 transition. Or maybe this is just a heckuva staff that better-meshed with the personnel at hand. Whatever the reason, Auburn jumped from 11th in SEC scoring in '08 to third last year, and 8th to 2nd in yardage. All with an average, adequate quarterback, too. So one doesn't have to guess how SEC defenses reacted when Chizik swooped in to sign Cam Newton to quarterback this attack. Even in a scrimmage it's not easy to run for 171 yards and two touchdowns, and throw for 186 more with three scores, as Newton did in his debut. Maybe he has yet to be hit by a real defense…but that means somebody has to run him down first and at 245 pounds Newton can likely give as good as he gets. State fans remember backs Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin all too well, and might better keep an eye on frosh Michael Dyer after his 95-yard debut. These runners are just as likely to become receivers, by the way, if the defense swarms after Newton and forgets coverage discipline. The deeper receivers are familiar as well; Darvin Adams had a team-best 60 catches in ‘09 with ten touchdowns, and Terrell Zachery another 26 grabs with five scores. Junior Quindarius Carr turned just two catches into 87 yards Saturday, by the way, and Auburn will replace the tight end with a fourth wide-option. That's good news for radio folk as saying ‘tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen' too often is risky indeed. If there is a more mature offensive line in the league we don't want to face it; four seniors, all returning starters, and a junior right tackle. Center Ryan Pugh is a Rimington candidate and left tackle Lee Ziemba, making his 40th start this week, is up for the Outland. Hey, even new offenses need good old-fashioned blocking to operate. An Auburn weakness last year was penalties, 11th-most in the league. They drew seven flags in the opener for 60 yards, so work may still be in store here.

Defense: Good thing the Tigers could score last year because stopping folk was another matter entirely, as that defense ranked 12th in SEC scoring and 11th in yardage. Those are numbers not seen on the plains in a long, long time, and in need of immediate upgrade. One might argue if all their experience was helpful, but at least a unit showing eight senior starters this week knows its way around the field. They closed it off nicely on the ground against Arkansas State, at least, with just 43 rushing yards netted by the Wolves, if a couple of touchdowns allowed. Auburn's base front-four will miss all-conference sack leader Antonio Coleman, but line coach Tracy Rocker has moved '09 right end Antoine Carter over with instant results; of his four tackles against ASU 2.5 were for sacks and another behind the line. Junior DT Nick Fairley started every '09 game and made a specialty of hurrying quarterbacks. All three starting linebackers return, though now one of them has moved to backup. That's because former safety Daren Bates has moved up to right ‘backer after a 70-tackle freshman season. He still trailed two regular LBs on last year's stat sheet, when MLB Josh Byrnes posted 104 stops and LLB Craig Stevens another 95. As Stevens is already a pass-rush artist, using Bates' speed (he had ten stops against ASU) on the other side has to mean headaches for blocking schemes. Seems safe to say this defense will do better than the 28 sacks posted in 2009. Safety Zac Etheridge was on his way to another All-SEC season when a neck injury in game-nine ended the year early. He's back and had four tackles in the opener. More impressive is senior Aairon Savage's return after missing two entire seasons following a great freshman year. CB Neiko Thorpe was third in tackles last fall and had a pair of picks from the right side of the field, while Desmond Washington broke up eight passes by either deflection or rushing the quarterback. Though they gave up a lot of yardage, this defense did produce turnovers in '09. Production in the more routine areas and the Tigers could be back on a much more familiar form soon enough.

Specialists: PK Wes Byrum was perfect on 54 PATs and missed just one field goal out of 16 tries. Ryan Shoemaker takes over punting as a senior, and averaged 39 yards in his debut. Cornerback Washington did both kickoff and punt return last year, and had a 99-yard touchdown to his credit as the SEC leader there. He'll stick to kickoffs this year as Carr is getting a chance on punts now.

The Series: These cow colleges of the neighboring states have been meeting since 1905 on the gridiron, annually since 1955. Auburn holds a 58-23-2 lead, and comes in having won two-straight and eight of the last nine meetings. Tiger teams are 11-4-1 in games played in Starkville, and State has not won a home game in the rivalry since 2000.

The Last Time: September 12, 2009 Two new SEC coaches put on an electric first half that ended with 45 points on the Jordan-Hare Stadium scoreboard. But the second half was almost all-Auburn as the Tigers came away with a 49-24 victory. The home team seemed to grab command immediately with a pair of first-quarter touchdowns, including a 20-yard interception return by lineman Deonte Coleman of a Chris Relf pass. Mississippi State wasn't folding-up early though and a dozen-play drive capped with Anthony Dixon diving across the goal early in the second period. State cut the deficit further with a field goal by Sean Brauchle, then when Patrick Hanrahan blocked a Tiger punt back Robert Elliott recovered and ran in for a 17-14 lead at 4:44. But Auburn, which had been pounding the middle so far, switched to attacking the outside and ripped off long runs by Onterio McCalebb and Ben Tate. Sixteen ticks before halftime Kodi Burns cross the line for a 28-17 intermission lead. He threw a 16-yard touchdown at 3:52 of the third period, then before the quarter ended Tate got loose for a 35-yard scoring run. State's only response was a one-yard TD toss from Tyson Lee to Christian Ducre, which Auburn matched to account for the final margin. Auburn had 589 yards of total offense, 390 of that on the ground with 157 and 114 yards by Tate and McCalebb. Dixon had 92 yards on 20 carries.

Bulldog Notebook: After claiming the largest gain in NCAA attendance average for 2009, Mississippi State opened '10 with a record turnout when 56,032 watched the win over Memphis. It was the fourth-largest attendance ever at Davis Wade Stadium, and the biggest crowd for a non-SEC home game.

*Based on additional ticket sales, Thursday's game should top that tally and threaten the three biggest SEC game crowds at DWS. The record is 58,103 for last year's Alabama game, followed by 57,178 for Florida in 2009; and 56,188 for Alabama in 2007.

*Coach Dan Mullen's first State season produced a jump in average scoring from 15.2 points in 2008 to 25.6. Now his second team has opened with a 49-point output, all by the offensive team.

*Including the 41-27 Egg Bowl win to end last year, State has scored 40 or more points in consecutive games for the first time since the 1994 season.

*Those 49 points were most by State against a Division I-A team since 2000, and the most in a season-opener period since 1974.

*State's 569 yards in the debut was the fifth-best total in program history.

*The 2009 Bulldog offense did set an under-appreciated record, with the highest pass-completion rate ever for State at 57.7%. Well, the '10 team has opened even better. Two Bulldog quarterbacks combined to complete 80% of passes, 20-of-25, with one interception.

*Junior QB Chris Relf followed up two effective games at the end of 2009 when he was 7-of-12 passing, by completing 7-of-9 against Memphis. The 116 yards were most of Relf's brief career, and came in his first State start. The Dog offense scored on three of his five series under center.

*Last year as a backup Relf was intercepted three times in 41 attempts.

*Relf rushed just seven times in the opener, after rushing 27 combined times the last two games of '09.

*The opening-night spotlight shone brightest though on freshman QB Tyler Russell, who went from backup to alternate in his first college series. It was a seven-play drive capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass.

*Russell was 13-of-16 passing for 256 yards in the debut, and his four touchdown throws tied the school record his first time out. His ‘passer rating' leads the NCAA after week-one.

*Russell was named the SEC's Freshman of the Week for his success.

*While State piled up 372 passing yards with five touchdown tosses in the opener, still all but two offensive series began with a rushing play.

*The Bulldog backfield had 200 yards (not counting sack losses), not too far off the 227 yard average of '09 when State was a ground-pounding team.

*Junior RB Vick Ballard began his senior-college career by leading State on the ground with 60 yard and two touchdowns. But 51 of those yards came on a single jaunt that ended at the goal line. Ballard also scored on a one-yard dive.

*Redshirt RB LaDarius Perkins had 57 rushing yards and a 7.1 average gain per touch.

*As a freshman, WR Brandon Heavens had 36 yards on seven catches. In his soph-season opener, Heavens caught a team-best five balls for 112 yards. He also recorded his first college touchdowns on grabs of 20 and 27 yards.

*He didn't start, but WR Chad Bumphis was still a big Dog in the gameplan. He turned four catches into 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns including a game-high, 57-yard grab and go for the longest play of the night.

*Bumphis was State's leading target in 2009 as a true frosh, with 32 catches and four touchdowns. He had the most catches for a MSU rookie since Mardye McDole in 1977.

*Bumphis now has caught two touchdowns in the opening game of consecutive seasons.

*The last time two Dogs had 100 yards in receiving was 2003 (Justin Jenkins, McKinley Scott vs. Houston).

*Bumphis returned four punts for 49 yards, a 12.2 average.

*As a junior transfer WR Leon Berry smashed the program record for return yards with 1,015 on kickoffs and punts. He only had one return in this year's opener, for 22 yards on a kickoff.

*But Berry had a 51-yard touchdown reception on State's second series. He had gone the last six games of 2009 without a reception.

*2009 saw the tight end back in offensive gameplans as TE Marcus Green caught 27 balls for 306 yards. He opened '10 with two grabs for 25 yards, and a third attempt should have netted a flag for interference.

*But TE Brandon Henderson also had two catches, for 25 yards as well. The senior did not have a catch during an injury-limited 2009.

*No running backs caught a pass in the opener.

*CB Maurice Langston did not intercept a pass as a junior transfer, but he opened the senior year snagging both of State's picks.

*That continued a trend where in 2009 all 14 State interceptions came from players without a pick in their prior careers, of who were first-year collegians.

*2009 safety Johnthan Banks drew his first start at cornerback to open this sophomore season and broke up a pass.

*Banks and CB Corey Broomfield both had two pick-sixes as '09 freshmen, tying both the season and career records for State.

*Linebackers typically top State in tackle totals, but in game one it was junior S Charles Mitchell coming to the fore with nine stops. That matched his career-high set last year against Georgia Tech.

*Mitchell now has 105 career tackles in three seasons.

*After playing all '09 at strong-side linebacker, Chris White marked his first start at middle ‘backer with six tackles and 2.5 for losses.

*WLB K.J. Wright is the top returning tackler (82 as a junior) but missed most of the game with a first-half ankle sprain. He had just one stop for the short evening, giving him 162 career tackles.

*Backup DT Devin Jones scored the only State sack of the opener.

*Senior DE Pernell McPhee had a quiet opener with three tackles and a half-stop for loss. As a junior transfer he topped the team with 5.0 sacks.

*Senior PK Sean Brauchle was 6-of-9 on field goals in the first five games of '09 before a leg injury ended the season. He returned for this year's opener but missed a 38-yard try, but did make his only PAT try.

*Junior PK Derek DePasquale took care of the other six point-afters.

*Neither had positive results on kickoffs, though, as Brauchle averaged 63.5 yards on six attempts and DePasquale 57.0 on two kickoffs.

*State was the only SEC team that did not kick-off for a touchback in 2009, and still awaits the first of '10.

*65 Dogs played in the opening game, with eleven appearing on a college field for the first time. That included redshirt freshman OL Gabe Jackson, DE Johnathan McKenzie, RB LaDarius Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, WR Ricco Sanders, LB Deonte Skinner, DB Dennis Thames, OC Sam Watts, DB Nickoe Whitley.

*Walk-on redshirt Sam Williams also played against Memphis for a college debut.

*The only 2009 freshman yet to play is FB William Shumpert, who had back surgery last week.

*True freshmen getting in the opening action were LB Chris Hughes and WR Michael Carr.

*Bulldogs who made their first college start were RB Robert Elliott, S Nickoe Whitley, WR Ricco Sanders, QB Chris Relf, SLB Emmanuel Gatling, DE Johnathan McKenzie, OG Gabe Jackson.

*OC J.C. Brignone and OG Quentin Saulsberry both have 25-game starting streaks. The defensive leader in total starts is Wright with 23.

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