*Mississippi State brings a five-win streak into this weekend, the longest success string since the 1999 season. In fact the Bulldogs did not win consecutive games in either 2008 or '09. This is just the third time since 1955 a State team has won five-straight games.
*The visiting team has won the last four games in this inter-Division rivalry.
*And since the SEC went to Divisional formats, with permanent opponents, ten of the 17 MSU-UK games have been settled by a touchdown or less.
*From 2000-2009, State teams were 6-10 the week before a scheduled open date.
The Opponent: Kentucky knew what it was doing in 2008 when the eventual accession of Joker Phillips to head coach was formalized. The former Wildcat wideout spent over two decades preparing to take charge, including 1988-96 and 2003-present stints at his alma mater. Not surprisingly little has changed with how the Kats play under not-really-new management; if only because so many of the lineup names are familiar. That's particularly true with the offensive skill players who, also not surprisingly, resemble their boss' athletic style. But if Phillips & Co. don't address some obvious issues on the other side of the ball, his window of SEC opportunity could close soon. Because East rivals Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida won't be down for long. At least November sets up very nicely for clinching UK's fifth-straight bowl berth…and there might never be a better chance to abolish that galling quarter-century streak by the hated Orange men.
Offense: No, nothing has changed from a winning formula here, and by now Deeper South folk appreciate the play-makers Rich Brooks annually attracted to Lexington. There isn't a staff or system in the land that wouldn't make a place for Randall Cobb, the receiver/runner/passer/returner and for all we know 2:1 favorite in today's sixth race. In all those various roles he produces 166 yards each week and 179 per SEC contest. Put in a more meaningful way, he has handled the ball 121 times in eight games and look for that pace to increase down the season stretch. Especially as long as leading rusher Derrick Locke (574 yards, seven TDs) has a bum shoulder; reports are Locke won't be coming to town this week. Then again, he didn't play here in 2008 and UK won anyway. In that event either Donald Russell (178 yards, 3.4 per carry) or Raymond Sanders (167, 4.9) will do what running Cobb doesn't. Anyway, QB Mike Hartline can more than fill any voids in the running game with his 67% passing and 268 yards per week. The senior is fifth in UK career passing yards and has chunked 17 TDs this season against just four interceptions. Cobb is the top target of course but fellow wideouts Chris Matthews and La'Rod King have a dozen receiving touchdowns between them and average almost 14 yards per-catch combined. And that's not accounting for TE Jordan Aumiller, another double-digit gains receiver. For all the throwing, Hartline has only been sacked nine times; rather impressive considering only one of the line quintet is a returning starter and he, G Stuart Hines, has moved from right to left at that. That's further proof of how well Brooks recruited big bodies over his tenure, with sophs and juniors ready to step into prime-time jobs here in 2010. No surprise then that Kentucky is second in SEC-game first downs, fourth in possession time; and more tellingly has scored touchdowns on 14 of their 19 trips to a SEC red zone.
Defense: If only the story was so strong on the other side of the ball. The Wildcat defense is an entirely ‘nuther matter, giving up more yardage in league play (410) than the offense nets (387). In their defense, so to speak, the Kats have played some pretty potent attacks of late; and offensive turnovers have left them in awful field position at times, most notably last week against Georgia. Still…all is not well here, especially considering at least seven starters returned from an OK '09 unit. It begins on the ground where UK gives up 193 yards-per SEC outing with typical totes netting 4.9 yards. It isn't for lack of size or experience up front with 306-pound senior Ricky Lumpkin at one tackle and junior 293-pounder Mike Crawford taking over three games ago at the other. He succeeded Luke McDermott, the sack-leader with 3.0. The defensive ends are big linebacker-sized and play that way, with soph Taylor Wyndham attacking for 2.5 sacks, two hurries and a forced fumble. Weak-side LB Danny Trevathan is setting the team tackling pace, covering a whole lot of ground for 81 tackles with nine of them behind the line. Not surprisingly the pair of safeties spend much of their time supporting against the rush, thus SS Winston Guy has 54 stops so far and juco transfer FS Mychal Bailey 41 more. But don't assume they can't cover as they have three picks between them. The cornerbacks evidently do their share of blitzing as Martavius Neloms and Randall Burden have 5.5 tackles for losses between them. With such aggressiveness and athleticism the UK defense ought to be better, yet it is last in SEC-game sacks, 11th in first downs allowed, and last in third down conversions. Oh, and in the much more important scoring category; because SEC opponents have put a touchdown on the board once ever 11.7 offensive snaps.
Specialists: Even a big-scoring offense needs the occasional punt, and boy does Ryan Tydlacka make the most of his chances with a 45.1 yard average. He's done a bit of placekicking this year too, but the regular now is Craig McIntosh with 8-of-10 accuracy and a 50-yarder to his account. You Know Who handles returns, getting 23.9 on kickoffs and 9.8 per punt. But UK also kicks off a lot themselves and allow almost 25 yards on kickoffs with two scores; and 13.4 yards on punts.
The Series: These original 12 SEC members did play a few times in the ‘teens and the ‘50s, but it only became semi-regular in the 1970s; then a permanent SEC matchup in 1990. Kentucky has a 21-16 lead overall, but since the West/East split State has won 10 of 17 meetings. MSU is 9-6 in Starkville games despite losing the last two Wildcat trips to town.
Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State's offense has taken a definite lean towards rushing during the five-win streak. The play-calling has seen 235 rushes against 95 passes, or 71% running plays. And over 68% of the yardage accumulated in the four victories has been via rushing.
*In touchdowns it is more lopsided; 12 scores on rushes, five on passes.
*For the overall season, State is second in SEC rushing at 219.2 yards per game. That isn't far off the 227-yard rate for the whole 2009 season when MSU led the league in ground-pounding.
*In wins at Houston and Florida, the Bulldog offense began 17 of 20 series (not counting two kneel-downs) with a rushing play. But last week against UAB the breakdown was eight rushes and six passes on first plays. *State has scored a rushing touchdown every game this season, and in 18 of Dan Mullen's 20 games.
*After converting 21-of-40 third downs in the previous three games, State was just 7-of-18 against the Blazers on third downs. The Dogs have still converted almost 46% of their SEC third-downs.
*The Dogs have six touchdown drives in SEC play; four of those took 10 or more snaps.
*State has not committed a turnover of any sort the last three games, and this week are tied for 3rd-best in the SEC for turnover margin at +4.
*The Bulldogs are drawing more flags here at mid-season with 34 penalties and 258 lost yards in the last four contests. Back in September, State was the SEC's least-penalized team.
*The Bulldog defense has been a bulwark in SEC play, allowing a touchdown only after an average of 44 snaps by the opposing offense. That is best in league-game play.
*Beginning with his final two games of '09, QB Chris Relf had a stretch of seven contests where he completed 51-of-84 passes or 61%. But in his last three games he is 19-of-42, just 45%.
*Relf has thrown six touchdown passes this season, one more than his sophomore campaign. Of course two of those TDs were forward-flips on an option play, a rush in all but statistical accounting.
*Relf limited his rushes last week to eight attempts and 19 yards. But in his four SEC games, plus half of the Houston contest, Relf rushed 77 times for 359 yards. That's 36% of the whole team's running attempts in these games for 34% of all MSU rushing yardage.
*Relf had 283 passing yards in 2009; he has over three times that amount this year with 815 yards.
*After taking care of the second half at Houston, QB Tyler Russell has taken one snap in the last two games.
*Relf's completions average 12.9 yards; Russell nets 15.8.
* In their four league games Relf and Russell have completed 54% of their throws.
*TB Vick Ballard was sidelined for the UAB game by an ankle problem, but still holds the team rushing lead with 516 yards. In his previous three games Ballard pounded out 119, 134, and 98 yards. He is just outside the SEC's top-ten rushers at 73.7 yards per game.
*But missing one whole game, and not getting on the scoreboard at Florida, hasn't cost Ballard his place at the top of the SEC in both total touchdowns (12) and scoring (72 points). He just has to share that status for now with Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina and Cam Newton of Auburn.
*Ballard's rate of rushing touchdown per carry has slipped to 7.1.
*Ballard has five games to catch, and break, the program record for touchdowns. He has a dozen at this point, and needs four to match the 1952 record of Jackie Parker (12 rushing) tied in 2007 by Anthony Dixon (14 rushing, 2 receiving).
*Ballard's heavier duties at Houston and Florida unbalanced the running rotation. But last week TB LaDarius Perkins made up a lot of that ground, so to speak, with 18 rushes. He has 66 on the year to 78 for Ballard.
*And Perkins took advantage to post his first collegiate 100-yard game, with 131 against UAB. He'd rushed for 48 and 78 yards in the preceding two games with a touchdown each night; then got two more scores against the Blazers.
*One of those was a straight rush, the other the option-forward ‘pass'. Either way, Perkins is up to four scores on the year, all in the last three games. And Perkins is getting 5.5 yards per rush, to 6.6 for Ballard.
*WR Chad Bumphis has done more running than receiving lately with seven carries and 54 yards in the last two games. For the year he has 16 rushes and a 7.4 yard average gain, whether as a ‘wild' back or on other sorts of rushes.
*Bumphis had one catch at Florida and none against UAB. He's still comfortably in front of the MSU pack though with 33 receptions (one more than his rookie year total) and 461 yards. But he has not caught a TD pass in SEC play yet this season.
*As a rookie Bumphis netted 11.7 yards a catch; this year the rate is 14.0 yards a reception. His one catch at Florida was good for 30 yards.
*WR Brandon Heavens had his six-game streak of catches snapped at Florida, but came back for two catches against UAB. He and WR Arceto Clark are tied at 14 grabs each on the year.
*Injuries have almost crippled the tight end corps, going three games with no receptions. But a now-healthy TE Brandon Henderson has had three catches in the last two games.
*OC J.C. Brignone had his string of 30-straight starts snapped by a knee sprain at Houston. He played the second half against UAB and is expected to start this week.
*OT Derek Sherrod has been named SEC Lineman of the Week twice this season.
*Redshirt freshman OG Gabe Jackson has Mississippi State's other offensive touchdown for the season. He fell on a Relf goal-line fumble that rolled into the end zone. It was the first touchdown for a Bulldog blocker since guard Derrick Dean also recovered an offensive fumble in the end zone against Louisiana Tech in 1988.
*The offensive line has allowed just five sacks in the last five games.
*WR Michael Carr has not caught a pass this freshman season. But last week he was handed the ball twice and got 23 yards as a result.
*The Bulldog defense has been frustrated about lack of sacks much of this season. But in the last two games they have gotten to passers 5.0 times, doubling the sack total.
*None of those have been credited to DE Pernell McPhee, the team sack-leader last year with 5.0. The senior still leads the defense in hurries at nine, and has broken up four passes directly without laying a hand on a quarterback. It has to come soon…
*Though not a sack, a hard rush by McPhee produced a holding call in the end zone at Houston and thus State's sole safety of the season so far.
*MLB Chris White accounts for one-third of team sacks with 5.0; he had 2.5 against Alcorn State and a much more impressive 2.5 against Florida.
*White also has 12.0 total stops for losses, third in the SEC this week. He is fifth in league total tackles at 71.
*In his last three games White has tallied 11, 11, and a career-best 14 tackles.
*In the process he's pushed farther ahead of WLB K.J. Wright in the team tackle race. Senior Wright has 59 and is being pushed by S Charles Mitchell with 54.
*Wright does have 220 career tackles in four seasons.
*And Wright leads this defense in passes deflected with eight. But he has yet to intercept a pass at State.
*It took seven games but CB Johnthan Banks now has a 2010 interception, catching a deflected (by the Gator receiver) pass at Florida. Banks now has five career picks and three of these are against Gator teams.
*Meanwhile CB Corey Broomfield is on a record picks-pace with eight in his two seasons. The career record is 16. Soph Broomfield also has three interception-touchdown returns in two years, tying the career record of Derek Pegues (2005-08).
*DT Fletcher Cox has blocked one field goal (Auburn) this year, to go with his rejection against Houston as a true 2009 freshman. Classmate and DT partner Josh Boyd has joined the block party, rejecting a field goal by Alcorn State.
*Six different Dogs have forced a fumble this year, and two came at Gainesville as Cox and LB Cameron Lawrence each rattled a ball free. Most recently, WR Carr joined the list pulling the ball loose on a kickoff return.
*State is allowing a net of under two yards on punt returns.
*But the Bulldogs are back to dead-last in SEC kickoff coverage.
*Placekicking was just as bad through seven games, at 3-of-8. Then PK Derek DePasquale connected on 5-of-5 kicks against UAB, bumping the Dogs up to…11th in the league in percentage.
*DePasquale tied the program record with those five three-pointers, matching Brian Hazelwood (1998 Arkansas). DePasquale missed his only other attempt this year, but he is 15-of-20 for his two State seasons now.
*DePasquale and PK Sean Brauchle are a combined 63-of-63 on PATs over two years.
*Three true freshmen have played this season: DE/LB Corvell Harrison-Gay, ST/LB Chris Hughes, and Carr. Hughes will be serving a one-game SEC suspension for hitting a defenseless UAB player from behind last week.
*Scholarship freshmen yet to play this year are: QB Dylan Favre, TE Brandon Hill, DB Matthew Wells, WR Jamerson Love, RB Nick Griffin, LB Jay Hughes, K Baker Swedenburg, LB Christian Holmes, LB Ferlando Bohanna, OL Archie Muniz, OL Dillon Day, OL Eric Lawson, OL Blaine Clausell, OL Damien Robinson, WR Malcolm Johnson, WR Robert Johnson, DL Kaleb Eulls, and DL Curtis Virges.
*With Brignone sidelined, the longest starting streak (not counting special teams) belongs alone to OG/C Quentin Saulsberry at 32. OT Derek Sherrod has the most career starts, 38.