Still, a perfect record is something worth celebrating…and worth protecting no matter who that must-win matchup is. Speaking of which…?
"In high school it was Belle Glade Central Raiders," McPhee. "In junior college it was Northeast Community college. And this one right here is the Black Bears, TSUN! I'm 1-0 now going on 2-0."
Yep, McPhee said it. The native of south Florida has bought into the nomenclature his coach applies to Mississippi State's arch-rival, not to mention the presumably more politically correct mascot Ole Miss' administration has chosen for itself. Either way, the ‘r' word was not forthcoming from McPhee this week.
"Black Bears or TSUN, the school up north!" he grinned. Of course McPhee can afford the fun now since he is 1-0 against his latest and last amateur-level rival. He recorded five total tackles as part of the Bulldog defense that kept Ole Miss under sufficient control to secure a 41-27 win at Scott Field last November. The rushing defense was particularly stout, holding the…whatever he calls them to 90 yards.
This will be a taller challenge here in 2010 though and not just because State is on the road this time. Ole Miss has an even more productive ground game that rates second-best in the SEC for the full season, with a mix of power backs, speed runners, and of course a quarterback capable of out-quicking most any defender. This is something of concern now seeing how Arkansas, not noted as a running team, hung 183 ground yards on State; a total only Auburn (190) has topped this year.
Besides that concern, the Bulldogs have shown some atypical tackling issues in the last two SEC contests. None need reminding what a missed stop can mean this week because the results of such breakdowns remain painfully clear. McPhee reports practices this week have stressed this basic aspect of Dog defense. Even in non-contact work for that matter.
"Everybody has to run full speed, if we don't we have to do up-downs. If we run full speed everybody comes down and breaks down to football position." It seems strange a defense that has played well much of the season has to emphasize something so fundamental here in the schedule-ender. Yet that is just the current case, McPhee said, as guys can get a little lax at the end of a long season.
"Most definitely, especially after we got a big turnaround in the program. It was easy for us to forget where we came from, so we've got a lot of guys who still stuck with the basics and a lot of guys ‘oh we can beat anybody'. But we still have to go back to fundamentals, get right and get ready to go play, umm, the Black Bears." There, he almost slipped.
Some fans were convinced McPhee's game had slipped this senior season based on stats. Specifically, the lack of sacks, the category defensive linemen are inevitably judged by. McPhee had 5.0 sacks as a junior to lead State and that was the biggest reason he began this year a pre-season All-SEC pick. Then he went ten games without bagging a quarterback.
Yet his coaches weren't at all worried because they saw how much McPhee influenced how opponents blocked and rolled their passers out of respect for #90. And McPhee has never let up in frustration, with 12 credited ‘hurries' now. That's three times more than the next-nearest Dog. He could have been given a sack in all but name when a Houston blocker openly held him in an end zone, producing a safety; and had an official been sharper of eye and quicker of whistle McPhee would have got another two-point play at Alabama.
Still, when he took down Arkansas' Ryan Mallett last week for a ten-yard loss in the second quarter a big load was lifted. "It was just a blessing that I got my first one all year. I feel like that was my 20th sack, breaking the school record! So it was just exciting and I know the second one is going to be just as exciting."
Probably harder though, as this week's passer/runner might be the SEC's toughest target to bag once on the move. Besides that McPhee expects some late-season twists from an opponent with nothing left to lose.
"Well, we know they're gong to do a lot of fancy things, but we're going to go out and play our defense and do what we do week in and week out. Play with great fundamentals and great efforts." And if that gets the job done, then McPhee will leave the college field with that unblemished record in rivalry games. Yes, he's been ticking off the days to this last one, though there is a big countdown clock in the Bulldog locker room as a reminder just in case.
"I look at it every day coming in because this is something we have to do. It's about bragging rights, it's all about bragging rights around the state. We want to make sure our fans always have the bragging rights so we look at it every day and get prepared for it."
WEDNESDAY SCHEDULE: The Bulldogs have a 2:45 start time for today's closed practice. There will be no media access after today's session, thus no opportunity to update the health status of wide receivers Chad Bumphis (foot) and Chris Smith (toe).
However, fans have an opportunity to enquire about such things on Wednesday, as well as other Egg Bowl questions. Coach Dan Mullen will have his weekly call-in show tonight, from 7:00-8:00 at Harvey's.