Dog Defense Gearing Up For Ground Game

Instead of his usual number 34, young Josh Robinson might as well wear a bullseye on his practice jersey. The rookie runner has drawn special duty preparing the Bulldog defense for its obvious, and greatest, challenge of the season so far. For one week Robinson becomes Richardson, as in Alabama tailback Trent.

"It's extremely hard," linebacker Brandon Wilson said of Robinson's scout-team tailback task. "But Josh has been doing a good job. They kind of have the similar build; low to the ground, stocky-type."

Now there can't be many more aspects where the true freshman (5-9, 200 pounds) matches up specifically with Alabama's #3 (5-11, 220-plus). The Crimson Tide junior has three years, 2,529 yards and 31 touchdowns in his college account, and some serious post-season honors in store. Robinson put up some pretty splendid stats of his own at Franklinton, La., High School to be sure.

But he'll have to wait until next September to get a live college carry. For now he takes his lumps on the scout offense every week, and this one all the moreso. Not by himself, per defensive end Sean Ferguson, who includes Robinson's fellow frosh Derek Milton in the scout team success stories. "Both matter of fact have been doing a real good job giving us real good looks in the backfield," said Robinson.

Setting momentarily aside who Robinson and Milton are trying to look, and run, like at the moment, good practice reports are encouraging for Mississippi State's own offensive future. Each had injury setbacks the first week of spring camp, of varying degrees with Milton's knee somewhat more serious than Robinson's issue. Now, though, "Oh, you couldn't even tell," Ferguson said. "They go so hard in practice and give us so many good looks you wouldn't even notice."

So #34 and #42 are doing their best to give the Bulldog defenders a reasonable facsimile of Richardson. And if it means them taking a few more ‘thuds' in practice than usual, as Coach Dan Mullen described this week's preparation approach, well it's just part of the rookie regimen.

SHAKEN AND BAKED: "But you can't simulate a guy like that," Wilson said of Richardson. "He's a great player and showed it against LSU, a great defensive team. We just have to prepare to gang-tackle. He doesn't go down with one guy, we have to have all eleven hats to the ball."

Mississippi State has taken on some talented ball-haulers already this season. In fact this week's SEC rushing stats shows South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore (done for the season sadly after a late-game injury in Starkville) second in yardage at 116.9, just behind Richardson's 119.8. Auburn's Michael Dyer is third at 109.9, and Georgia's Isaiah Crowell fifth at 86.1 yards. Of course the Bulldogs get to watch the league's current 4th-leading runner each weekend as Vick Ballard is netting 87.8 yards.

This is the top dog though, and Richardson actually averages better gains in SEC play than the season as a whole. Ironically, he wasn't a factor in last year's meeting of the Western Division neighbors in Tuscaloosa. Richardson didn't carry the ball at all, as Mark Ingram and Eddie Lacy combined for 26 carries and 88 yards.

"Ingram was a great back, too," State's Wilson said. "But he was a different style. Ingram had more elusiveness to him, but Richardson is a downhill, one-cut, run you over. He'll do a little shake-and-bake in the open field but he's a one-cut, downhill, lower his pads guy."

Richardson might not shake it too often, but one time he did baked an indelible image in the 2011 season highlight reel. If the Tide junior does win the Heisman Trophy, his stutter-step towards the end of a 76-yard ramble and how it utterly froze a freshman Rebel safety in place at the ten-yard line will be replayed first and most. Maybe some Bulldog defenders could chuckle about how a rival was so shown-up for the college football world to enjoy.

But it would also seem they'd fear having the same done to them, right? Not really, Wilson insists. "Oh, no! You just go out and play with relentless effort and make sure you're not playing reckless because he'll make you pay! But we're not worried about that, we're just going in and playing the game as we can play."

GROUND POUNDING: By the same token Dog defenders need to play much better than some recent games, as far as holding their own on the ground. State fans are naturally concerned after a Tennessee-Martin back rushed for 122 yards last week. Or when a makeshift Kentucky backfield managed to move the chains too often. Even UAB hit the Dogs hard with regular rushing.

So while State currently stands 7th in SEC-game only rushing defense, trends aren't entirely encouraging. By comparison Alabama gives up about one-third as many rushing yards in league play.

"They're going to come attack us and try to do what they can to win the game," said defensive tackle Devin Jones. "But we're going to try our best to do what we do and play technique." End Ferguson echoes the idea.

"We've got a gameplan, we know where they like to run the ball. So we just want to control where they run the ball to, we have some schemes to help us with that."

Veterans of the 2010 matchup have reason for optimism on this front, so to speak. A year ago in Tuscaloosa the Bulldogs held a comparable running attack to 175 yards on 36 attempts and no scores by any of the backs. The only ‘rushing' touchdown was an end-around carry by receiver Julio Jones that caught support out of position for a 56-yard burst.

That came on the first Alabama snap of the third quarter, too. Making it hurt all the more was that their last two plays of the second period had also produced touchdowns, on short throws turned into huge gains. A quick toss to wideout Bobby Maze became a 45-yard touchdown play; then as soon as Alabama got the ball back Ingram caught a screen pass and blazed down the sideline 78 yards for the 20-3 halftime lead. Which Jones quickly extended on his end-around.

"I remember it came down to three plays we had mental errors," said Jones. "We're working this week to make sure we don't have any." Reminders shown on meeting room screens still hurts, Wilson admitted, reminding them that success in half the defensive objectives wasn't enough.

"It does. Knowing we came in with a gameplan to shut down #22 (Ingram), but Greg McElroy beat us. They had three long passes out on the perimeter so it stings." Thus this time around State will plan a repeat of how they kept the Tide decently limited in rushing, without allowing such big breakers elsewhere. Hopefully even force turnovers, something the Bulldogs haven't done much of in their consecutive victories leading up to this game.

"That, and getting off the field on third down will be key, getting the ball back to our offense," Wilson said. "But our main goal is to get turnovers, at least two a game."

FAMILIAR FACES: Given the proximity of these programs, with stadiums separated by barely 90 minutes (depending on how active the constabulary of Reform and Gordo are that day), there is always a degree of familiarity in this annual matchup. In just the last two decades two MSU head coaches were Alabama alumni, while four current State aides have worked in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It's even more personal though for Bulldog linebacker Wilson. He is one of two Tuscaloosa natives and Northridge High graduates, along with tight end Malcolm Johnson, on the MSU roster.

"Yeah, I always get that question," Wilson said. "But I was never an Alabama type of guy. Actually I grew up a Florida fan! My youth coach wore Gator stuff and the only thing I really knew was Steve Spurrier and that fancy offense. But given the chance Mississippi State presented me with I thought this was the best choice."

It was a chance to walk-on which Wilson has parlayed into a scholarship and senior starting job at middle linebacker. An academic senior, he has a couple weeks left to decide if he wants to participate in 2011 Senior Day or come back for another season. That isn't much on his mind right now of course.

"It's a big game, the home team. Me being from Tuscaloosa the whole year its ‘roll Tide' and ‘sweet home Alabama'. So it's going to mean a lot, I have a lot of family in Starkville supporting me. So it's a go-getter attitude to go take down the #3 team."

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