Bulldog Music City Bowl Scouting Report

The Game: Mississippi State (6-6, 2-6 SEC) celebrates the 2011 season with a post-season appearance in the Music City Bowl against Wake Forest (6-6, 5-3 ACC). The December 30 classic kicks off at 5:40 on LP Field for ESPN telecast. The broadcast is on XM/Sirius channel 91.

*State opens bowl season for the Southeastern Conference on Friday, the first of the eight games involving nine league teams this post-season.

*A victory Friday will give Mississippi State a winning record for consecutive seasons, after the 2010 Bulldogs went 9-4. The last Bulldog teams to post winning records back-to-back were in 1999 and 2000. They were also the last teams to appear in consecutive bowls.

*Those 1999 (Peach) and 2000 (Independence) squads also both won their bowl games. In fact Mississippi State has a four-bowl win streak underway, with victories in the 2007 Liberty and 2010 Gator bowls. MSU's post-season record is 8-6 so far.

*A victory here in Nashville would make Dan Mullen the first MSU coach ever to win both his first two Bulldog bowl games.

*Of the 14 bowl games played by Bulldog teams, five have been against Atlantic Coast Conference clubs. State is 3-2 in these SEC vs. ACC matches. The most recent was over Clemson in the 1999 Peach Bowl. None have been against Wake Forest as this is a first-ever meeting of the programs.

*Through pre-orders, MSU fans sold-out the SEC school's allotment of 12,000 tickets even before the Bulldogs received their bid.

*Wake Forest has only once played an active SEC squad in bowl action, losing to LSU in 1979 in the old Tangerine Bowl.

*SEC teams are 3-8 in this bowl, though 3-2 since the ACC signed on as the other participating league. State is the ninth SEC team to play in the Music City.

*This bowl payout is $3.65 million with the SEC getting a somewhat larger, and unpublished so far, slice of that total. Last year's game drew a 7.1 million viewing audience, fifth-best among SEC affiliated bowls.

*In- or post-season, State has won its last ten non-conference games going back to October 2009.

The Opponent: The Wake Forest bowl notes says it best: Jim Grobe really has taken the Deacons to places they have never been before. Including the most bowl games and wins of any coach ever to call Winston-Salem home. Oh, there was the recent two-year stretch of five- and three-win years that had some wondering if the now-59-year-old had lost the edge. But here he is back in postseason play for the fifth time in his eleven years. Scoring a winning record will require better play than seen most of the second-half where WF lost four of five, including a concluding 41-7 rout at home by a SEC team that wears black-and-gold too.

Offense: This season could be demarcated by an obvious yardage trend. The first half of the schedule, when they were winning, the Deacons were netting two, three, even four times as many yards passing as they did rushing. Over the last and losing half the breakdown was more like 1.5-to-1 or almost even. Not for lack of trying, as soph Tanner Price kept slinging it up…and junior WR Chris Givens kept pulling it down. They make for as potent a pitch-and-catch combo as anywhere in the game. In fact Price is 357 yards shy of the school's season passing record, having completed 61% of throws with 20 touchdowns and just six intercepts. He's not thrown a ball to the wrong team in 127 passes now, and that isn't even his career-best streak. Givens is the favored target with 74 grabs and 1,276 yards (the latter the best season in WF history) and nine touchdowns. All other program receiving records will be his as a senior. The ball still must be shared, and FL Michael Campanaro has 63 catches for 705 yards himself, while other WR Terence Davis has five touchdowns. Also in that first-season-half, it was Josh Harris carrying the tailback load with good results until an injury. In stepped senior Brandon Pendergrass, who in the last six games has six touchdowns. Both runners ought to be available for this finale. Wake Forest proclaims this offensive line as biggest in program history and it's hard to argue with a 314-pound average. They've stayed pretty healthy too, with three 12-game starters. Senior OG Joe Looney made 2nd-team All-ACC and has 40 starts in his career, while senior OT Doug Weaver has opened the last 24-straight games. They have allowed a few sacks this year to rank just 9th in the league, and perhaps this factors into that aforementioned stat-trend. It isn't so much the ratio of runs to throws; the key for Wake Forest is gain per ball caught. In their losses it is either at or under ten yards. Just something to watch for Friday.

Defense: This isn't a big bunch, at least not up front. But every Deacon defender can run so that's what they do, and from shifting sets aimed to attack from all sorts of angles. How has it worked? Well, 8th in ACC rushing defense, 8th in passing, 10th overall in yardage, and 10th in scoring. Those are full-season numbers, in league-only play WF checks in even lower. Such as 11th in sacks, despite playing aggressively. SEC folk might double-take on first look at the three-man interior line which weighs 260 on the nose and 255 at ends. Still NG Nikita Whitlock oughtn't be undervalued. He's made 12.5 tackles for losses and three sacks with three more hurries, so agility does have advantages. OLB Kyle Wilber now, he'd look right at home on a SEC defense at 6-5, 240, and has 3.5 sacks out of his 65 total tackles. He and soph Joey Ehrmann have to be accounted for whether coming off the edge or twisting between the tackles. The Deacon staff shook up their inside ‘backer pairing in November with Jackson at middle and Olson on the weak side, increasing the team's TFL total in the process. SS Cyhl Quarles by contrast has just one stop for a loss all year…but 96 total tackles as he finishes off anything started by others up front. His steady presence frees, literally, FS Josh Bush to play coverage and do it very well. He's sixth in the NCAA with his six interceptions and is the first Deacon since 2008 to earn all-American status. But it's freshman CB Merrill Noel leading the team with no less than 19 passes broken up, most in the country so far. Still having more team picks (11) than sacks (10) is a bit worrisome. Especially if the opponent is able to pound away at the smallish front and avoid risking the ball in the air.

Specialists: PK Jimmy Newman had a 14-make field goal streak going before missing three straight, and is 16-of-20 on the season. His 39-of-50 career rate is still best in school history. P Alex Wulfeck is good for 39.7 yards with exactly one-third of his punt fair-caught. For much of the season WR Lovell Jackson returned both punts and kickoffs, but now those duties are handled by Noel and Campanaro.

Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State has out-scored opponents 103 to 51 points in first quarters this season. The Dogs have been outscored only in second periods, 72 to 64 points.

*The Bulldog defense is at their best in third quarters with 42 points allowed in the period. And only once has State allowed more than a touchdown in a third quarter, at Arkansas.

*State began the season with a seven-game stretch of at least one interception. They now have an even dozen picks for the season. That's one less than the 2010 team had in 13 games.

*MSU is fourth-best in SEC turnover ratio after the regular season, at +4. Of course, the 2nd-through-6th teams here have to add their plus-numbers to equal league leader LSU's ludicrous +22.

*The Dog defense is third-best in red zone efficiency, and has allowed just 19 touchdowns in 43 such situations.

*MSU has had more passes completed against it than anyone in the conference. But, the average gain per all those throws is in the upper-half of the league meaning quick tackles after the catch.

*For what it is worth, State's time of possession isn't just last in the SEC but is so by over a minute on average to 11th place…and 7:22 behind first place.

*MSU's kickoff return game is also last in the league.

*TB Vick Ballard fell a game (sat out) short of reaching 1,000 yards as a junior. He got it done in the senior regular season though, with 1,009 yards in a dozen games. He is just the eighth Bulldog to make 1K rushing yards for a season, though the mark has been reached 11 times.

*His 144-yard effort against Ole Miss was his fifth 100-yard game of the season, and ninth career.

*Ballard goes into his final State game with 1,977 rushing yards, 11th on the all-time list and 93 out of making the top-ten.

*He hasn't had the scoring season to match '10 when Ballard rushed for a school-record 19 touchdowns, and caught another TD pass. He's run for eight touchdowns and caught one this season. Still his 29 career TDs tie him for 10th on the MSU list. And his 27 rushing touchdowns are tied with Michael Davis (1991-94) for second-most. Though, Ballard has done it in two years to Davis' four seasons.

*His two scores, one rushing and one receiving, in the Egg Bowl vaulted Ballard to 6th-most points in MSU history with 174.

*Despite less-spectacular games this season than the last, Ballard actually was a more efficient runner with a 5.6 yard average gain in '11 compared to 5.2 as a junior.

*Ballard is one of three Dogs with a touchdown rushing and receiving this year, along with alternate TB LaDarius Perkins and WR Jameon Lewis.

*QB Chris Relf has written himself large in both Bulldog record books and MSU memories. His enduring image will be for three Egg Bowl victories, first off the bench for the second-half 2009 comeback upset and then as the starter in 2010 and '11.

*In those three games against Ole Miss, Relf was 24-of-38 passing for 401 yards and seven touchdowns; while rushing for 246 yards and a touchdown.

*Relf has won two-thirds of his starts, the second-best such percentage on available record.

*Despite all the struggles the first half of his senior season, Relf has rallied to post—so far—the most accurate passing season ever for a State signal-caller. He has completed 59.5% of his throws, bettering his own 58.6% of last year and for now ahead of Tyson Lee's 2009 record of 58.8%.

*His two touchdown passes in the last beating of Ole Miss give Relf 27 career and sole possession of #5 on the MSU list. His total of 36 touchdowns-responsible ties for 7th with Kevin Fant (2000-03).

*QB Tyler Russell's status for this game is officially questionable, after the sophomore suffered a knee sprain in bowl practice. This week he has worked without the immobilizer wrap he did on campus but is still clearly hobbled. With the pre-bowl camp departure of #3 QB Dylan Favre, and freshman Dak Prescott redshirting, this leaves Relf the only healthy quarterback on the roster.

*Russell was a 53.5% passer this season, with four starts. Interestingly, he was a 55% passer coming off the bench with 5 touchdowns; while as a starter he was 49% completions with three scores.

*However, his average completion as a starter went for 16 yards; and 13.9 yards as a reliever.

*The only other Bulldogs to have thrown a pass this year are WR Chad Bumphis (1-of-2, 3 yards) and P Baker Swedenburg (1-1, -4 yards).

*Bumphis only had one catch in the Egg Bowl, but it was his 100th at State. He becomes only the 8th Bulldog to reach triple-digits in receptions, and the first since 2003.

*Bumphis has caught at least one pass in every game of his career save 2010 against UAB.

*He goes into Friday with 1,351 career yards, 40 shy of tying for 10th place all-time.

*His 12 touchdown catches are tied for 6th-most. And ten of these have been in non-conference games.

*WR Arceto Clark had his streak of a catch each game ended in the Egg Bowl. For that matter WR Chris Smith didn't have a grab that game, either. Smith still goes into the bowl game with a team-best 30 catches; while classmate Clark has 28 catches but 404 yards.

*Juniors account for 82 of the 128 combined catches by split ends and slot-receivers.

*State's 18 touchdown catches are spread among ten players.

*RB LaDarius Perkins went six games without a catch, then had three in the Egg Bowl for 27 yards and a touchdown.

*TE Marcus Green has caught a ball in just five games; but in each of those contests he had at least two grabs.

*Freshman TE Malcolm Johnson ties Clark and Bumphis with his three touchdown catches. Johnson and Green have four scores between them, after Bulldog tight ends had zero touchdowns in all 2010.

*The same offensive line has started seven-straight games to end the regular season.

*Senior OG Quentin Saulsberry has 48-straight starts.

*State allowed just two sacks in four non-conference games of this season.

*The annual tackle race between true junior classmate DTs Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox again comes down to the last game. Boyd holds a 50 to 49 lead on his cohort.

*But Cox is ahead in both sacks, 4.0 to 3.5, and in tackles for losses 12.5 to 7.0.

*However, neither DT bagged a quarterback in the last four games of the regular schedule.

*Cox has State's only blocked kick so far this season, and three for his career.

*Cox has more sacks and TFLs this season than his first two years combined.

*The surprise sack-man now is CB Johnthan Banks, using corner-blitzes for 3.0 this season.

*Banks makes his name more often defending, and picking, passes. He has five interceptions this season and needs one more to tie the season record, shared by six others.

*His 12 career picks ties him for 2nd on the all-time MSU list. The record is 16.

*Banks goes into bowl season tied for the SEC lead in passes defended at 14. The other two, from Vanderbilt and Georgia, also have bowl games ahead.

*Banks and CB Corey Broomfield both have three career pick-sixes, tying for the MSU record.

*State has two pick-sixes on the season, none since October 1 though.

*Broomfield, with nine career picks, has not intercepted a ball since the 2010 Egg Bowl.

*LB Cameron Lawrence has two picks, the only non-DB on this team with an interception.

*But the junior is making his name for tackles, a team-best 114 of them. He has had double-digit tackles six times this season, his first as full-time starter.

*Lawrence has averaged 10.0 tackles over the last six games. He ranks #3 in SEC tackles average for the whole season.

*State hasn't had two linebackers with 100 tackles for a season since 1997. Just a typical game by MLB Brandon Wilson should do the trick as he has 92 stops on the season and is tied for 7th in the SEC.

*And he is tied with senior S Charles Mitchell with 92 tackles as well, meaning State could finish with a trio of 100-stop men.

*Mitchell is finishing his State career strong, with 28 tackles the last three games. He has 280 for his four seasons.

*State had one defensive touchdown all last year; they have two so far this season on interception returns.

*And the Dogs have doubled last year's kick-return touchdown total. Bumphis and Banks have each returned a punt for a score.

*That gives State four non-offensive touchdowns this season, compared to two in 2010. But they had seven in 2009.

*P Baker Swedenburg has arguably been State's defensive MVP with his consistent kicking. In his first season on the job he's averaged 41.9 yards without any blocks, though he did fumble one snap.

*PK Derek DePasquale is bidding to become the only Bulldog kicker in the career top-ten to never miss a PAT. He is 34-of-34 this season, and 85-of-85 in three years on the job. The record is 89 makes, shared by Adam Carlson and Brian Hazelwood.

*PK Derek DePasquale made good on a 35-yard field goal last week, hopefully ending a slump where he'd missed five of six tries. In the process he became just the sixth Dog with 30 or more field goals.

*His 31-of-41 career percentage, 75.6%, is still second-best ever at State. Brent Smith set the standard of 80% from 2002-03, though he was just 24-of-30.

*DE Preston Smith, DT P.J. Jones, and S Dee Arrington are the only true freshmen to play this season. That matches the total for true frosh activated in 2010.

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