Perkins Pits Prowess Against Top-Ranked Tide

One produces over a hundred yards worth of rushing each week. The other doesn't allow opponents to even reach triple digits at all. One is knocking off 5.8 yards each time he's handed the football; the other limits such attempts to less than six feet.

In other words, when LaDarius Perkins meets the Alabama defense this Saturday evening one must leave the field frustrated. The Bulldog halfback knows which outcome he prefers. More to the point, Perkins is optimistic what he and #13 Mississippi State might achieve against the nation's top-ranked team and top-rated defense.

That includes top-rating in rushing, of course. Alabama is yielding a miserly 59 ground yards per game for the full season, with just four total rushing touchdowns through the seven games. And no, no team—much less anyone's running back—has reached the 100-yard mark.

Still, "I feel like we've got a great chance of running the ball," Perkins said.

Mississippi State is counting on it. Even though the Bulldogs are nearly 50/50 in plays this SEC season, with 116 rushes and 107 passes for the three games; and while the air game has made amazing strides in Coach Dan Mullen's fourth year; pounding the ground is still this offense's first option. Or handoff, or keeper, or whatever sort of running is required.

Perkins is a fine reason why State leads with the ground-punch. The junior already boasts 722 yards in his first season starting, nets 5.8 yards each attempt, and has scored eight touchdowns en route. In fact he is one of two backs in the whole country to have run into the end zone every 2012 game so far. And as of this week he now tops the league list in rushing average.

Thus as State assembles the week's schemes, Perkins takes the keep-it-up approach. Yes, a fourth-straight 100-yard game is part of his own plans.

"That's my goal. I want to! As long as my o-line blocks we should have a great day on the ground. And in the air, too."

That is worth noting because Perkins is clear what this upgraded air attack has done for his scoring and statistical opportunities. "I mean, because I know we can throw the ball pretty well too. So throwing the ball is going to open up the run also. And I know the o-line is going to block and get their job done and Tyler's going to throw the ball to open up holes for me also."

In no way does this understate the obstacles Alabama presents. There are a lot of apt adjectives for the application; Perkins chooses ‘real stingy'. "They don't give up many yards. I watched them play a couple of games, I saw a couple of plays from when they played Tennessee. They do a great job of stopping the run, and they also can stop the pass. But coming into the game we know as long as we work hard and make sure we execute and protect the quarterback and protect the football, it's going to be a good game."

Easier said than done of course. But this is a different sort of Dog offense, not simply in matching rushing with passing but how each is achieved. Perkins, as well as his backups, will take tacks inside or out; the passing game has advanced from quick flips and sharp slats to genuine deep-strike capacity. Each avenue has been used to good advantage already.

"I feel like we're pretty consistent," Perkins said. "I feel like we have a lot of weapons on the field now, at every position. Especially on offense. Being an offensive player I feel like we've got weapons at tight end, weapons at receiver, quarterback, running backs. And we have depth at all those positions also."

The upshot is regardless of personnel packages each play the Bulldogs aren't as predictable any more. And despite the obvious reliance on lead Dog Perkins, he is not seeing quite as many stacked sets across the line of scrimmage as show up on scouting reports. "Yeah, exactly. I've been noticing a lot. Because when we do film study early mornings, a lot of teams we watch you see them blitzing a lot or a lot of people in the box.

"But when it comes to game time and we're playing against them they're not blitzing as much, they're trying to keep people more covered. I see a big difference in that."

So does anyone checking this week's conference standings. There the Bulldogs are third-best in SEC game scoring as well as third in passing, nigh-inconceivable not many years go, and fourth in total yards. For that matter State seems to have even more left in store for the pending November stretch drive.

"Yeah, we're getting in a good groove," Perkins said. "We're executing like we should. Receivers making plays, the quarterback throwing the ball, the running back making plays, the o-line blocking. Our defense is getting the job done on their side of the ball. This is a big game for us, so I feel like we're going to make sure we're going to be able to compete with those guys."

Which again implies no slight against the Alabama defense, least of all a front seven that delights in stuffing the run. Certainly State has not faced the like this season.

"They're really disciplined. They stay in their gap, the linebackers stay where they're supposed to stay. They are a real disciplined team, they play hard and they make sure they execute." By the same Bulldog token though, "I feel if we execute like we should it will be a good game."

HANG ON: All scheming aside, if there is a single key to competing this week it is not giving Alabama more possessions than necessary. I.E., for State to maintain its remarkable turnover rate to-date. Or more exactly non-turnovers. The Bulldog defense earns deserved credit for leading the league in takeaways with 17 in seven games.

But the offense has held up its own end of the ratio with just four turnovers; three fumbles and a single Russell interception. In fact the quarterback has one of those fumbles; the other two belong to receivers. In short, Bulldog backs haven't turned the ball over yet this season. As Perkins says, they aren't supposed to.

"Ever since Coach Knox got here he made sure that's the main thing we have to do. That's the main thing we go over before every game: protect the quarterback and protect the football."

Running backs coach Greg Knox agrees. "We always preach ball handling. Ball security is one of the top things. I tell them the only reason people are chasing you is because you got the ball! That's the most prized possession on the field, so we try to definitely take care of it."

Perkins certainly takes care of the football, no easy task with so many of his carries going right into the thick of a defense. Even so the stocky scooter has not made many defense's highlights this year for hard hits. Just the opposite, usually.

"Yeah, a guy my size it's hard to just get a good lick on me. Because I'm low to the ground and pretty shifty, so it's hard for a team to get licks on me. If they hit me hard, they hit me hard. But if I make sure I follow my blocks, stay behind my offensive line, make moves, good things will happen."

"He's learned how to use his body and maneuver his way in there," said Knox. "And as running backs we always talk about not taking big shots, we try to reduce what we call our tackling surface. By reducing that we eliminate big hits."

IMPATIENT PUPS: With Perkins setting such a strong pace it isn't easy taking him off the field. Yet Knox says it has to be done even in conference contests.

"We talk about it all the time as a staff, we try to get everybody involved early in the game. Again, we tried to get those guys in in the first quarter, definitely the first half, just kind of get their feet wet. So that when we needed them in the fourth quarter we were ready to go."

Last week it was Derrick Milton getting three carries, for 38 yards and a touchdown, as the first substitute. Other games Josh Robinson has gotten that call, or Nick Griffin. Which raises the question how does Knox pick who plays when.

The coach said production is the tiebreaker, but not in games. The younger three backs are graded on practices.

"They produce during the week and they have more of an opportunity to get involved in the game. It's what they do in practice, how hard they work, how well they prepare. They understand that. If they limit the mistakes they make, they have a better opportunity of playing a lot more."

Last week Griffin only got his one opportunity…but did the sophomore ever seize it. He turned a sweep-left into a 44-yard dash, only bumped out at the Middle Tennessee five-yard line.

"Oh, it was great to see Nick run down the sideline like that," said an appreciative Perkins. "He showed a lot of burst, he showed a lot of speed. It was good to see Nick open up like that." Particularly given that Griffin, who lost most of 2011 to a spring knee injury, hasn't run as fast or freely in real games this fall. This did not make his cohorts any more sympathetic back on the sideline. Ohhhh, no.

"Yeah, we talked to him about it, we said he should have got in the end zone, now Dak got your touchdown!" Perkins grinned.

THE ‘R' CARD: Finding anyone beyond Bulldog fans willing to predict a State victory this weekend won't be easy this week. This seems of little interest to State players though, nor assertions the Bulldogs have not beaten anyone of note.

"I don't think about that," Perkins said. "People are going to say whatever they want to say. We're 7-0 going to play Alabama, the number-one team in the country. That's all that matters."

So, we need not ask Perkins if he is waving the infamous ‘respect card' around at practices? "Nah," was the succinct and sincere answer.

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