Bulldog Football 2014: Game One

Mississippi State opens the 2014 season by hosting Southern Mississippi, with kickoff set for 6:39 on Scott Field. The game is televised, and streamed, by the new SEC Network. Pre-game radio begins at 3:30 from the Junction with J.T. Williamson on the flagship station 100.9. The full MSU Network broadcast begins at 4:30.

*This is the 115th season of Bulldog football, which began in 1895. But it is the 100th season for Scott Field, the second-oldest campus venue in Division I college football. There are commemorative activities taking place all fall, including announcement of an all-time Mississippi State team from the century of games on campus.

*This anniversary year coincides with opening of the new premium and public seating additions to the north end zone, which raise official capacity to 61,337. So kickoff should find the largest crowd ever to watch a game in Davis Wade Stadium since the ‘core’ stands were built in the 1930s.

*Advance season ticket sales were over 46,000, also a record. The challenge brought by a larger stadium was successfully continuing the home-date sellout streak, which began in October 2009 and stands at 30 games and is also a MSU record.

*State is 80-32-2 in all season opening games; with a 52-15-1 record when kicking the year off at home. This is the second-straight year MSU has opened with an August game, after debuting last year in Houston against Oklahoma State on the last day of the month. State has yet to win an August game, though.

*Bulldog teams are 37-21-1 against current Conference USA members, though given that league’s shuffles the last two decades this means little. The most recent such matchup was in fact the last game of 2013, when State routed CUSA champion Rice 44-7 in the Liberty Bowl.

*The last regular season game against a current and long-time CUSA club was in 2011 with a win at UAB. That season also opened with a win at Memphis which has moved on to the new AAC. And the 2010 season opened at home against Memphis with a 49-7 win. That year also brought wins over Houston and UAB for a 3-0 mark against CUSA.

*The Liberty Bowl triumph gives State a three-win streak heading into this opener, which hasn’t happened since the 1975 opener.

*Mississippi State has not played Southern Mississippi since 1990, when the Bulldogs took a 13-10 win at Scott Field to end the series for almost a quarter-century. Former A.D. Greg Byrne signed a home-and-home set with USM which takes State to Hattiesburg next September, the first trip there since the 1989 Bulldog victory.

*This is the first time the programs have opened a season against each other. On the scoreboard, State holds a 14-12-1 lead in the series. Wins in 1975 and ’76 were later forfeited.

*Coach Dan Mullen enters his sixth season with a 36-28 record at State. He ranks fourth in career victories already, and with a win Saturday will tie Emory Bellard (37-42, 1979-85) for third on the list.

*Mullen already ranks first in MSU coaching history for bowl victories, having taken State to a record four-straight post-season games with a 3-1 record. He is the first coach to lead Bulldogs to four consecutive winning seasons since Allyn McKeen in 1944-47.

*Mullen teams are 12-2 at home against non-conference visitors, with an eleven-win streak in such matchups going back to 2010.

The Opponent: It’s been a painful two years in Hattiesburg. After almost two decades of winning or at very least contending in their conference, Southern Mississippi leaped off the football map at 1-23 these past two falls. Oklahoma State assistant Todd Monken found a far worse situation than simple damage control, as everybody in CUSA has been hit from both sides in recruiting. Sleepers rarely escape SEC notice any more, Sun Belt schools are now equally attractive destinations for prospects USM used to thrive on, and the budget challenge will only get tougher as the major conferences devour all the air and money. There are advantages to CUSA obscurity though. Departures mean opportunity for a far faster rebuild, and USM still can secure enough talent from the whole Coastal region at least as good and often better that at most current conference kin. The coaching staff merits respect from their peers, too, as the schemes are sound. Put enough skill in them (size might be an insoluble issue though) and CUSA crowns will return to Hattiesburg in time.

Offense: As noted, there was nothing wrong with play-calling last year. It just took months to get everyone aligned right, and of course an eminently crushable final foe to show it. Nick Mullens survived six starts to pile up 1,776 yards and 13 TD throws…though being forced to ramble and scramble also meant 14 interceptions. Now seasoned far ahead of most sophomores and even some junior quarterbacks, he is the undisputed lead dog and should have a better selection of targets. That’s seen by the fact senior Markese Triplett (33 catches, 558 yards) has had to scrap just to stay a starter. Jucos Michael Thomas and Kyle Foster and Houston transfer Casey Martin should make instant impact in passing plans, and soph James Cox is worth watching. The trick is sparing Mullens all the pressure, as Eagle passers were sacked 36 times with an astounding 61 official hurries and who knows how many more rushed throws. Blockers have been shuffled since spring with tackle Cameron Tom moved to center, a converted defensive lineman going to offensive tackle, and a redshirt making his first start at guard. There are two seniors though in LT Rashod Hill and RG Fred Moore to try settling everyone down. It’s well and good to note that the second- and third-leading rushers of 2013 return; but the whole season produced just 875 ground yards and five scores! There’s no direction to go here but ahead. USM is listing the veterans Jalen Richard (324 yards) and George Payne (173) first for opening day but State is expecting to see other backs early and maybe often.

Defense: Speaking of no other direction to go… It is inconceivable this club cannot improve on allowing 436 yards per game and 5.9 each snap. A more productive scoring offense is one obvious reason; simple age ought to be another. The projected first-game two-deep shows 14 seniors and juniors and while they wear lots of scars from previous years experience still should add up. Plus, some key personnel is healthy again, beginning with 305-pound tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches after his ten-game absence. Senior Adam Williams (40 tackles, 3.0 sacks) puts his 295 pounds over the ball with 277-pounder Michael Smith (33 tackles) on one end of the odd-front. The linebacker group is accidentally better for a bad 2013 break as injured Alan Howze was granted an extra year. He’s also moving to weak-side slot, with junior Brian Anderson taking the middle. If bulk counts the front-six in this scheme ought not be pushed around anything like last fall when, due to injuries, even against league teams the Eagles seemed a little under-sized. An off-season dismissal put a big crimp in the secondary but in return they get back safety Jacorius Cotton after missing the last 15 games. He complements free safety Emnanuel Johnson (54 tackles) and ought to make life a little easier on cornerbacks likely to get attacked immediately. And why not, since USM intercepted just six of the 323 passes seen last season and forced just 13 fumbles…a third of them in the UAB win. But hey, turnarounds must start somewhere.

Specialists: As with so much else about the last two seasons, don’t judge Corey Acosta just on stats. He might’ve been 11-of-20 on field goals but has the leg with a 50-yarder to his credit and will be better with improved protection; three balls got blocked. Tyler Sarrazin (39.4 yards) is a reliable punter with lots of experience, and even backup Matt Moseley got 18 punts last year with a better average. Running back Richard is listed as returning both kicks but there are other qualified candidates.

Bulldog Player Notes: Mississippi State’s lineup from the Liberty Bowl could almost be reassembled for this Saturday. Eight offensive starters and ten defensive starters from that season-ending victory are back for 2014, as well as most specialists. The projected 11s for this opener both have ten Dogs who either started or played in Memphis, too. The only exceptions: OG Justin Malone and S Jay Hughes who missed the bowl with injuries from opening day 2013. Both are expected to start on their ’14 opener.

*DT Kaleb Eulls begins his senior season with the most career starts on the squad, 39. He has started every game of his varsity career. OC Dillon Day is second with 34 starts. Graduated-to-NFL Gabe Jackson set the MSU standard by starting all 52 games of his four-year career, a mark Eulls will try to tie.

Eulls, Day, WR Jameon Lewis, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 39 career games played.

*There are eight redshirted freshmen from the 2013 recruiting class who have yet to get on the field as varsity Bulldogs: CB Jahmere Irvin-Sills, S Brandon Wells, WR Gabe Myles, LB Dezmond Harris, OL Kent Flowers, OL Jake Thomas, WR B.J. Hammond. WR Shelby Christy will not be able to play in 2014 though after a preseason knee injury.

*MLB Benardrick McKinney goes into the senior season with 173 career tackles, split practically evenly with 87 solos and 86 assists. He led the team last season with 71 stops but only once got double-digit tackles; 10 against Kentucky.

*McKinney also paced the 2013 team in sacks (3.5) and tied in tackles for losses (7.0).

*The tie was with DT Chris Jones who also had 3.0 sacks among his 32 tackles as a true freshman. And Jones was tops in quarterback hurries with 10 credited.

*DT Preston Smith goes into the senior season after a 2.5 sack year, giving him a team-best 7.0 for his three-year career.

The Dog defense returns eight of the 14 interceptions from last season, with six shared by the cornerbacks. Both CB Jamerson Love and CB Taveze Calhoun had three picks apiece. Love has four career picks, most on this defensive roster, with one touchdown return last year. His seven PBUs also topped the defense in 2013.

*DE Nelson Adams is the only current Bulldog with a blocked kick (punt vs Alcorn State).

*Senior S Hughes may have to share snaps though; his 2013 replacement S Kendrick Market is second only to McKinney in returning-tackles with 62.

*QB Dak Prescott has played two seasons already but this weekend gets to experience something new: his first start in a season-opener. Prescott also is somewhat special in MSU history, as a starting quarterback in a season-ending bowl game who returns to start the next season.

*Even more unique is the club Prescott could join Saturday. There are only three Bulldog starting quarterbacks who ended one season with a bowl win, and began the next season with a win. John Bond did it in 1981-82; Wayne Madkin did so twice, in 1999-2000 and 2000-01; and then Chris Relf in 2010-11.

*Prescott is 4-3 as a starter, 1-0 in bowl games obviously.

*And since he put in a five-touchdown day, a Bulldog bowl record, Prescott rides lots of junior-season momentum. He tops returning SEC quarterbacks in both career touchdowns (17) and rushing (947 yards). He also set a MSU record for quarterback rushing last season with 829 yards, despite missing enough quarters to make nearly three games’ worth.

*Per NCAA statistics, Prescott is one of four active quarterbacks with 800 rushing yards and 1,900 passing yards in a season.

*Even before becoming a starter last season Prescott was producing plays and points. He rushed and threw for eight scores (four each) as a redshirt freshman, with a ludicrous rate of converting for first downs or scoring touchdowns or both. Last year he threw ten touchdowns and rushed for 13. So officially he is ‘responsible for’ 31 career TDs, which puts him four-shy of a top-ten ranking already.

*And that doesn’t include two more touchdowns as a receiver last year, on throw-back plays from Lewis.

*Many are still surprised to learn Prescott already ranks #1 in a MSU career category. Or at least he shares top spot in career passing average with Tyson Lee (2008-09) at officially 58.8%. Lee is a touch ahead actually, 58.84% to Prescott’s 58.78%. Close enough.

*With a good first month Prescott can become the 11th Bulldog quarterback to register 3,000 passing yards. He has 2,134 going into the season.

*Prescott also has a two-to-one ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, something nobody ahead of him on the MSU list can match. Though former teammate Tyler Russell was close at 64.6%. That reflects that all top four of State’s career passing percentage quarterbacks have played for Mullen.

*WR Lewis would own all MSU passing efficiency records, except that he threw just three passes last year. All went for touchdown completions, too.

*More typically, the senior receiver catches passes…very well. His 64 snares last season tied for second-most (Sammy Milner did it twice, in 1968-69) ever by a Bulldog, behind only David Smith’s 74 in 1970. And his 923 yards were fourth-most in a MSU season.

*Lewis begins the final year with 81 catches, needing ten to move into the top ten. He has 1,174 yards and needs 1,520 for that top-ten too.

*Thanks to his kick return yards (#6 all-time at 1,349), Lewis has 2,523 career all-purpose yards. #10 place belongs to Kenny Roberts (1989-92) with 2,947.

*Lewis was the only Bulldog to catch a pass in all 13 games last season.

*Two other active Dogs each had a catch in a dozen of those games, and both are seniors named Johnson. TE/SR Malcolm Johnson begins the year with 51 career catches and seven touchdowns despite missing six games in three years. WR Robert Johnson owns 55 career grabs in 33 games himself, with two touchdowns.

*He’s had to wait his turn to be lead Dog, and going into opening day it isn’t even certain if he will start or play. Still RB Josh Robinson is looking for a big year. He’s coming off a 459-yard, three-TD soph season with two starts. His career average gain though is worth watching as he has netted 6.0 yards each touch over two seasons.

*But there will be good reason to give senior RB Nick Griffin first shot. The popular upperclassman has battled back from catastrophic knee injuries in 2010 and ’11, and made a case in the Liberty Bowl and then in spring that he deserves the first touch of 2014.

*With all the justified attention to Prescott, QB Damian Williams owns his own special spot in State hearts. As a true frosh he took over to win the Arkansas game in overtime; and kept the Egg Bowl in contention for three-plus quarters. Williams did some mop-up work in the Liberty Bowl but all anticipate him getting turns to begin the soph season. Williams will be working for his first career TD pass, too.

*With Williams as the example, Mullen is quite likely to find a way to ready a third quarterback for 2014 early. Based on Thursday comments, QB Nick Fitzgerald would have the edge; no surprise since he got to participate in both one week of December bowl camp and all spring camp. QB Elijah Staley arrived in summer by contrast.

*Right offensive tackle will be taken by a new starter. Not that Justin Senior is entirely new to starting, having opened the Bowling Green game. That was at left tackle when LT Blaine Clausell was hurting. He is projected to open at RT this game, with converted tight end Rufus Warren listed as the alternate.

*The position of most starting-obsession though isn’t on either side of the line. It is who Mullen picks to placekick, between veteran PK Evan Sobiesk (3-of-6 field goals, 15-of-16 PAT last season); or walk-on Westin Graves. Mullen has suggested using both given the deadlock in preseason camp kicking.

*Punting is in sound shape with P Devon Bell coming off a 41.2-yard season. Nine of his 24 punts were fair-caught last year, 14 were placed inside the 20-yard line, and two were touchbacks. Freshman Logan Cooke is the alternate now. Bell also expects to kick off; he had 25 touchbacks in 66 attempts last season. For comparison, in 2012 only 12 of 59 kickoffs were touchbacks.

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