*Mississippi State has won four-straight games going back to last November, the longest streak since winning nine-straight in 2011-12. Bulldog teams have won the last three home games.
*And State is coming off a season-opening victory, over Southern Mississippi, in the earliest ever debut by a Bulldog team, on August 30. That was also State’s first-ever win in August.
*Of the four-straight wins, the last two have all been at the expense of Conference USA squads; Rice in the Liberty Bowl, and now USM. Bulldog teams are now 38-21-1 against current CUSA programs, though that number is not really useful given how that league’s lineup has shuffled over the last decade. Now State is facing a third-straight CUSA club, something never done here.
*Dog teams have out-scored their last two CUSA victims by a combined 96-7 score.
*State has won the last 12 home games against non-conference opponents going back to the 2010 opener. Coach Dan Mullen is 13-2 in all home games against non-SEC programs.
*Bulldog fans have sold-out the last 30 games at Davis Wade Stadium, and celebrated the re-opening of the expanded and renovated facility with a record crowd of 61,889…which is over the official new capacity of 61,337! Last Saturday’s game kicked off the 100th season of football on Scott Field, the second-oldest campus field at the FCS level behind only Georgia Tech.
*Mullen, in his sixth season, is 37-28 at State and is now tied with Emory Bellard (37-42, 1979-85) for third-most wins at Mississippi State.
*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.
*Mississippi State is 4-1 against UAB, all games since 2004 when the Blazers won that first meeting. State evened the record with an overtime victory the next year and has taken the other three matchups, more recently at Legion Field in 2011.
*State celebrated the new season with its first opening-game shutout since 1998 (Vanderbilt, 42-0); and recorded the first shutout of any sort since blanking South Carolina 17-0 in 1999.
*State has not posted consecutive shutout wins since 1955; or two shutouts in a season since 1996.
*The Bulldog defense has also forced eight turnovers in the last two home games, four each and all against in-state opponents.
*In the last nine quarters on Scott Field, plus one overtime, State has surrendered no offensive touchdowns.
The Opponent: First, do not call them ‘Alabama-Birmingham’ any more. Second, don’t regard this game as the glorified scrimmage it seemed in summer. While by no means does anyone claim the Blazers are ‘back’ a 48-10 thrashing of Troy showed signs of new life from a program many had given up on. Hiring Bill Clark away from Jacksonville State after just one year there was an inspired move, considering his only other college experience was six seasons assisting the startup of South Alabama’s program. His long and successful high school tenure entirely in Alabama can’t hurt local recruiting. And he’s certainly altered the approach with a much more physical Blazer bunch. What the realistic ceiling is for UAB in a low-level conference and an antiquated non-campus facility, who knows? What MSU does know is better than to take this one for granted given UAB’s track record of giving State squads fits, albeit that often reflects where this game has fallen within the schedule.
Offense: Yardage wasn’t why UAB only won twice last season; the Blazers netted nearly 400 win or lose. But they have begun this year going at things another way: on the ground. UAB rolled Troy for 338 ground yards and four scores and even allowing this wasn’t against a decent defense it showed a change of philosophy. And why not, after Jordan Howard rushed for 881 freshman yards? The 224-pounder opened the soph season with 179 and two touchdowns. But senior D.J. Vinson also has to get his turns after a 106-yard, 1-score effort. And these guys aren’t prone to losing yards by dodging defenders, they will come straight ahead and take their best shots. Much as a new coach can change things, a new quarterback can too, if he’s capable. Juco Cody Clements seems to be just that having gone 13-of-19 in the debut for two touchdowns. His arm offers the threat of play-action which keeps coverage from completely cheating-up on the ground game. Oh, and Clements can run a little, too. The air attack was last year’s calling card and JJ Nelson is back from an 8-touchdown season. He’s averaged 20 yards a catch his whole career. But it’s tight end Kennard Backman who burned Troy with half his four catches going for touchdowns. Not unexpectedly, the question against better and bigger opponents is blocking. UAB certainly has size, especially on the left side with a pair of 320-pounders. Sure, the Dog defense shoved around another CUSA club of similar size last week; UAB’s big guys seem due more respect and feature just one senior, fortunately for them the center Brian O’Leary. Maybe there is a future here after all.
Defense: As established already, offense wasn’t why UAB lost ten times last year. A defense allowing 498 yards and 44 points on-average was. Clark’s reputation was built on defense and holding Troy (admittedly a program sliding fast) to 272 yards was a good start, and more so stuffing them to just 71 rushing yards. NT Jontavious Morris won’t make a lot of stats but his 310 pounds placed over the ball is lots to try moving aside. 259-pound Diaheem Watkins is plenty capable coming off the end with six stops and two sacks in the opener. But the Blazer whose name will get called most often is still Jake Ganus, a 21-game starter at linebacker with 93 tackles last season. Working from the weak-side he was right on top to begin this one too with seven tackles. Juco Kalen Jackson has taken over the strong-side, and senior Harris Gaston takes the middle spot though prep school product Alonzo McGee may have something to say here. The secondary is much better already with S Calvin Jones back after missing ten games with a foot injury; State saw him at full-strength back in 2011. The cornerbacks are seasoned, as soph Jordan Petty broke into the varsity last fall with 55 tackles and a pick. Senior Lamarcus Farmer has held down the other corner for two-plus years now. And hey, despite all the yards and points allowed in ’13, at least everyone got a lot of snaps and experience that ought to help now. Ought to.
Specialists: Easy to see the impression made by Hunter Mullins; he’s the preseason CUSA special teams player of the year having averaged 44.0 yards per punt for his career and has topped fifty yards 23 times. And placekicking is about as strong; Ty Long has made 48 field goals over his career including a 54-yarder against Ohio State two years ago. Receiver Nelson handled all the return work last week, netting 32 yards on two kickoffs.
Bulldog Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls was in the opening-evening lineup, giving him 40 career starts and starting every game so far of his college career. The record is 52 by Gabe Jackson, a mark Eulls is trying to tie. OC Dillon Day is second in starts with 35.
*Eulls, Day, WR Jameon Lewis, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 40 career games played.
*Seven of the eight remaining redshirt freshmen from the 2013 signing class made their varsity debuts last Saturday: CB Jahmere Irvin-Sills, S Brandon Wells, WR Gabe Myles, LB Dezmond Harris, OL Kent Flowers, OL Jake Thomas, WR B.J. Hammond. The eighth, WR Shelby Christy, will not be able to play in 2014 though after a preseason knee injury.
*TE Gus Walley is the lone remaining 2012 signee yet to play.
*The only first-fall freshmen to play in this year’s opener were a 2014 walk-on, PK Westin Graves; and a 2008 scholarship signee. TE Rashun Dixon came to campus six years later after a baseball career as a walk-on and played on kicking teams against USM.
*Also debuting last week were juco TE Darrion Hutcherson, and walk-ons Bennie Braswell, Kelan Chairs, Hunter Bradley, and Broderick Oliver, all three joining the program in 2013.
*Two veteran Bulldogs celebrated a return to full-health after missing 12 games to injury last season. OG Justin Malone wasn’t just back, but back in the starting RG spot he held on opening day 2013.
*S Jay Hughes had a far more triumphant return statistically though. The senior also was back in the starting lineup as on first-game of ’13 and lasted more than six plays this time. He also used the return to A) notch his first career interception with an end zone pick before halftime; and B) scoop a blocked field goal and return it for a touchdown in the third period. It was Hughes’ first points since his senior high school season.
*Published records only go back some sixty seasons, so there is no certainty to this. But as best anyone can tell, Hughes’ scoop-and-score was the first time a Bulldog team has returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown. In the 2000 Independence Bowl, the Bulldogs blocked a PAT kick and returned it for two points.
*This year’s block was by senior DE Preston Smith, his first at State of any sort. He joins fellow DE Nelson Adams as the only current Dogs with a blocked kick after Adams stuffed an Alcorn State punt in 2013.
Smith also used the USM game to record his first career college interception, catching a carom off the hands of Eulls. That and the blocked kick earned Smith SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors.
*A runaway game and scripted rotation limited opportunities for individual defensive statistics. So MLB Benardrick McKinney got in on only three stops in his senior-season opener. McKinney now has 176 career tackles, split evenly 88 solos and 88 assists!
After notching 3.0 sacks as a true freshman, DT Chris Jones opened the soph season with a sack of USM as well as a hurry. He had 10 of those last year, tops on the team despite playing in second rotation.
*LB Christian Holmes and LB Zach Jackson both forced fumbles on opening night, to go with interceptions by Smith and Hughes for four total turnovers.
*QB Dak Prescott joined an exclusive Bulldog club last week. He is just the fourth MSU quarterback to start and win a bowl game to end one season, then start and win the next season’s opener. His predecessors were John Bond 1981-82; Wayne Madkin in both 1999-2000 and 2000-01; and Chris Relf in 2010-11.
The top returning SEC quarterback in career rushing touchdowns, and MSU record-holder for rushing at his position, Prescott only had to run eight times in the opener and did not score. Per NCAA statistics, Prescott is one of four active quarterbacks with 800 rushing yards and 1,900 passing yards in a season.
*But Prescott did make a strong start in the more normal quarterbacking role as he threw for four touchdowns. That jumped the junior into the career top-ten at State for touchdowns-responsible-for with 35, tying for #10 place with Rockey Felker (1972-74). Prescott has thrown 18 touchdowns in three seasons, rushed for 17.
*And NCAA category that doesn’t include two more touchdowns as a receiver last year, on throw-back plays from WR Lewis.
*Prescott began the year in a practical tie for top spot in career passing accuracy, with Tyson Lee (2008-09). For now he’s alone at 59.6% after a 18-of-26 effort against USM. Incidentally, the top four career passers by percentage at State have all played for Dan Mullen.
*Prescott is well on pace to become 11th Bulldog quarterback to register 3,000 passing yards. He has 2,418 now.
*WR Lewis would own all MSU passing efficiency records, except that he threw just three passes last year. All went for touchdown completions, too.
*Lewis had a low-key opening game to the senior season, three grabs and 25 yards. This was after he caught 64 balls, tying for second-most ever by a Bulldog, as a junior. And his 923 yard receiving last year were fourth-most in MSU history.
Lewis is one big game away from top-ten status in catches. He has 84 and needs seven more to match former teammate Arceto Clark (2008-12). In yardage, Lewis has 1,199 and needs 1,520 for top-ten.
*Thanks to his kick return yards (#6 all-time at 1,349), Lewis has 2,849 career all-purpose yards. #10 place belongs to Kenny Roberts (1989-92) with 2,947.
*Lewis has a catch in 14-straight games.
*TE Malcolm Johnson opened the senior year with a touchdown catch, giving him eight on the career and 53 total receptions.
*WR Robert Johnson is also a senior, and has 56 catches with two TDs.
*Soph WR Fred Ross bounced back nicely from a season-ending November shoulder injury. He celebrated full-health with two touchdown catches against USM, his first career scores in college. Ross had nine catches all 2013 and 115 yard; he got over half-way to that total with 61 in one game.
*Fellow soph WR De’Runnya Wilson headed the stat-sheet on opening night with four catches and two touchdowns. He had two scores as a true freshman.
*While he did not score, it was a good opener for RB Josh Robinson with 87 rushing yards and 49 more receiving. That put the junior over 1,000 career total offensive yards, now with 1,053.
*And with just 14 carries the first time out this year, Robinson slightly improved his already-strong career average of 6.0 yards each carry.
*QB Damian Williams got to play early and lots in this sophomore opener, and threw his first college TD pass (21 yards to Ross) in the process. Williams rushed for two touchdowns as a true 2013 freshman.
*Now the question becomes who is the third quarterback for 2014? A year ago Williams debuted in mop-up duty in the second game of the season; so this season it seems logical to look for either QB Nick Fitzgerald or QB Elijah Staley to be inserted if circumstances allow. Fitzgerald would have an apparent edge based on attending a week of Liberty Bowl camp and practicing all spring as an early-enrollee. Plus, playing one of the two true freshmen would get them on different ‘schedules’ for college careers.
*OG Ben Beckwith started 12 games last season at right guard, taking over for the injured Malone. He started his senior-year opener too, but at left guard.
*The only ‘new’ starter for this season on the offensive line is RT Justin Senior, though it’s not entirely a new thing for the junior. He started one game in 2013, at left tackle.
*P Devon Bell had a relatively routine start to this season with a 39.8 yard average on four kicks with three inside the 20-yard line. He averaged 41.2 yards last year. And Bell kicked off seven times with a 62.7-yard average and one touchback.
*None of Bell’s punts were returned.
*But the placekicking job remains a guessing game for fans. Walk-on Graves took the only field goal attempt last week, missing from 40 yards mostly due to a poor snap per his coach. Graves did hit all three of his PATs, and soph Evan Sobiesk was perfect on his four point-afters.