Mississippi State Football 2014: Game 3

Mississippi State (2-0) leaves home after two lopsided wins to face South Alabama (1-0) in Mobile’s Ladd-Peeples Stadium. Kickoff is 3:05 for broadcast on ESPNews with the pregame MSU Network radio going on at 3:00. South Alabama has announced a sellout for the first-ever home game with a SEC opponent.

*This is Mississippi State’s first-ever appearance in Mobile, though in the past many Bulldogs either were recruited from this area or played in Ladd-Peeples Stadium, or both. That includes the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star which was hosted in the Mobile city stadium until moving to Montgomery. L-P also hosts the GoDaddy.com Bowl and the Reeses Senior Bowl games.

*The Bulldogs plan to wear a special sticker on their helmets in honor of Jack Cristil, Voice of the Bulldogs from 1953-2010, who passed away Sunday.

*Mississippi State takes a five-game winning streak to Mobile, longest since a nine-game streak in 2011-12. South Alabama is on a four-win streak of their own.

*After facing three-straight CUSA teams and beating them by a combined 143-41, the Bulldogs are taking on a Sun Belt Conference squad. State is officially 26-3-2 against teams which make up the current SBC, though of course most of these games were played before the league existed. The most recent loss to any of the SBC’s lineup was 2001, to Troy (then State) at Scott Field. Dan Mullen is 3-0 against the SBC with wins over Troy twice and South Alabama.

*State has won 15 of the last 16 regular-season games against non-conference opponents dating back to October 2009. Mullen is 19-3 in such regular-season matchups, and 22-4 when counting bowl games.

*Mullen is 5-0 in non-conference road games played at the opponent’s home stadium.

*Saturday’s win over UAB pushed Mullen (38-28) into sole possession of #3 on the all-time wins list at State. He broke the tie with Emory Bellard (37-42, 1979-85). Mullen already ranks first in bowl victories at 3-1. And his winning percentage is best by a Bulldog coach in over a half-century.

*Going back to last season’s Liberty Bowl, State has scored over 45 points in three-straight games; something only the 1944 team did, albeit in the same season with 41, 56, and 49 points to begin the schedule. Of course the first win was over Jackson AFB, not a college.

*This is the second of four Alabama teams the Bulldogs will play in 2014.

*This is the first time South Alabama will play a home opener with a winning record.

*South Alabama is due a return to Starkville in September 2016 to conclude this two-for-one series. The Bulldogs won 30-10 in a 2012 home game for the first meeting.

The Opponent: The fast building job was already respected by peers. Now South Alabama is gaining regard in the public, too, in year-six of the program. Founding Coach Joey Jones is 31-21 and coming off a 6-6 season, 4-3 in the Sun Belt Conference with a year-ending rout of champs Louisiana-Lafayette. Now these Jaguars are aiming at the next steps and 2014 offers opportunity to score two of the biggest. One obviously is South Alabama’s first bowl bid, after earning eligibility in ’13 without a bid. The other, and probably something they’d enjoy even more than post-season play, is knocking off a SEC opponent. Which means Mississippi State must be very, very careful approaching not only the first road trip but a host which has zeroed-in on this game for the last nine months.

Offense: Judging off a single game is risky, so a 2-to-1 ratio of rushes to throws might mislead just a little. But there’s no questioning South Alabama’s commitment to a good ground game, and they have two stout senior backs for the job(s). Jay Jones ended his junior transfer year strong with consecutive 100-yard outputs and began the senior season in similar fashion with 103 at Kent, with two touchdowns. He had to be good to surpass long-time hauler Kendall Houston, his tag-team toter with 26 career rushing touchdowns and one big carry from reaching 2,000 yards. It might concern USA a bit though that they only netted 3.7 yards per rush in the opener. This might signal a need to put Brandon Bridge’s arm to more use. MSU fans recall his big arm and fast feet in a 2010 trip to Scott Field with Alcorn State; now he’s a transfer senior and can still send it. But in his USA debut his 15-of-25 throwing was more efficient than big with a 10.7 gain on catches and touchdown tossed. And he ran it 13 times at Kent, probably not something he want to do this weekend. So Bridges will look for a variety of targets led by ShaVarez Smith who has caught TDs in four of his last five games and produced 940 yards last year. Pre-season pollsters think well of other wide receivers Jereme Jones and Danny Woodson; and n Wes Saxton they have perhaps the top-rated tight end in the Sun Belt. The potential issues are up-front. If the Bulldogs are still settling-out some offensive line plans for the season, South Alabama is seriously scrambling this week. Injuries have sidelined the left tackle for sure, and his successor is now iffy with a concussion while one guard is working off a rolled ankle. RG Melvin Meggs does stand out for having started 33 career games, most of anyone on this two-deep. Thus, line health will factor into whether USA can maintain the time-of-possession approach. At the same time a Bulldog defense that thrives on forcing turnovers has its work cut out this week as the Jaguars just don’t give the ball away easily or often.

Defense: It’s easier to list the Jaguar defenders who are not listed on some sort of Sun Belt pre-season honors lists. This is expected to be the squad’s strength and opening day didn’t disappoint. Especially so on the ground, where USA hasn’t allowed 60 rushing yards in any of its last four tests. The base set is 4-2, built around a true fireplug nose man in 5-10, 275-pound Jessie Kelly, with 290-pound Jerome McLain lining up on one side of the nose or other at tackle. There’s SEC size on the ends too, and juco Jimmie Gipson made a fast impression with a sack and three hurries off the edge. ILB Davin Hawkins had to wait to the senior year to become a starter but he made it a good one, getting in on nine total tackles. One of those was for a sack and safety to score the team’s first points of 2014! The other inside ‘backer, Maleki Harris, is steady on stops but productive against the air game too with a knack for deflecting throws. South Alabama harassed Kent into 17-of-40 passing with both pressure and coverage keyed off free safety Jackie Brigham. He already shares the program record for PBUs after notching a trio of break-ups in the opener. Brigham is also the only defensive regular on this team to have played in that 2010 trip to Starkville. The corners are held down by seniors, Qudarius Ford and Montrell Garner, with junior Antonio Carter the full-time nickel man.

Specialists: It had to be somewhat concerning that USA was forced to punt a record ten times in this year’s opener. But if you gotta kick it away, soph Brandon McKee is not a bad call after averaging 42.9 on those debut boots. Fellow soph Alleem Sunanon wasn’t tested for field goals in week-one after going 18-of-23 last year; and was just under 55 yards on his kickoffs last Saturday. Wideout T.J. Glover was reliable fielding both sorts of kicks in 2013.

Bulldog Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls has started all 41 career games and leads this roster in starts. The career record is 52 by Gabe Jackson. OC Dillon Day is second in starts with 36.

*Eulls, Day, WR Jameon Lewis, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 41 career games played.

*TE Gus Walley, the last member of the recruiting class of 2012 to be activated, made his varsity debut against UAB. And he did so with a first-catch touchdown at that, then grabbed another pass later.

*Injured WR Shelby Christy is the last member of the 2013 signing class who has yet to play.

*WR Jamoral Graham became the first 2014 scholarship freshman to be activated, serving kick return duty against UAB. He returned two punts for 22 yards; the other three Dogs who have tried to return a punt have totaled seven yards on four combined attempts.

*Walk-on TE Rashun Dixon and PK Westin Graves are true freshmen who have played this season.

*DE Preston Smith debuted his senior year with an interception and blocked field goal to earn SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. He followed it up with another interception against UAB, this time returning it 21 yards for a touchdown. This earned league DLOTW again. The last Bulldog to earn consecutive POTW honors from the SEC, either position or overall, was Fletcher Cox in October 2011.

*Smith is one of three active Dog defenders with a blocked kick. DE Nelson Adams blocked a punt against Alcorn State in 2013.

*And this past weekend S Kivon Coman joined the list as he stuffed a UAB punt. It was recovered by RB Nick Griffin.

*S Jay Hughes recovered Smith’s blocked field goal and returned it for a touchdown. Published records back to 1952 show no other instance of a scoop-and-score on a field goal block at State.

*That was State’s first special-teams touchdown since a kickoff return by Jameon Lewis in the 2012 Egg Bowl.

*LB Richie Brown is credited with recovering UAB’s on-sides kick in the fourth quarter.

*A runaway opener and lots of rotation allowed MLB Benardrick McKinney to collect just three tackles against USM. The junior made up for it in the UAB game with a career-best 12 tackles, topping his prior high of 10 last year against Kentucky. McKinney now has 188 career total stops, split 95 primary and 93 assists.

*Those same rotations on the defensive front has limited DT Chris Jones’ snaps. The preseason All-American has five total stops in two games with a sack. That pace will pick up soon enough.

*Week-two was kind of quiet on the ‘chaos’ front as State only forced one fumble (recovered by UAB) and got the lone interception. The Dog defense had 17 total turnovers in the preceding six games.

*RB Josh Robinson posted a career-best output of 124 yards in beating UAB. The junior has averaged 105.5 yards to open this season and 6.2 yards each carry.

*Robinson also got the first touchdown of his season, and fifth career score.

*QB Dak Prescott is off to a flying junior-year start with eight passing touchdowns (four each game) and one rushing score. That gives him 40 career TDs-responsible-for, already tied for sixth at State with Derrick Taite (1993-96) and just one in back of Wayne Madkin (1998-2001).

*His touchdowns-responsible break down as 22 passing (which just moved him into 10th all-time at State) and 18 rushing scores. And, this NCAA category does not count his two receiving touchdowns last season on option plays!

*Prescott opened the season with a personal-record 284 passing yards, against USM. His seven 200-yard outputs in the air so far tie him for 7th on the career list.

*Prescott has started nine games. In seven of those he directed a first-series touchdown drive. The other two opening series ended with a fumbled reception (Liberty Bowl) and missed field goal (Bowling Green).

*Prescott 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.

*Prescott is well on pace to become 11th Bulldog quarterback to register 3,000 passing yards. He has 2,629 now.

*In his more usual duty as a receiver, senior Jameon Lewis has had ‘only’ four balls come his way so far including a one-catch, six-yard day against UAB. But he has caught a pass in 15-straight games.

*Lewis tied for second-most catches in a State season with 64 in 2013. He now has 85 career catches, and needs six more to tie former teammate Arceto Clark for 10th place.

*Lewis has 1,205 career yards, and needs 1,520 for top-ten status.

*Counting kick returns, Lewis is 98 yards out of top-ten status for all-purpose yards.

*WR De’Runnya Wilson is the lone Bulldog receiver with touchdowns in both games. He followed up a two-score opening day with an 11-yard touchdown catch against UAB. Wilson has already equaled the three-TD total of his freshman season.

*WR Robert Johnson has 58 career catches, and just got the first touchdown of his senior season with a 68-yard connection against UAB.

*That touchdown was Johnson’s first since the 2012 Alabama game.

*TE Malcolm Johnson has 54 career grabs of his own, with eight career scores.

*A week after debuting with two touchdown catches in the USM game, WR Fred Ross did not get a reception against UAB.

*QB Damian Williams is getting plenty snaps this sophomore season. The passing touch still can use a bit more polish as he is 7-of-14 for 78 yards and has been sacked twice. But the true soph is trying to stay in the pocket longer this year rather than taking off too soon with just three other true rushes.

*Last year in game-two State activated Williams for a third quarterback. So far both of the ’14 true freshmen, QB Nick Fitzgerald or QB Elijah Staley, have yet to get into a game.

*State has started the same offensive line both games so far. The second line is getting its turns too, though they were short a member in game-two. OG Jamaal Clayborn was excused after the death of his grandmother.

*P Devon Bell was challenged by the best kicker in CUSA last week and rose to the challenge, out-averaging his opponent 45.5 yards to 45.3. Five of Bell’s dozen punts have gone inside the 20-yard line.

*And Bell has averaged 63.5 yards on his kickoffs. He would have more than three touchbacks if opponents hadn’t opted to return his kicks that went well into the end zone.

*Placekicking remains an open question after both kickers missed a PAT last week. Though, evaluation shows one of those—as well as the missed field goal in week-one by PK Westin Graves—belonged more to the snap or hold or something other than the actual kick.

*State did not attempted a three-pointer against UAB, but did go for fourth downs twice inside the 35-yard line and converted each.

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