Bulldog Football 2014: Game Seven

#1 Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC) begins the season’s second half with a trip to Kentucky (5-2, 2-2). Game time from Commonwealth Stadium is 3:30et for CBS telecast, the second-straight game State has earned the network’s prime slot. The MSU Network broadcast begins at 12:30ct.

*This will be the first game ever played by a Mississippi State team when ranked #1. The then-#3 Bulldogs moved into the top spot following their victory over #2 Auburn and were able to enjoy it over an open date.

*State has achieved the fastest-ever rise from unranked to #1 in polling history. The Bulldogs broke into the polls on Sept. 21 at 14th, and reached first place on October 12.

*This rankings rocket ride was fueled by three-straight wins over three top-ten teams in a row. Not only was that a program first itself, it was the first time a State team beat three-straight ranked teams period.

*This is only the fourth Bulldog team to achieve top-ten status, along with 1941, 1981, and 1999. State now has a 4-3 record playing with a top-ten ranking, including the 1941 Orange Bowl win.

*Since outlasting Arkansas in overtime last November, Mississippi State has gone on a nine-game win streak. That ties for Coach Dan Mullen’s longest streak, matching the November 2011-October 2012 teams’ stretch. This is the third-longest win streak in program history too; the 1940-41 teams combined for ten consecutive wins, and the 1942-44 teams for 13 straight wins. There was no 1943 team.

*State is on a five-win SEC streak too. Those 42-44 teams also combined to win eight-straight SEC games. So did the 1998-99 teams IF one doesn’t count the ’98 SEC championship game loss to Tennessee as a ‘conference’ game.

*In six seasons now Mullen teams have been ranked for 19 game-weeks counting this one, as well as following the 2010 Gator Bowl. Those teams have gone 11-8 when playing with a number in front of the name.

*Mullen is the third Bulldog coach to win 40 games and is 42-28 in six seasons. He is already first in bowl victories with a 3-1 record, and his overall winning percentage is best here in over half-a-century.

*These Bulldogs have guaranteed Mullen a fifth bowl appearance in six years, one behind Jackie Sherrill’s six trips in 13 years. Only the 1999 team earned bowl eligibility faster than this team, by two days.

*State is now 4-8 playing on CBS. And the last time a Bulldog team played consecutive times on the network, in 2000, they won both games vs Florida and Auburn.

*The Bulldogs own a five-year winning streak over Kentucky, all by Mullen teams; and have won six of the last seven meetings including the last four trips to Lexington.

*This five-year streak is the longest run by Mississippi State in a SEC series since beating LSU five times in 1979-84. With a win this year, it will be the longest consecutive victory streak in SEC play since beating Auburn from 1941-48.

*By virtue of State forfeiting the 1976 game, Kentucky holds an official 21-20 lead in the series.

*Kentucky is spending $120 million to renovate Commonwealth Stadium, and bucking trends by reducing capacity from 67,942 to 62,903 with more premium seating available.

*Last week Davis Wade Stadium re-set the campus attendance record at 62,945, though official capacity is 61,337.

The Opponent: Hiring Mark Stoops received nigh-universal applause, and midway of his second season the longtime defensive aide is proving a hit in his first head coaching job. Even in the struggling 2-10 debut year his teams were better-motivated and -organized than before, and additions of much more athletic personnel has the Wildcats on track to end a three-year bowling drought. It doesn’t hurt that the SEC East is a shambles for now and probably a couple more years. Keeping him tied down might prove tough in time but a commitment to the primary college sport is finally back in the bluegrass.

Offense: Let’s summarize the progress so-far this way: these Wildcats have suddenly found a knack for big plays of 40, 50 or more yards. Though it’s equally accurate to note this offense has scored almost as many points in seven games as in the entire 2013 season. Of course with their coordinator a former UK wideout, who played in the Air Raid days, this oughtn’t be a surprise. What is, is how two-thirds of the team’s points have come from personnel who didn’t play last year at all. But then Patrick Towles sat out ’13 entirely as a belated redshirt year, having debuted in ’12 as a true frosh out of necessity. With his delivery honed in the down-year Towles is a 61% passer with ten TDs against four picks (all those in SEC play though). Benefitting most from this accuracy are two veteran receivers who’ve already matched their ’13 catches. Soph Ryan Timmons (31, 339 yards, 2 TD) and senior Demarco Robinson (20, 306) are the most reliable targets yet there are three, even four more legitimate deep threats to cover. Which doesn’t included throwing shorter to the backs and tight ends, something this year’s offense does out of choice rather than the former necessity. JoJo Kemp had a fine freshman year at tailback and leads the list this season at four TD and a 5.0 yard average. Yet junior transfer Braylon Heard adds the explosive element with a 7.0 yard-per punch, which eases some concerns about Boom Williams’ availability this weekend. All benefit from a veteran front with four returned starters and improved depth to boot. They’ve also allowed just 13 sacks so far after getting shredded too often last fall. LT Darrian Miller missed the opening-day start to snap a 24-game streak but has been back in the lineup ever since, and soph C Jon Toeth is en route to four seasons as a starter. One other major upgrade to 2014: Kentucky has the second-fewest turnovers in the conference.

Defense: It’s not like Kentucky was a defensive pushover in Stoops’ first year. They just lacked scoring support. Now that they have more points to play with the Wildcats are less-stressed and more effective. The greatest gains, or reductions if one prefers, are against the air game where opposing percentage is down drastically from 66% to 54%. And a unit with just three picks all last year has a dozen this season already. Five of those picks have come in fourth quarters when the ball must be thrown. Even in the ’13 struggles DE Za’Darius Smith and DE/OLB Bud Dupree were recognized as All-SEC and considered NFL entry before returning. Good call(s). Smith has 37 tackles with 2.5 sacks while Dupree has 35 stops and 3.0 sacks with 19 career baggings. Obviously Dupree isn’t stuck at end since UK will mix sets freely and can come with a five-front or nickel package…or potentially both. The core is still 320-pound Melvin Lewis who makes 288-pound fellow tackle Mike Douglas look small by comparison. Middle linebacker Josh Forrest leads the show and in tackles with 56 with Khalid Henderson (39 tackles) working the weak-side. Kentucky has alternated between three linebackers and three safeties for matchups. What is consistent is the big-play talents of juco A.J. Stamps at safety, with three picks and 32 tackles putting him in all-conference contention. Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller both have five break-ups at cornerbacks with the latter accounting for one of the dozen interceptions. It’s nickel-man Marcus McWilson with the knack for picks, three of ‘em so far.

Specialists: The uncertain status of Williams leaves a question who will catch Saturday’s kickoff and UK would miss his 30-yard average. Robinson seems a fine alternate as he already takes care of punt returns at a 8.6-yard clip. Landon Foster has averaged nearly 42 yards for his three varsity seasons at punter. The new specialist is kicker Austin MacGinnis but he’s done fine for a freshman, 11-of-16 on field goals with a 53-yarder made.

Bulldog Team/Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls has started all 45 career games and leads this roster in starts. The career record is 52 by Gabe Jackson. OC Dillon Day is second in starts with 38, having missed a week with a one-game SEC suspension.

*Eulls, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 45 career games played.

*P Logan Cooke was activated on very short notice for A&M, and responded with a 45.2 yard average in his debut. He joined WR/KR Jamoral Graham as the only 2014 scholarship freshmen to play. 2008 signee ST Rashun Dixon, now the oldest true freshman in the league, and walk-on freshman PK Westin Graves have also played.

*There have been 13 touchdowns scored against State. Only two have come via rushes.

*A year ago the Bulldog defense had 20 sacks in 13 games. This unit already has 21 sacks in just six games.

*The 251 points scored so far is the highest six-game total ever in a single season.

*There have been nine Bulldog teams score 300-plus points in a season. Five have played for Mullen.

*The Bulldog offense had its record streak of 500-yard games snapped by Auburn, with ‘just’ 469 yards.

*With the defense regularly rotating no one Dog is piling up big tackle statistics. MLB Benardrick McKinney leads the list another week with 41.

*Mid-way of his junior season McKinney is up to 214 career tackles. And he is just about perfectly 50/50 for solos-to-assists at 108 and 106 respectively.

*McKinney has notched double-digit tackles in six career games. Two of those were against Kentucky, in 2012 and ’13.

*Sophomore OLB Beniquez Brown isn’t just taking on some of middle-man McKinney’s play-calling duties. He’s piling up tackles, too, with 15 stops in the last three SEC games.

*Brown had 4.5 tackles for losses all last season; he has 5.0 half-way into this year.

*In the first two SEC wins the Dog defense has made a fourth-down stand in the first quarter, and each time a Brown made the stop; Richie at LSU in an and-goal situation, and Beniquez last week against A&M.

*And a Dog doesn’t have to be a starter to set records in this defense. MLB Richie Brown tied the MSU mark for game interceptions by picking off three Texas A&M passes and was SEC Defensive Player of the Week.

*CB Will Redmond has yet to start this season, yet he’s tied for third in team tackles at 29. Of that, 15 came in just the last two SEC games including a 10-stop day against the Aggies.

*Redmond is one of four Dogs with two or more interceptions. S Jay Hughes joined the group last game with a first-play pick off Auburn.

*Senior Hughes got his first career pick in the season-opener against Southern Mississippi. But his biggest play of that night was scooping a blocked field goal for a 68-yard touchdown return. It was State’s first special-teams touchdown since 2012; and as best records show the first blocked field goal ever returned for a score by a Bulldog.

*That kick was blocked by DE Preston Smith who is having a fabulous senior season. The senior has ‘only’ 19 tackles but 6.5 have gone for losses with a team-best 4.5 sacks. And Smith has intercepted a pair of passes. The first set up a touchdown against Southern Mississippi; the second he returned himself for a touchdown.

*And Smith blocked another field goal at South Alabama. His September feats made Smith the SEC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week three-consecutive weeks, first-ever for a league DL. He’s only one behind DT Fletcher Cox (2011) and OT Derek Sherrod (2010) with four SEC OTW awards in one season.

*Smith is the third active Bulldog with a blocked kick, along with DE Nelson Adams (2013, punt Alcorn State) and S Kivon Coman (2014 field goal UAB).

*OL Ben Beckwith made a mark in SEC annals when he became the first former walk-on best as records show to win conference Offensive Lineman of the Week. That was for his work at guard against LSU. A week later he not only repeated as league OLOTW, but did so as a center taking over for the suspended Day.

*Half-way into one season, and QB Dak Prescott has put up better than most of his predecessors did in a full year. Or full career for that matter. Research by MSU Media Relations shows Prescott is producing at a pace equal or better than the last three SEC quarterbacks who won the Heisman Trophy. And he’s the only one of the quartet with four games of both 100 rushing/200 passing yards.

*In this week’s NCAA statistics, Prescott is 3rd nationally in points-responsible at 23.0 per game. He has scored eight rushing touchdowns; thrown for 14 scores; and even caught a pass for one more TD.

*His rushing alone ranks Prescott 5th in the SEC this week. But among all college quarterbacks he’s second only to BC’s Tyler Murphy, with 109 yards to Prescott’s 96 average.

*But Prescott is the nation’s only quarterback with a rushing, throwing, and receiving touchdown.

*For the season so-far, Prescott has produced a touchdown once every eleven passes thrown; and once every seven caught balls. Each of his completions has netted 15.4 yards.

*For a fellow with just 29 career games, 13 starts, Prescott is turning the MSU record book into his personal biography. He already owns the mark for career touchdowns-responsible at 53, having just surpassed Don Smith (52, 1983-86), and that officially doesn’t included the three touchdowns he’s caught!

*If he surpasses 200 passing yards this week, it would be a MSU record 12 such performances.

*We did jinx him last game though, as a 18-of-34 afternoon pulled Prescott under 60% career passing. He’s still at 59.7% which is the MSU record.

*Quickly counting down his career standings: Prescott is 4th in rushing TDs (25), tied for 6th in TD passes (28), 7th in offensive yards, 9th in passing yards.

*And what counts most of all? Prescott is 10-3 as a starting quarterback.

*In his 13 starts so far, the first State offensive series has produced 8 touchdowns and 1 field goal; with a fumble, a missed field goal, and just two punts.

*All three of Prescott’s touchdown catches were thrown by WR Jameon Lewis; against Troy and Kentucky last season, and now South Alabama this year.

*Lewis has four touchdowns tossed though including a connection with WR Joe Morrow last year at Texas A&M. So Lewis is 4-of-4 on these gadget plays, all for touchdowns…which would make for a ridiculous ‘quarterback rating’.

*Lewis hasn’t thrown or caught anything the last two weeks though, out with a leg injury. He was hot before that with 15 combined catches and 223 yards in the previous two games. The injury also ended Lewis’ streak of 16 games with a catch.

*His last time out, Lewis also got his first TD of the senior season at LSU with a 74-yard play.

*When he returns, Lewis will be bidding to become the 10th Bulldog with 100 career receptions. He already ranks 10th all-time with 96 grabs in four seasons. With 1,397 yards, he is just outside top-ten status needing 1,520 to catch Fred Hadley (1984-88).

*Lewis is 10th already in career all-purpose yards with 3,047 on catches, rushes, and returns.

*RB Josh Robinson is making his first season as the starter count. And State smartly has gone to him full-time in SEC season. In his three league games the junior has rushed for 401 yards on 52 carries, with five touchdowns.

*Robinson is second in SEC average rushing this week at 114.8 yards. But counting only conference games? He’s topping the list with a 133.7 rate.

*But his two-game streak of 100-yard outputs was barely stopped by Auburn, with ‘just’ 97 yards.

*The ‘Bowling Ball’ is netting 7.7 yards on each SEC rush. Only four of his 98 runs this year have gone for a loss.

*In the three SEC games, the Prescott/Robinson combo have accounted for 704 rushing yards. The rest of the team? 131 yards.

*And SEC season has brought WR De’Runnya Wilson to the forefront. The soph has caught four balls in all three games, with 235 yards to show for it. That’s a 19.6-yard rate of production.

*And conveniently, Wilson has had a touchdown catch in all three games.

*Wilson has six of the team’s 16 touchdown catches on the season.

*Lewis’ absence has allowed Wilson to also take the lead in total catches at 18, and yards at 319.

*A week after his first catch-less game of the season, TE Malcolm Johnson came back strong against Auburn with five balls and 60 yards.

*Johnson now has 61 career catches. And he’s a big day away from a 1,000-yard career with 903 so far. Johnson has nine career touchdowns.

*In fact there are two Johnsons on the roster with 61 career catches. Senior WR Robert snapped a two-game receiving drought with two balls against Auburn.

*WR Gabe Myles took Lewis’ starting spot the last two games, and the redshirt rookie responded with seven catches and 59 yards. Myles would like to be the 10th Dog receiver to score a touchdown this season.

PK Evan Sobiesk only got one chance at a three-pointer in the Auburn game, and converted it on a 21-yarder. He is 3-of-4 on the soph season with all three makes in the 20-yards ranges.

*Forced into duty as a true freshman, P Cooke has risen to the unexpected opportunity. His nine punts have averaged just under 42 yards. And six of them have been fair-caught.

*Veteran P Devon Bell has been practicing again, after straining a groin muscle just before the A&M game. He’d been averaging 43.5 yards up to that point.

*Bell had 11 touchbacks in 28 kickoffs with several more returned out of the end zone. Cooke is 6-of-15, but both kickers have booted balls into the end zone that were returned...

*…and unwisely so. Because the Bulldogs lead the SEC in net-kickoff coverage.

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