Bulldog Football 2014: Game Eight

Mississippi State (7-0, 4-0 SEC) is back on Scott Field wearing the #1 national ranking for the first time ever, to host Western Division rival Arkansas (4-4, 0-4). Kickoff is 6:15 for ESPN2. The pregame broadcast begins at 3:00 with J.T. Williamson from the Junction, and the full MSU Network airs at 4:00.

*Having earned the program’s top ranking for the first time in 119 seasons four weeks ago, the Bulldogs enter this game also rated #1 in the initial College Football Playoff standings. Which makes Mississippi State the answer to a future CFP trivia question, but means little with the four-team playoff not to be decided until December 7.

*State’s rise from unranked-to-top spot in five weeks was the fastest on record in a recognized national poll; and involved beating three-straight ranked teams, all from the SEC West, in order.

*Playing for the first time as a #1-ranked school, these Bulldogs made it a win by beating Kentucky 45-31 in Lexington. This gives State a ten-game win streak dating back to November 2013, second-longest active string in the country after Florida State’s 24.

*The ten-win streak is longest at Mississippi State since 1942-44 (there was no 1943 season) when those teams combined to take 13 victories. The 1940-41 teams won ten-straight games.

*Six of the ten wins have been in SEC contests, the second-longest such streak at State. Those 1942-44 teams and then the 1998-99 teams won eight-straight regular season league games. Since, the ’98 squad did lose to Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game.

*This is just the second 4-0 SEC start for State, 1999 being the other. The 1940 and ’41 teams were unbeaten through four league games with each had a tie. The 1999 team began 5-0 SEC.

*State is now 5-3 all-time playing with a top-ten ranking. Coach Dan Mullen’s teams are 12-8 playing with any sort of ranking.

*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.

*Mullen is the third Bulldog coach to win 40 games and is 43-28 in six seasons. He is already first in bowl victories with a 3-1 record, and his State career winning percentage is best in over half-a-century.

*Five of Mullen’s last six SEC wins have been against Western Division rivals.

*Arkansas leads the series 15-8-1 and won 12 of 13 games from 1999-2011. Mullen’s last two teams have defeated the Razorbacks, including the overtime triumph last year in Little Rock which began the current win streak.

*The last home game, against Auburn, re-set the Davis Wade Stadium attendance record with 62,945 present. That was well over official capacity of 61,337.

The Opponent: A losing streak ordinarily grows more miserable each week. Arkansas is a different case. Because while no Razorback has enjoyed any of the last 16 SEC setbacks, they’ve kept inching—or yarding—a little closer to snapping it. The competitive scores, not the record, are why Brett Bielema’s bunch is a most dangerous matchup. Arkansas can score on anyone, the defense is solidly mid-pack, and their complementary approach keeps opponents anxious about making the most of every possession. On top of it all is the certainty that they are taking some SEC-body down this November.

Offense: Image is not everything. Sure, Arkansas prefers to pound the ground and has the personnel to do it with field-shaking size. But out of necessity forced by matching scores or playing catch-up the passing game is far, far advanced from 2013 frustrations. Brandon Allen has raised his completion rate by 10% with just four interceptions against 15 touchdowns…though all four picks and less than half the scores have come in conference games. He’s got a variety of productive targets for a change, too. Keon Hatcher (25 catches, 360 yards, 3 TD) and A.J. Derby (16, 248, 3) can keep some honest downfield coverage occupied, and allow tight end Hunter Henry (19, 253, 2) to slide off the line and out in the open where his 260 pounds are a major miss-match. It isn’t a great air attack but neither need it be, what with the double-trouble backfield of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins combining for over 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns already. This isn’t an approach offering many sack chances already; throw up a scale-crushing offensive front which mocks the ‘big’ label and no wonder Allen has gone down only nine times. It’s a veteran line too with returning starters at both tackles, a two-year letterman center in Mitch Smothers, and juco transfer Sebastian Tretola who apparently is the latest air-game option.

Defense: They welcome the scoring support to be sure. Where the Razorback offense aids their comrades on the other side most though is a league-leading time of possession, where even three-and-outs burn enough minutes to rest the defense nicely. It’s listed as a 4-3 base but Arkansas will put tackle Taiwan Johnson over the nose too, with 3.5 sacks out of his 15 tackles to show for the shift. In fact, while this is not a sack-heavy unit the bulk (literally) of baggings come from the front with 2.5 and two hurries by DT Darius Philon and 2.0 more off the end by senior Trey Flowers. Forget sacks anyway and look at all the tackles for losses, period, showing how Arkansas attacks the run routinely. Transfer Josh Williams has stepped in at middle linebacker, and senior Braylon Mitchell works the strong side. The one to watch though is Martrell Spaight off the weak side, with nearly as many tackles (72) as the next two-highest Hogs combined. Not surprisingly one of those is old hand safety Alan Turner (39) who had 97 stops as a junior. It says something that lots of his tackles have been taken this year by a better all-around unit. Senior Tevin Mitchell has one corner in good hands so opponents will try to pick on freshman Henre Toliver on the other side. Arkansas hasn’t come down with a lot of passes so far, just five. In fact they’ve only garnered ten turnovers total. But as long as the offense doesn’t lose the handle either it works out well in the long run.

Specialists: This is where things get sticky. Because with just one made field goal or for that matter a PAT, the SEC West is a very different place today. John Henson and Adam McFain have split the five total field goal attempts with three makes. If the name Sam Irwin-Hill sounds familiar it should, here in his fourth year in both Fayetteville and the USA from his Aussie home address. He’s just under 41 yards average on punts. D.J. Dean is netting 11 yards each returned punt, while K Marshall has taken one kickoff all the way back and is a threat to do so again.

Bulldog Team/Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls has started all 46 career games and leads this roster in starts. The career record is 52 by Gabe Jackson. OC Dillon Day is second in starts with 39, having missed a week with a one-game SEC suspension.

*Eulls, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 46 career games played.

*Only two true 2014-signed freshmen have played through seven games. P Logan Cooke was activated on short notice for the Texas A&M game by a warmup injury to P Devon Bell. WR/KR Jamoral Graham has played all season, primarily in punt return. But a handful of ’14 signee classmates are dressing for this weekend, most notably quarterbacks Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley (who made the Kentucky road roster) and linebackers J.T. Gray and Gerri Green for home games.

*2008 signee Rashun Dixon has played home games on special teams, and walk-on PK Westin Graves kicked on opening day as ‘true’ freshmen.

*Of the 17 touchdowns scored against State’s defense (no special teams), only four have been rushing.

*They are last in SEC passing defense in yardage. Yet this Dog defense surpassed last year’s 20 total sacks (13 games) in just six contests. They now have 27 sacks on the season.

*The 1A/1B defensive rotation works against any Dog piling up big tackle numbers. That’s proven by the SEC stats this week. MLB Benardrick McKinney leads this unit with 45 stops but that’s only 19th in all-season league standings, and 28th in SEC-only play.

*McKinney goes into November of his junior year with 218 career stops. Much of this year it was 50/50 between solos and assists, but now McKinney has 112 solos and 106 assists after getting to the ball first more often at Kentucky.

*A year ago McKinney won the tackles title by seven stops over Deontae Skinner. Look who is pushing the MLB now, but Skinner’s replacement. OLB Beniquez Brown has 38 tackles in his first starting season.

*Brown had 4.5 tackles for losses all last season; he has 5.5 through seven games 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; MLB Richie at LSU in an and-goal situation, and Beniquez against A&M.

*In the A&M game R.Brown showed a Dog doesn’t have to start to star. He tied a program record with three interceptions (most by a linebacker) and was SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.

*This past week DT Kaleb Eulls earned his first SEC award, Defensive Lineman of the Week with two sacks (15 yards) out of his five tackles.

*That’s still one DLOTW honor behind his teammate DE Preston Smith, who earned the SEC’s award all of the first three games; a MSU record for any OTW category.

*Senior Smith goes for quality over quantity in his stats. Of 25 tackles, 6.0 have gone for sacks (the team high). He also has nine hurries, two broken up passes and two more interceptions with one for a touchdown against UAB.

*And to strengthen his case for All-SEC, Smith has blocked two placekicks. The first, against USM, was returned by S Jay Hughes for a touchdown.

*As best can be known by available records, Hughes’ touchdown was the first ever by a Bulldog off a blocked field goal.

*And last week the special teams provided another special score. OLB Christian Holmes not only fielded Kentucky’s on-sides kickoff but returned it, 61 yards for touchdown. State did not get a kick play of any sort for six points in 2013, now this team has a pair of them albeit in most unusual fashion.

*’Turtle’ Holmes is a 1B ‘backer but is third in team tackles now, with 34. In his previous three seasons he had 40 total tackles.

*State’s leading tacklers in the month of October were McKinney, and 1B CB Will Redmond with 18 apiece.

*Redmond is one of four Dogs with two or more interceptions, along with Smith, R.Brown, and Hughes.

*After the highest-scoring six-game total (251 points) in school history, the Bulldog offense is a play away from breaking 300 for the season. They have 296 through seven games.There have been nine previous Bulldog teams score 300-plus points in a season. Five have played for Mullen.

*After having its record streak of 500-yard games snapped at five, the Bulldogs got back above the mark with 524 last weekend. The lowest output is 469 against Auburn.

*For the season as-whole, State trails Georgia in SEC scoring by a single point. But in league-only play these Bulldogs have set the pace, 41.2 to 38.6 by the East Division leaders.

*Here in the second half of the schedule, just recounting what QB Dak Prescott has achieved takes pages of notes. He did more in the first six games statistically than just about any of his predecessors in a full season, simply.

*Now his competition is beyond Bulldog borders as Prescott is positioned for Heisman Trophy consideration. And compared to the three SEC quarterbacks who took the trophy in 2007, 2010, and 2012, Prescott’s numbers are as good, close enough, or outright better.

*One edge Prescott has over those peers: he has wins over three ranked opponents at the time. The others had just two such T10 wins through seven games.

*Prescott did not play in last year’s Arkansas game, sidelined by injury. Off the bench in 2012 he rushed for one touchdown and was 2-of-2 passing.

*Prescott has rushed for 341 yards in four SEC games and averaged 4.1 per carry, though take away sacks and on called keepers he is good for more like five yards each time he runs.

*By one of the main measures for quarterbacking, Prescott literally scores big. He has accounted for ten rushing touchdowns, thrown for 15, and even caught a pass (South Alabama) for another. That latter doesn’t count towards NCAA scoring statistics or MSU TDs-responsible for, officially at least.

*For the full season Prescott is 5th in SEC rushing at 94.9 yards per game, and the top quarterback in this category.

*Though he’s had two ‘off’ games by percentage standards, Prescott’s passing still produces. He has thrown for 200-plus yards every week this season, and now has 12 such games in his career: a program record of course.

*In SEC season Prescott will throw for a touchdown every 19.5 passes; and once every 11.8 completions. Every caught ball in league games has netted over 14 yards.

*Now, for the career-records rundown. In just 30 games, 14 of them starts, Prescott has blown past the TDs-responsible mark (52, Don Smith 1983-86) with 56 now and counting. And again this does NOT include his three touchdown catches on throw-back plays these past two seasons.

*Current Bulldog fans are watching the most accurate passer in program history. Even after these past two weekends around 50%, Prescott is 59.4% for his three seasons (288-of-485). Until three weeks ago he’d gone over 60% in fact, and still has opportunity ahead to get back to that benchmark.

*Quickly counting the career standings: Prescott goes into November 4th in rushing touchdowns (27, record 42); 5th in offensive yards (5,526, 7,097); and 8th in passing (3,828, 6,336).

*And what counts most of all? Prescott is 11-3 as a starting quarterback.

*In his 14 starts so far, the first State offensive series has produced 9 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 a pretty decent ‘quarterback rating’.

*Lewis hasn’t thrown a ball since South Alabama though, missing two games with a leg bone injury. He returned to start at Kentucky and play in the fourth quarter as well, but without a reception. It was the first game since 2012 he did not catch a pass.

*After a five-TD junior year, Lewis has just one score this senior season; a 74-yard play at LSU.

*Lewis thus has been delayed in his run at 100 career catches. He has 96 balls in 44 games to rank 10th in MSU history. He has 1,397 career yards and needs 1,520 to catch Fred Hadley (1984-88) for 10th place there.

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

*But why throw the ball when RB Josh Robinson is having such a productive junior season? ‘JRob’ is averaging 126.7 yards in seven games, second-best in the SEC this week. But in league only games his 149.8 rate is easily first.

*Robinson has 887 rushing yards this season, more than his previous two years combined (794 in 25 games). In SEC games he’s run for 599 yards and seven of his ten touchdowns.

*Robinson has four 100-yard games, three in SEC action and he just missed another with 97 against Auburn. He was also one gimme away from his first 200-yard game with 198 at Kentucky.

*In the four SEC games, the Robinson/Prescott combo have accounted for 990 rushing yards. The rest of the club has provided 173 yards on the ground.

*WR De’Runnya Wilson was finally held without a SEC game touchdown, at Kentucky where he had just two catches and 30 yards. He’s still setting the squad pace with 20 balls for 349 yards and six touchdowns.

*Wilson nets 17.5 yards per catch all-season.

*The air game still did fine without a big day from Wilson. WR Fred Ross not only had a career-high five catches at Kentucky but nearly matched his output the first six games (6).

*It was a good day for Freds, as F.Brown had three catches and 37 yards.

*After going without a catch against A&M, in the last two games TE Malcolm Johnson has seven balls and 81 yards.

*Johnson now has 63 career catches. And he’s a big day away from a 1,000-yard career with 924 so far. Johnson has nine career touchdowns.

*Now M.Johnson is in a race with his namesake as WR Robert Johnson has 63 career catches too.

*Ten Bulldogs have caught a touchdown pass this season. The latest is TE Brandon Hill after his eight-yard snag in the Kentucky end zone. It was the senior’s first career touchdown.

*Next to find the goal line should be WR Gabe Myles. The soph receiver has caught 15 balls in place of Lewis over four games.

*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.

*Placekicking remains an adventure, though the Dogs did get one through by PK Evan Sobiesk from 26 yards at Kentucky. A 42-yard try was given Cooke and he sailed it to the left, making MSU 4-of-7 on the season. Though, Arkansas is actually behind MSU in made field goals with just three.

*Bell bounced back from his injury to average 49 yards on four kicks at Kentucky, raising his season rate to 44.2 yards. Cooke is no slouch himself at 41.9 yards when Bell was out.

*Cooke took care of kickoffs in Lexington and has 10 touchbacks on 23 tries. Bell is 11 touchbacks in 28 kicks. Both have had sent several more kickoffs half-deep into the end zone that were returned.

*Which is not smart because the Bulldogs lead the SEC in kickoff coverage. The longest return so far is 36 yards, but the average is only 17.7.


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