Bulldog Football 2014: Game Nine

Mississippi State (8-0, 5-0 SEC) hosts the final non-conference game of this regular season with 3:01 kickoff against UT-Martin (5-5, 4-3 OVC). Pregame radio begins live from the Junction at noon with J.T. Williamson and guests; and the full MSU Network joining at 1:00 with Matt Wyatt and Bart Gregory.

*It likely won't surprise any to be reminded, Mississippi State has never been 9-0. The best nine-game mark was 8-0-1 by the 1940 team.

*This is the 76th edition of Homecoming at Mississippi State, a tradition begun in 1937. Bulldog teams since then are 51-21-3 in these games, and have won the last four; seven of the last eight. The most recent loss was Houston in 2009.

*UT-Martin served as Homecoming guest in 2011 with State winning 55-17. That was the first meeting of the programs. MSU is 5-0 against three current members of the Ohio Valley Conference with two wins against both Jacksonville State and Murray State. MSU teams have out-scored these visiting teams 248-39.

*Mississippi State has won seven-straight games against non-SEC programs, including a bowl victory. For his six seasons Coach Dan Mullen is 23-4 in non-conference games, 3-1 of that in bowl play.

*And all four of the losses outside league play were to ranked opponents, as Mullen has not lost to an unranked non-SEC team. His teams have not lost a home non-conference game since October 2009.

*Mississippi State remains #1 in both of the national polls for the fourth-straight week, in the program’s first-ever appearance at the top in any polling. They also are #1 again in the second release of the College Football Playoff committee rankings. State was first in the inaugural CFP release.

*Playing as the #1 ranked team for the school’s first time ever, these Bulldogs are 2-0 with wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. This extended the program’s overall winning streak to eleven games, dating back to last November against Arkansas. It is the second-longest win streak ever at Mississippi State, behind only the 1942-44 teams (there was no club in 1943) which took 13-straight.

*Seven of these eleven wins are SEC victories, the second-longest run so far at State. Those 1942-44 teams and the 1998-99 teams won eight-straight league games in the regular season(s). The ’98 squad did lose to Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game.

*This is just the second 5-0 SEC start to a single season ever at State, matching the 1999 club.

*Per MSU Media Relations, State’s six wins this year over an opponent either .500 or better is the most in the country so far.

*Only six previous Mississippi State teams won nine or more games: 10 in 1940 and 1999; 9 in 1974, 1976, and 2010.

*State is now 6-3 all-time playing with a top-ten ranking. Coach Dan Mullen’s teams are 13-8 playing with any sort of ranking.

*Mullen is the third Bulldog coach to win 40 games and is 44-28 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.

*Six of Mullen’s last seven SEC wins have been against Western Division rivals.

The Opponent: What looked like a season skidded out of control has gotten back on a more impressive track. The Skyhawks have recovered from a 1-5 start to win four-straight, the last two in lopsided style, and while they won’t the OVC they ought finish well. They have the league’s longest-tenured coach too, as one-time Bulldog football/baseball rosterman Jason Simpson is in his ninth season with a 57-44 record. And if UTM has been booked for the obligatory Homecoming romp their approach on both sides of the ball should give Mississippi State a much better tune-up for the league stretch run than many other non-conference matchups.

Offense: No, he isn’t their regular starter. Still it’s impossible not to focus on former Bulldog quarterback Dylan Favre as he gets to play again on Scott Field…which he last did in 2011. Favre has thrown four scores and 59% this season with three picks as well. The main man is still junior Jarod Neal, with impressive 66% completions and 13 scores against six interceptions. He’s not a gunslinger but does add a called-keeper element with four rushing scores. That reflects defensive focus though on RB Abou Toure, a 230-pound pounder netting nearly six yards per rush and rarely brought down for loss. He scored three of his eight touchdowns last week against Murray State to earn OVC player of the week. Trent Garland changes the pace with a 6.2-per-rush rate and three scores. Unlike most MSU opponents the Skyhawks will play with a fullback at times since play-calling tilts towards the ground game. Usually. A SEC defense will likely adjust that gameplan. And there are productive targets downfield out of two- or three-wide sets. The top receivers are transfers, too, finding success at the lower level. Kyle Kerrick (Michigan State) leads with 33 balls for three scores, and William Tanner (Kentucky) has 30 more for four touchdowns and a 13.9 yard average. The line isn’t huge yet does bring respectable size and more to the point experience; four of the projected starters are seniors, led by all-American left tackle Charles Sweeton, a 44-game starter. All-OVC candidate Matt Axline who began the year at center before taking over left guard. The main UTM issue this season has been turnovers, with ten fumbles (of 18) lost and ten interceptions.

Defense: Talk about getting hot…if you can’t stop the other team normally then score on them yourself. The Skyhawk defense has done just that lately, notching two touchdowns in last week’s win and four for the season on interceptions and fumbles. And if UTM isn’t shutting folk out they have diminished the damage by not allowing 17 or more points for three-straight wins. The base set is a bit unorthodox, a 3-3-3 if you will which not surprisingly emphasizes speed over strength. Though, there is some size over the ball with 300-pound nose tackle Keith Jones who actually has an interception. Ends Ryan Isom and Deante Glover make things happen and Glover has three sacks with eight more hurries. It’s the linebackers piling up the numbers though, and the top tackler doesn’t even start. Senior Devontay Barrett, a Jones JC product, has 65 stops and three sacks as an alternate. Starter Tony Bell is the all-star with 5.5 sacks, a pick and three fumble recoveries. Marquis Clemons is officially another linebacker; at 175 pounds he’s realistically a fourth safety and an active one with 54 tackles; while listed S Walter Evans has 55 and a couple of picks. Jordan Landry has one corner well-covered with nine break-ups, big numbers for a 165-pounder. It’s an aggressive unit as a whole with 40 credited hurries and 20 official sacks. But that aggressiveness is also a way to get burned by big plays from bigger boys.

Specialists: UTM proclaims their specialists among the OVC’s best and with some reason. Punter James Satterfield was all-league two years ago and averages 40.8 yards now. Jackson Redditt is 8-of-10 on field goals with a 52-yarder to his account, though one was blocked. He hasn’t missed a PAT in three seasons. Eight Skyhawks have taken a turn fielding kickoffs so stay-tuned tomorrow. Punt return is settled with wideout Tanner.

Bulldog Team/Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls has started all 47 career games and leads this roster in starts. The career record is 52 by Gabe Jackson. OC Dillon Day is second in starts with 40.

*Eulls, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 47 career games played.

*Three true 2014-signed freshmen have now played. LB J.T. Gray is the latest activation, working on kick coverage against Arkansas. He also earned squad special teams player of the week with three total tackles on his four plays in the college debut. K Logan Cooke is handling kickoffs and has punted, and WR/Jamoral Graham has fielded punts.

*The Bulldog defense has allowed just five rushing touchdowns in eight games. Two offensive Dogs have twice that many running scores or more.

*After recording just 20 sacks last season, this Dog defense has 29 sacks. Throw in other stops behind the line of scrimmage and State is 2nd nationally this week for tackles-for-losses.

*Opposing offenses have reached the MSU red zone 28 times this season. Only nine of these trips have resulted in touchdowns; seven more in field goals. The rest have produced no points including three SEC goal-line stands (LSU, A&M, Arkansas). This gives State a 57% efficiency in red zone defense which leads the NCAA standings.

*Also, the Bulldogs are 12th this week in NCAA three-play series.

*Meanwhile State’s offense has 37 red-zone chances, with 26 touchdowns and five field goals.

*But the Bulldogs have scored 14 touchdowns on plays beginning from beyond the 20-yard line. And that does not include six-pointers produced by special teams.

*State has trailed a total of 48:44 this season…but over 41 minutes of that came in the Arkansas game alone.

*With a 1A/1B defensive rotation it’s difficult for any Dog to collect big tackle totals. MLB Benardrick McKinney leads the squad with 50 stops. McKinney had 71 tackles all last season, and his career total is now 223.

*In his first season as starter OLB Beniquez Brown is second in tackles at 44. Add in OLB Matt Wells and the starting trio have between them 17.5 tackles for losses and 7.5 sacks.

*McKinney is also tops in coming up with fumbles, recovering three of the team’s total six.

*And look who is pushing the starters in the tackles race. Senior OLB Christian ‘Turtle’ Holmes is in a three-way tie for third place with 37 stops, despite not even being the first 1B rotation guy much of the season. Holmes has nearly as many tackles this season as in his previous three years, 40.

*And Holmes has the distinction of a return touchdown, despite playing up front on the return team. He fielded Kentucky’s on-sides attempt and ran it all the way back, 61 yards.

*State’s other kicking-play touchdown wasn’t by a specific special teamer. When DE Preston Smith blocked a Southern Mississippi field goal, S Jay Hughes scooped and scored on a 68-yard return. It appears to be the first-ever Bulldog touchdown on a blocked placekick.

*DE Smith made MSU history when he was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for all three non-conference games to begin the schedule, in consecutive weekends. A couple of Dogs have won league OTW honors four times in a season but never in-order more than twice.

*Smith not only blocked that kick for a teammate’s six, but scored himself on an interception against UAB. He also blocked a placekick at South Alabama.

*Senior Smith has not had many ‘huge’ plays since September but has been good and consistent. Of his 30 tackles, 9.5 have gone for losses with a team-best 6.0 sacks. He also leads the list with 12 hurries.

*CB Will Redmond is tied for the team interceptions lead with three. But two of his picks were game-clinchers. He caught the last pass thrown by both Louisiana State at the goal line; then by Arkansas in the end zone.

*Redmond now is up to fifth in tackles, too despite not being in the starting cornerback rotation.

*MLB Richie Brown has three interceptions as well. All came in a single game, when Brown tied the program record by picking off three Texas A&M passes. He was SEC Defensive Player of the Week for the feat.

*These Bulldogs are on a record scoring pace, with 313 points of all sorts through eight games. They are the eleventh MSU team to score 300 or more points, with all of Mullen’s six teams reaching the benchmark.

*Rather than run through allllllll the amazing numbers QB Dak Prescott has accumulated just this season, settle for this. He has produced more yardage, running and throwing and even receiving, in eight games than all but a handful of predecessors did in complete campaigns.

*OK, here’s a few anyway. His 2,750 yards are fourth-most in any State season, though 19 yards behind his own 2013 total. But he is only 142 yards behind Tyler Russell’s 2012 record of 2,892 yards. Meaning if Prescott plays more than a quarter tomorrow, the record is his.

*Prescott’s 16 touchdowns this year, running and throwing (sorry, his TD catch isn’t officially counted in this category), trail only the 24 by Russell that same season.

*The 61.1% completions rate this season will be a record if it holds up. Chris Relf holds the mark at 60.0% in 2011.

*Now, for the career-records rundown. In just 31 games, 15 of them starts, Prescott has blown past the TDs-responsible mark (52, Don Smith 1983-86) with 57 now and counting. And again this does NOT include his three touchdown catches on throw-back plays these past two seasons.

*Quickly counting the career standings: Prescott goes into tomorrow tied for 3rd in rushing touchdowns (27, record 42); 4th in offensive yards (5,918, 7,097); 6th in touchdown passes (30, 42); and 8th in passing (4,159, 6,336).

*And what counts most of all? Prescott is 12-3 as a starting quarterback.

*Watch out, here comes the Bowling Ball. If given enough chances, RB Josh Robinson will become the ninth Bulldog to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, which has been done 11 times. The junior has 951 through eight games.

*JRob’s per-game rate is second-best in program history at 118.9, behind only Boobie Dixon’s 126.5 in 2009.

*Robinson has 11 rushing touchdowns already, and needs one more to tie for top-ten status. The season record was set by Vick Ballard in 2010 with 19.

*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 1,115 rushing yards. The rest of the club has provided 180 yards on the ground.

*Robinson has scored a rushing touchdown in seven-straight games.

*And while he was held to just 64 rushing yards last week, Robinson turned receiver and got a career-best six catches for 110 yards.

*WR De’Runnya Wilson’s receiving pace has slowed with just two catches in each of the last two games, for 48 total yards. But he’s still setting the squad pace with 22 catches and 367 yards. All of last season Wilson had 351 yards.

*Wilson nets 16.7 yards per catch all-season.

*Defensive focus on Wilson has opened up room and routes for the team’s two Freds. WR Fred Ross had the big play and day against Arkansas with a 69-yard touchdown play. He finished with 107 receiving yards, first Dog wideout to break the century this season but still a bit behind Robinson’s output that same game.

*Ross is playing out of the H-slot position with WR Jameon Lewis hurting. That has allowed Ross to grab nine balls the last two games for 158 yards.

*And WR Fred Brown has stepped it up as well from a split end spot, with four catches and 68 yards the past two wins.

*Senior Lewis missed two whole games after injuring the right leg against LSU, after a 74-yard touchdown play. He caught no balls against Kentucky and had just one catch, for two yards, against Arkansas in a limited appearance.

*TE Malcolm Johnson had his receiving streak snapped by A&M. But in the three games since he has nine catches and 123 yards.

*M.Johnson now has 65 career catches and 966 yards, with nine touchdowns. He’s staying ahead in the catch-count of WR Robert Johnson with 63 balls and 758 yards, three touchdowns.

*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.

*All three of Prescott’s touchdown catches were thrown by 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’.

*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.

*When PK Evan Sobiesk knocked through the 37-yard field goal against Arkansas to tie things up, it was the longest three-pointer for State since the 2013 South Carolina game. That was a 38-yarder, also by Sobiesk.

*State has not had a 40-yard field goal made since P Devon Bell hit from that exact distance in the 2013 opener against Oklahoma State. All seven attempts from that range or longer in the 20 games since, by four kickers, have missed.

*But keeping it closer, Sobiesk is 5-of-6 this season.

*Bell has bounced back from October injury to punt superbly. He’s averaging 43.9 yards on 31 kicks with seven of 50 or more yards.

*KO Logan Cooke has taken over kicking it off and averaged 63 yards even, a bit less than Bell; but the Bulldogs like for opponents to try returns. Because such attempts have netted under 18 yards and generally resulted in poorer starting position than taking the touchback at the 25-yard line.

*It’s not long before post-season honors are handed out. On the national front, Prescott is among the 16 semifinalists for the O’Brien Award, and one of the front-runners already for the Heisman Trophy which does not announce any but the finalists for their December presentation. McKinney is a semifinalist for the, Butkus, Bednarik, and Lombardi awards and is a nominee for the Nagurski Trophy.

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