Bulldog Football 2014: Game Ten

#1 Mississippi State (9-0, 5-0 SEC) travels to #3/4 Alabama (8-1, 5-1) with the Western Division lead at stake. Game time in Bryant-Denny Stadium is 2:30 for CBS telecast, with MSU Network Radio airing at 12:30.

*Mississippi State is ranked first in both national polls for a fifth-straight week, in this the program’s first-ever appearance as #1. The Bulldogs are also first, for a third week, in the College Football Playoff committee rankings. State was #1 in the CFP’s inaugural release, sure to be a future football trivia question.

*Playing as the #1-ranked team, these Bulldogs are 3-0 so far with a pair of SEC victories.

*State has played Alabama five times when the Crimson Tide was ranked #1 (polls or BCS), including both 2012 and 2013; with the lone Bulldog win coming in 1980. This obviously is the first time the Bulldogs have carried the #1 ranking into the matchup.

*Mississippi State is off to the first 9-0 start in the 115-season history of the program.

*Going back to last November, State is on a 12-game win streak; second-longest ever and best in seven decades. The 1942 and ’44 teams (there was no 1943 team) combined to win 13 games only to have the streak ended…at Alabama.

*This is just the second 5-0 SEC start, along with 1999. That streak ended…at Alabama.

*Also, the 1998-99 teams combined to win eight-straight, regular-season SEC games, though the ’98 team did lose to Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. State has a seven-win SEC streak going into Saturday…at Alabama.

*This is just the seventh Bulldog team to win nine or more games. The 1940 and ’99 teams won ten games, the 1974, ’76, and 2010 teams won nine.

*State is now 7-3 all-time playing with a top-ten ranking. Coach Dan Mullen’s teams are 14-8 playing with any sort of ranking.

*Mullen is the third Bulldog coach to win 40 games and is 45-28 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. Alabama is the last West opponent Mullen has not defeated at State.

*Alabama has a 77-18-3 score in the series, with six-straight wins. The Bulldogs last won in 2007, in Starkville; and in 2006 got their last win in Tuscaloosa.

*Mississippi State is 4-9 when ranked and playing Alabama.

The Opponent: Maybe the first half of the schedule didn’t play-out completely as planned. And life on the road proved more problematic than anyone expected; where not coincidentally the best defenses faced to-date awaited. Forget all that now. Nick Saban's crew survived with just one scar which won’t matter if the second-half surge continues. The offense has adjusted as needed, and the schedule stays home for the stretch run. True, there are bumps and lumps left from the annual brawl with LSU. But if any SEC squad can bounce back from physical tests, this is them. And early indications are those dinged at Baton Rouge ought to be back by kickoff Saturday. There’s a championship at stake, after all.

Offense: He gets credit for everything else. What isn’t so appreciated about Saban’s operation is adaptability on offense. Oh sure they have the permanent foundation of hard-headed ground games. This year though the emphasis is, well, adapted. Maybe not so much in plan as production, since Alabama is only 7th in SEC passes thrown but 3rd in yardage and 2nd in scores. And why not? It plays to the obvious fast-strike prowess of Armari Cooper (79 receptions, 1,215 yards, 10 TDs) who hurts defenses before, during, and especially after catches. Nor can Cooper be doubled-up too often. DeAndrew White’s 26 balls and 279 yards don’t reflect his value as a coverage-stretcher, while Christion Jones (14, 192) demands attention from the slot. There might not be a more unexpected success story this SEC season than what fifth-year senior Blake Sims has done his first and only season starting. All he did was begin the year with 24 completions against West Virginia, and get better from there. While maybe not the typical ‘manager’ the program employs, Sims adds a little creativity to the air game without risk; he’s only thrown to the wrong team three times in 245 passes, with 17 touchdowns. The Tide survived a stunning late (regulation) game fumble by T.J. Yeldon (686 yards, 5 TDs) and could worry more about the ankle sprained in the process. He’s predicted to play, but Alabama isn’t lacking alternatives with Derrick Henry (554 yards, 5 TDs) and others available. The blocking ability which has rolled through BDS the last half-decade boggles even veteran SEC minds. While injuries leave a few questions this week, such as LT Cam Robinson’s ankle or the status at center, this group just gets the job done without fuss nor much mussing of Sims.

Defense: Statistics are a to-taste sort of thing, but here are two categories that summarize the situation…especially in this week’s matchup. In SEC action. Alabama has allowed the fewest first downs; and is most efficient stopping the run, allowing only 3.0 yards each attempt against league opponents. Nope, going to the air isn’t the answer with the SEC’s best pass defense rating too. With all the mobility and perimeter support the best—if that’s the word for it—avenue of attack may be straight ahead. Never mind that means moving 320-pound nose guard A’Shawn Robinson and 315-pound end Jarran Reed. For that matter the Tide interior is a fine line of pass defense with bunches of deflections. Coming off the other end Jonathan Allen has 3.5 sacks and five more stops for losses. The sack-master though is Zxavier Dickson, the 268-pound senior who attacks from any angle and has bagged seven passers so far. LB Will Ragland leads the club in tackles with 69 working the weak-side. Trey DePriest (50) runs the show from the middle with steady support from strong safety Landon Collins (61) who is no slouch in route-covering either and has two of the team’s six picks. Junior Cyrus Jones has one with six breakups; the other corner is covered by either freshman Tony Brown or soph Eddie Jackson. This is not exactly the same sort of Alabama defense in one respect: they haven’t forced many turnovers, just eleven in SEC play. And league teams which do reach the red zone can score. The trick is just getting there in the first place. Oh, and just for good measure, the defense is backed by the SEC’s most efficient punting squad.

Specialists: A squad netting 47.3 yards to be specific, with just 51 return yards on 33 chances (SEC only). J.K. Scott hits his punts at a 47.1 clip himself, with Christion Jones on the verge of bringing one back in both return duties. He’s had a few misses but soph Adam Griffith hit the one that counted most last week and has shown 47-yard range so far.

Bulldog Team/Player Notes: DT Kaleb Eulls has started all 48 career games and leads this roster in starts. The career record is 52 by Gabe Jackson. OC Dillon Day is second in starts with 41.

*Eulls, LB Christian Holmes, and LB Matthew Wells are all tied with 48 career games played.

*Three true 2014-signed freshmen have now played, with LB/ST J.T. Gray activated for the Arkansas game. K Logan Cooke is handling kickoffs and has punted, and WR/Jamoral Graham has fielded punts.

*After scoring just 20 sacks in 13 games last season, pressuring passers was a ’14 priority. It’s showing as the Dog defense has 32 sacks in nine games and 65 total stops for losses.

*Opponent have reached the MSU red zone 31 times this season, with just ten touchdowns to show for it and eight field goals.

*The Bulldogs have made three successful three goal-line stands in SEC season, with fourth-down stops against LSU, Texas A&M, and Arkansas.

*Meanwhile State’s offense has 39 red-zone chances, with 27 touchdowns and six field goals.

*But the Bulldogs have scored 19 touchdowns on plays beginning from beyond the 20-yard line. And that does not include six-pointers produced by special teams.

*State has trailed less than 49 minutes this season…but over 41 minutes of that came in the Arkansas game alone.

*Doing defensive rotation reduces tackle opportunities. Still MLB Benardrick McKinney leads the squad with 55 stops and has 228 career. They’re almost exactly split, too, with 115 solos and 113 assists.

*But the junior can’t relax as sophomore OLB Beniquez Brown is right behind at 47 tackles. This pair has combined for 12.0 tackles for losses and 5.0 sacks as starters.

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

*But look who is pushing the 1A linebackers. Senior OLB Christian ‘Turtle’ Holmes has crept into third place with 46 tackles, after nabbing nine stops against Tennessee-Martin. Holmes now has more tackles this season than his previous three years combined (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 14 hurries.

*CB Will Redmond sat out UTM with a one-game suspension. He still leads the team with three interceptions, and two of those picks were SEC-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 fifth in tackles, too despite not playing last Saturday and being third 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 358 points of all sorts through nine games. They are the eleventh MSU team to score 300 or more points, with all of Mullen’s six teams reaching the benchmark. The season record is 426 points by the 2013 team.

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

*Prescott just became the first Bulldog ever to account for over 3,000 yards total offense in a season. He now has 3,010, and 4,000 seems a reasonable objective before the schedule plays out.

*He also has the season mark now in TDs-responsible-for at 29, blowing past the ’12 mark by former teammate Tyler Russell of 26. Note, this counts only his 11 rushing scores and 18 passing and not the touchdown caught at South Alabama. The NCAA should revise this category for such things, obviously.

*Prescott’s 2,231 passing yards this season are fifth-most ever by a Bulldog quarterback, just ten yards out of fourth place. Russell holds the record at 2,897. And the 18 TDs thrown this year is second-most, behind Russell’s 24 two years ago.

*Prescott has the most 200-yard passing games in any MSU season, with nine.

*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 32 games, half of them starts, Prescott has blown past the TDs-responsible mark (52, Don Smith 1983-86) with 60 and counting. And again this does NOT include his three touchdown catches on throw-back plays these two seasons.

*Quickly counting the career standings: Prescott goes into tomorrow 3rd in rushing touchdowns (28, record 42); 4th in offensive yards (6,117, 7,097); 5th in touchdown passes (32, 42); and 7th in passing (4,365, 6,336).

*And what counts most of all? Prescott is 13-3 as a starting quarterback.

*The other Bulldog in the backfield is also in his first season as full-time starter. And RB Josh Robinson is on a record-setting run of his own, too. Though he was limited in touches during last week’s non-conference scrimmage with UTM, which kept him still short of the 1,000 Yard Club. ‘Bowling Ball’ now has 984 yards, the 12th-best rushing season by a Bulldog so far.

*Robinson will become the ninth Bulldog to break the 1K Mark, which has been done 11 times before.

*But JRob’s 6.7-yard average blows away any of his predecessors. The closest is 6.2 by Vick Ballard in 2011.

*Only four Bulldogs have averaged over 100 yards in a season; Robinson can become the fifth as he’s knocking out 109 per game this year.

*Robinson has 11 rushing touchdowns already, and needs one more to tie for top-ten status; which is tied with Prescott. The season record was set by 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 five 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.

*WR De’Runnya Wilson’s receiving pace has slowed with increased defensive attention, and limited snaps last week too. He had just two catches in both the prior SEC games and none against UTM. 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 back Robinson’s output that same game.

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

*And WR Fred Brown has stepped it up as well from a split end spot, with six catches and 89 yards the past three 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. Lewis was held out of UTM entirely as precaution.

*TE Malcolm Johnson had his receiving streak snapped by A&M. But in the four games since he has 12 catches and 153 yards.

*M.Johnson is just short of 1,000 receiving yards. His 68 catches in four seasons have netted 996 yards, with nine touchdowns. He’s staying ahead in the catch-count of WR Robert Johnson with 65 balls and 789 yards, three touchdowns.

*Eleven Bulldogs have caught a touchdown pass this season. The latest went to freshman WR Graham, on a 44-yard throw from QB Damian Williams.

*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 calculate out to a lofty ‘quarterback rating’.

*OL Ben Beckwith has started at three interior line positions this senior season. His main job is right guard with seven starts; and when C Day was suspended for the A&M game he did all the snapping. Last week with OL Justin Malone held out, Beckwith started at left guard.

*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.

*Soph Devon Desper has the other two RG starts.

*Blaine Clausell and Justin Senior are the only Dogs with nine-straight starts in the same spots, left and right tackles respectively.

*PK Evan Sobiesk has made his last four field goal tries, including a 37-yarder to tie up the tense Arkansas game. His career-long is 38 yards at South Carolina last season. Sobiesk is 6-of-7 on the year; the other two placekickers have missed their only tries, from 40 and 42 yards respectively.

*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.

*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 62.7, a bit less than Bell; but the Bulldogs like for opponents to try returns. Because such attempts have netted barely 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 this week was named a finalist for the Unitas Award. He was already a semifinalist for the O’Brien and Maxwell, and of course is one of the top two most-discussed for the Heisman Trophy.

*McKinney is a semifinalist now for the Butkus and Bednarik awards and on watch lists still for the Nagurski and Lombardi.

*Robinson has jumped onto the Walker Award watch list, too. And M.Johnson made the Mackey Award mid-season watch list.

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