Plenty at stake for Dogs on Auburn Plains

Suddenly, there's enormous interest, if not increased stakes riding on the Auburn-Mississippi State Southeastern Conference game Saturday on the Plains.<P> Aside from Auburn having a chance to increase its division lead, Mississippi State has an opportunity to make one of the biggest jumps in league play in several seasons with a win at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.

Mississippi State (2-4, 1-1 SEC) could vault into a near tie for first place in the SEC West this weekend, depending upon the outcome in other league games.

Of course, winning on the Plains against a "Front Seven" that may be the best in college football could be tougher than going up against the original "Magnificent Seven" of movie stardom a couple of years ago.

How MSU quarterback Kevin Fant and crew mates Jerious Norwood (TB), Nick Turner (TB), Justin Jenkins (SE), Ray Ray Bivines (FL) and Aaron Lumpkin (TE) fare against the "Front Seven" of the Tigers could determine who prevails in the SEC West marquee match.

However, the Maroon and White has won four of the last six against Auburn, but has dropped the last two, a 16-14 squeaker two years ago on the Plains and a 42-14 blowout last year in Starkville in an SEC contest aired by ESPN. Some suspect Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville may have been trying to run up the score when the aptly described "Mississippi Gambler" faked a field goal and threw a pass late in the contest long after the issue had been decided.

Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill said the Bulldogs will be facing a much "different football team" than the Auburn of the first two weeks of the season when they suffered back-to-back setbacks to Southern Cal and Georgia Tech.

No. 19 Auburn (4-2, 3-0 SEC) has sizzled the past two games against nationally-ranked Tennessee and Arkansas, knocking off the Vols 28-21 and the Hogs 10-3 in a pair of swashbuckling encounters.

Revitalized themselves following back-to-back victories the past two weeks, including an SEC triumph, the Bulldogs have parlayed a little pop in their offensive attack from the onset, while, despite giving up a lot of yards, the defense seems to be picking up the tempo. There's been more forced fumbles, passes broken up, interceptions, sacks and tackles for a loss the past two weekends.

Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill said the Bulldogs have no doubt gotten better in certain areas.

"We've definitely improved in the return game," said Sherrill, following the Bulldogs' 35-27 win over Memphis this past Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field.

The "Dean of the SEC Coaches" was speaking specifically about Fred Reid's electrifying 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, bringing about a big swing in momentum.

"Fred made a great play," said Sherrill. "We've definitely improved in the return game."

He was also referring to the kicking game. Senior punter Robert Wallis, of Columbus, Miss., averaged over 47 yards a kick against the Tigers with a long kick of 55 yards.

Just the week before, senior placekicker Brent Smith was perfect with his toe, drilling 3-of-3 field goal attempts in Mississippi State's 30-21 SEC win over Vanderbilt, earning the Byhalia, Miss., product via Northwest Community College, "SEC Special Teams Player of the Week" honors.

Mississippi State will face the current "SEC Offensive Player of the Week" recipient in Auburn's Carnell "Cadillac" Williams on The Plains. One of three outstanding running backs for the Tigers, Williams is second in the league in rushing with 552 yards on 123 carries for a 4.5 average.

Auburn's Ronnie Brown has picked up 230 yards on 53 attempts for a 5.1 average.

The Bulldogs have a "one-two-three" punch to counter in sophomores Nick Turner (72 att., 441 yds., 6 TDs), Jerious Norwood (72 atts., 337 yds., 1 TD) and junior Fred Reid (16 att., 86 yds., 1 TD) as they bid to go 2-1 in conference play for the first time since the 2000 campaign.

Turner has a 6.1 ypc average, second-best in the SEC behind Cedric Cobbs of Arkansas with 6.2 average. Norwood, who has started the last two games at tailback, has a 4.7 average.

In limited time in the backfield, Reid has a 5.4 average. He's helped the Dogs ride atop a lofty perch in the conference in kickoff returns where they rank No. 2 (26.3 ypr) to (26.4) by the leader LSU.

Auburn enjoys an edge in total defense, ranking fourth in the league and ninth in the NCAA, giving up an average of 275 yards per game while the Dogs are last in total defense.

Interestingly, Mississippi State is fifth in the league in total offense. The Dogs have 2390 yards on 420 attempts for an average of 398.3 yards per game.

MSU has been at the bottom or near the bottom of the conference in total defense most of the campaign, yielding 2848 yards, an average of 474.6 yards a game.

If the Dogs continue to improve on defense, under Ron Cooper, Jim Tompkins, John Blake, and Curley Hallman, enough to slow down the "Cadillac" and the Auburn ground game; and the offense, under Morris Watts, Glenn Davis, Steve Campbell, Guy Holliday, and Terry Lewis, keeps lighting up the scoreboard, then there's ample hope for the Maroon and White.

Jenkins, who leads the SEC in several statistical categories, has a league-best 40 catches for 618 yards and six touchdowns. He's averaging an SEC-best 6.7 catches per game and 103 yards a game on receptions.

Junior Ray Ray Bivines (20 catches for 268 yards, 3.3 receptions per game) slowed by an injury in the Vanderbilt contest, was back at his game Saturday against Memphis, making a 35-yard acrobatic catch to set up a five-yard TD run by Fant.

Auburn's top receivers, in comparison, are Jeris McIntyre with 18 catches for 310 yards and two TDs, and Courtney Taylor with 18 receptions for 170 yards and no scores.

Mississippi State is third in the SEC in passing offense (259.8 ypg) while Auburn is ninth with 188.7 ypg. But the Dogs are 11th in pass defense (318.7 ypg) while Auburn is 4th (184 ypg).

Auburn's "Front Seven" - Reggie Tabor (RE), DeMarco McNeil (NG), Spencer Johnson (DT), Doug Langenfeld (LE) and linebackers Karlos Dansby, preseason all-American, Dontarrious Thomas and Travis Williams - makes it tough on all comers.

"Probably, they're the most talented 'Front Seven' in college football," said Sherrill, 7-6 lifetime against Auburn and all even at 4-4 against Tuberville.

MSU's Fant, second in the SEC in total offense with 247.5 ypg, will have to find a productive way to attack the Tigers defense. In the QB comparison, Fant has the edge with junior Jason Campbell, younger brother of former MSU standout Larry Campbell.

Mississippi State's defensive alignment with Tommy Kelly (DE), Lennie Day (DT), Ronald Fields (DT) and Deljuan Robinson (DE) joined by Kamau Jackson (DT) and Willie Evans (DE), both recovering from injuries, have played better and better.

The linebackers include senior Jason Clark, senior T. J. Mawhinney and sophomore Marvin Byrdsong and the DB's are Odell Bradley, Kevin Dockery, Darren Williams, Quinton Culberson, Jermaine Johnson, Eric Fuller and Slovakia Griffith.

Bidding to win their third straight for the first time in three seasons, the Bulldogs are sixth in the SEC in scoring (28 ppg) to 12th for Auburn (22.3 ppg).

On going to Auburn to face Tuberville's Tigers, Sherrill said every team in this league has an advantage playing at home, but Auburn has a lot of loud and vocal fans.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at

Gene's Page Top Stories