Bulldogs bid to 'rock' No. 9 UT Vols

One by one, the games and the season, slowly slip away as Mississippi State looks for a breakthrough down the stretch run in a bid to stop an extended skid.<P> The Bulldogs head to "Rocky Top" this week for an SEC duel against Tennesse at Neyland Stadium. Now ranked in the top 10 in the country and vying for a BCS slot, the No. 9-ranked and high-flying Volunteers are heavy favorites.

For the Dogs the league stop at Tennessee will be the largest crowd they have played before this season, in excess of 100,000 fans. They've played well there before which could be a positive for the weary Maroon & White which has not won on the road this season.

Mississippi State nearly pulled off a "big" win at Knoxville in 1991 led by quarterback William "Sleepy" Robinson, Kenny Roberts (RB), Michael Davis (RB) and Willie Harris (WR) before dropping a tough, 26-24, decision that could have gone either way with a little luck. The Dogs, led by quarterback Derrick Taite, Eric Moulds (WR), and Kendall Watkins (TE) defeated the Volunteers, quarterbacked by Peyton Manning, 24-21, in 1994 in Starkville.

The Bulldogs also met Tennessee in the 1998 Southeastern Conference Championship game at the Georgia Dome and led the Vols into the fourth quarter sparked by quarterback Wayne Madkin, J.J. Johnson (RB), Kevin Prentiss (WR-KR) and Robert Bean (DB) before falling 24-14.

For the second week in a row Mississippi State will play on television with Jefferson Pilot Sports carrying the game at Knoxville, Tenn. Kickoff is set for 11:33 a.m.

Mississippi State hasn't played well since the "Dean of the SEC Coaches" Jackie Sherrill announced he was retiring at the end of the regular season. Everyone throughout the ranks of the Maroon & White would love to see that aspect change down the stretch.

Sherrill says there's still a lot of pride and there are still guys that are fighting to turn things around, but has indicated it'll be tough tackling Tennessee.

"The play of Tennessee last week against Miami of Florida was very impressive," he said as the Dogs prepare to travel to Knoxville this weekend, where MSU played in Sherrill's first season at the helm of the Bulldogs in '91, a 7-4 season that landed the Dogs a berth in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn.

Sherrill pointed out that none of the current Mississippi State players have made the trip to Tennessee to play the Vols, a 10-6 upset winner of then No. 6 Miami in their last outing over the weekend.

Tennessee was a 12-point underdog at Miami, riding a 26-game home win streak, but instead the "Big Orange" knocked off the 'Canes, causing all sorts of ripples.

"They really dominated the line of scrimmage and they were able to hold Miami from scoring (a touchdown)," noted Sherrill. "They really looked very quick on both sides of the football."

But Sherrill said what really stood out were the two running backs Jabari Davis (92-407, 5.5 ypc) and Cedric Houston (122-618, 5.1 ypc). They were able to run the ball inside, and they had speed to go outside."

Senior quarterback Casey Clausen, who directed the Vols' five-overtime, 51-43, win over Alabama two weeks ago, is 31-9 as a career starter.

"Casey (Clausen) is throwing the ball very well," said Sherrill. "He has an excellent touch on the deep ball."

Sherrill noted their punter Dustin Colquitt (46.2 ypp) is really good. "He dictates the punt returns, putting it in hard places to return it.

"The schemes that they have are the same schemes they ran back in 1991 when we went up there to play them," said Sherrill, who talked about playing in Knoxville.

"They have an advantage because of the number of people and they do have sound advantage because they do have 28 speakers around the stadium, and that comes from the student section and the band. So when you hear "Rocky Top," it is not really the band as much as it is blaring through the speakers."

The Bulldogs, mired in a three-game skid and holding a subpar, 2-7, 1-4 record, will return to Knoxville this week at less than 100 percent healthy, but everybody should be able to play.

Senior tight end Aaron Lumpkin "should be able to play," according to Sherrill. "The question mark would be Odell Bradley (CB). I'm pretty sure he will be able to play.

"They are all banged up, but everybody should be able to play," said the MSU coach as the Dogs began to step up preparations for the Vols.

It's amazing that Mississippi Sate quarterback Kevin Fant, who has passed for 1845 yards and 13 TDs, has not missed a game this season with the pressure (pass rush) he faces week in and week out. The Dogs senior has answered the bell each game, and while he's dropped some in the SEC statistics since being runner-up, still ranks sixth in passing (205 ypg) and 10th in total offense (194 ypg).

"We had some busts," said Sherrill, referring to the Alabama pass rush which netted five sacks in last week's 38-0 shutout win at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field.

The Vols' Clausen is fifth in passing, one notch ahead of Fant with 1870 yards an average of 207.8 ypg, and seventh in total offense (202.2 ypg).

Mississippi State would love to get senior Justin Jenkins, one of the SEC's leading receivers all season, back in the game plan after the Pearl, Miss., standout was slowed by an injury in the Kentucky game at Lexington, Ky., Oct. 15.

"We have to get Justin the ball - that is something that we have to make sure we do in the last three games," said Sherrill of the SEC's receiving yards per game leader with an average of 85.6 yards an outing.

Jenkins has 52 receptions for 770 yards and has eight TD catches. He is averaging 14.8 yards per reception, and 5.80 catches a game.

The Dogs could use a resurgence of their running game as well. Once balanced with two of the top running backs in the league in sophomores Nick Turner (6th SEC rushing 64.9 ypg) and Jerious Norwood, the duo never really got going against 'Bama. Freshman Omarr Conner was MSU's top ground gainer with 24 yards on one carry.

"We need to be more balanced," said Sherrill. "When you get into the kind of game we were in (one-dimensional) the advantage goes to the defense."

Mississippi State hasn't been able to get much out of the kicking game with Brent Smith, one of the most accurate field goal kickers in the league, not getting on the field except for kickoffs last week.

The Dogs defense could use a little revitalization as well, paced by linebacker T. J. Mawhinney with 82 tackles, Kevin Dockery with 56, Odell Bradley with 55, Marvin Byrdsong 54, Clarence McDougal 49, Willie Evans 47, Tommy Kelly 47, Darren Williams 46, Quinton Culberson 42 (out for season with injury), Ron Fields with 42, and Jason Clark of Starkville 40.

Meanwhile, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said the No. 9 Vols (7-2, 3-2), who have turned around their season, must guard against a letdown.

Over the last 10 years in the series, Tennessee leads 3-1. The Vols won last year's game in Starkville, 35-17.

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 sdnsport@netdoor.com

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