Bulldogs look for breakthrough against R'Backs

Going to Arkansas has never been one of Mississippi State's favorite road trips.<P> One of the reasons is the often bizarre November weather the Bulldogs have encountered. The two league rivals usually get together shortly before Thanksgiving for their annual SEC West showdown.

It's not unusual to have sleet and snow during the late-season confrontation especially in Fayetteville, Ark., the site of Saturday's Southeastern Conference bout.

Incidentally, snow showers, sleet and freezing rain fell throughout the 2000 game played in Starkville, coinciding with a visit by retired U.S. Congressman G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery and former President George Bush.

Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill, who served on an assistantship earlier in his coaching career under Arkansas legend Frank Broyles, addressed the unpredictable weather earlier in the week as did assistant coach Curley Hallman.

"Every time you go to Arkansas, you speculate that the weather may be good, bad or whatever," said Sherrill, gazing at the long range forecast for Saturday's game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Speaking to the Starkville Quarterback Club earlier in the week, Hallman said he recalls a visit to Fayetteville once upon a time during his 32-year coaching career when it was "so cold" some of the players tried to keep their wind-breakers over their heads and make out like they didn't hear when it was time for them to go into the game.

The Bulldogs staff is obviously more concerned about other factors more tangible than the weather namely triple threat option quarterback Matt Jones, fourth in the SEC in total offense with an average of 223.9 yards per game.

"It's going to be tough going to Arkansas to play. They'll be as physical as anybody we play. They have a quarterback (Jones) that I think I'd just about as soon play against anyone in the conference as him," said Hallman, defensive secondary coach at MSU who has served as head coach at LSU and Southern Miss.

"Matt (Jones) - when they want to win games they go to him," said Sherrill, while noting the Hogs feel like they may have the best lineman in the conference in Shawn Andrews (6-5, 353), junior right tackle on the offensive line.

Arkansas (7-3, 3-3 SEC), winners of three in a row after dropping the same number in succession, is led defensively by senior free safety Tony Bua, who Bulldog fans will remember stopping MSU quarterback Kyle York short on 4th-and-5 at the Arkansas 20 late in the game to preserve a 26-19 victory last year.

Bua, known for some of his outbursts, became the Arkansas career tackles leader in the Hogs' 48-20 win over New Mexico State in their last outing, picking up his 100th stop of the season and 382nd of his career, one better that safety Ken Hamlin with 381 during his stay at Arkansas.

"He's (Bua) a good player," acknowledged Sherrill. "They use him as a run stopper and he will make a lot of tackles."

Mississippi State (2-8, 1-5) will be trying to snap a four-game skid, including a 59-21 loss at Tennessee in the Dogs last outing. Senior quarterback Kevin Fant and sophomore Kyle York both engineered TD drives while highly-touted versatile freshman wide receiver/quarterback Omarr Conner took a snap behind center.

Fant connected with Justin Jenkins, who leads the SEC in a couple of statistical categories, on a 19-yard TD pass to tie the score early. Second all-time on MSU's career completions (438) and passing yardage (5,450), Fant while under constant pressure, completed 13-of-24 passes for 124 yards. York finished the game going 6-of-8 passing for 67 yards.

The Dogs could use another performance like sophomore running back/kick returner Nick Turner, candidate for All-SEC honors, turned in against the Vols. The Atlanta, Ga., product had 344 all-purpose yards against UT.

Selected "SEC Special Teams Player of the Week," Turner is second in the SEC (14th nationally) in all-purpose yardage (146.0 ypg). His 344 all-purpose yards against Tennessee, broke the previous record held by J.J. Johnson, who accumulated 312 all-purpose yards against Alabama in 1998.

Plagued by injuries most of the campaign, MSU will be without clutch junior receiver Ray Ray Bivines, probably out for the season with a pulled hamstring, but will get back Kevin Dockery (DB) for the Arkansas game.

Bivines is second in receiving among the Bulldogs with 26 receptions for 324 yards, just ahead of junior McKinley Scott with 25 catches for 343 yards.

One of the top receivers in the league, All-American candidate Justin Jenkins leads the Bulldogs with 57 receptions for 839 yards and nine touchdowns. The Pearl, Miss., product leads the SEC in yards receiving per game (83.9) and is tied for second for most receptions (57), one off the league leader.

Mississippi State is getting back a little help on the often-plagued offensive line, although Otis Riddley and Brad Weathers were lost early in the campaign to injuries. Center Blake Jones (Sr. 290) has returned to the lineup along with guards Will Rogers (Jr. 326) and Johnny Wadley (So. 341), all of whom have been sidelined at one time or another this season. The tackles are Richard Burch (So. 6-5, 319) and David Stewart (Jr. 6-6, 302) joined by sophomore Chris McNeil (6-3, 287) and freshman Donovan Davis (6-7, 335). Senior tight end Aaron Lumpkin (6-4, 259) returned to the lineup last week after missing the Alabama game two weeks ago.

Senior All-SEC candidate linebacker T. J. Mawhinney leads the Bulldogs in tackles with 89 followed by sophomore LB Marvin Byrdsong with 61, senior DB Odell Bradley with 57, DB Kevin Dockery with 56, SS Darren Williams with 54, LB Clarence McDougal (53), DE Tommy Kelly (51) and DE Willie Evans (50).

All-SEC candidate senior linebacker Jason Clark, of Starkville, who has moved around a lot on defense as have several players, has 42 tackles. Kelly leads the Dogs with 11 quarterback pressures and four sacks.

Arkansas has twice upset Mississippi State's bid to represent the West in the SEC Championship game in recent years with last-season wins. The Hogs knocked the Dogs out of the picture in 1999 with a 14-9 win at Little Rock, Ark., while topping MSU 17-10 in overtime in 2000 at Starkville.

Mississippi State last defeated Arkansas, 22-21, in a thrilling comeback win at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field on the Dogs way to the 1998 SEC Championship game in Atlanta, Ga.

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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