*If the Bulldogs win the victory can be counted towards the six wins needed for 2005 bowl eligibility. For the past decade the NCAA has allowed I-A programs to count one triumph over a I-AA program every four years for bowl eligibility. But now, with a 12-game schedule beginning in 2006, one such win any year can be counted. I-AA programs have no such concerns since their post-season goal is making the NCAA championships.
About the Racers: 2005 is a ‘new' season for Murray State in a couple of ways. Most noticeably to their own fans, in the new blue-and-white uniforms the Racers are donning for their debut that will have the school name on road-jersies and nickname for home dates. Under the colors, sixth-year Coach Joe Pannunzio is more concerned with filling lineup slots left open by graduation with newer names. The Racers are missing 19 veterans who played parts in compiling a 7-4 record in 2004, most worrisome to the staff is that the ‘bulk' of the losses came on both lines of scrimmage. But then rebuilding is somewhat different at this MSU; Pannunzio's program thrives not only by recruiting their own fresh talent but offering transfers from all quarters a second chance to create a career. Last year's roster, in fact, had 11 players who began college ball at another D-IA school. The results show this approach can work with winning seasons three of five falls in Murray and a Ohio Valley Conference championship in 2002. Still Pannunzio is 28-28 after five seasons in his first head coaching position and his teams are 8-11 in non-OVC play. But despite the losses this squad has much to commend itself and Murray State is getting votes in the I-AA polls. The obvious reason is an offense with as much talent as some I-A backfields can claim. Mississippi State know the lead hoss in the Racer roster very well. Tailback Nick Turner was actually only the team's #3 rusher in 2004 but he still gained 746 yards at a 5.2 per-carry rate with seven TDs. Now the Atlanta native and former Dog is the co-starter with Chad Cook, a 834-yard, 11-TD runner in '04. Some teams call their fullback an extra blocker; Matt Webber really was a lineman initially, now he is a brutal blocking back clearing the way for Cook and Turner. Murray State netted over 2,400 ground yards last fall and the play-calling was 2-to-1 rushes; but State coaches can't assume that ratio this time around because the Racers ought to be more potent in the air in '05, and they can use multiple receiver sets too. The top target is still split end Dan Rumley who grabbed 36 balls for 578 yards and six scores. But now former Kentucky wideout Maurice Marchman is available and will start at flanker. And Jonathan Eiland is the defense-stretcher with sheer speed as a third wideout. So quarterback Ken Topps has tools to work with.The former Bulldog left because he was supposed to be a catcher; now he gets to throw balls as he always wanted and is booked for his first college start Saturday. At least State coaches know how well Topps can, and will, run with the ball if the opening is there. The Racers do intend to give backup Ryne Salyer, who threw for 343 yards in nine games, at least some snaps and he would take over if Topps struggles the first time out. The key for Murray State is how fast the line gels; guard Eugene Russell is a small college all-American candidate and tackle Richard Deutch a good run-leader, but there are the inevitable questions here. Murray State can run a ‘stacked' front of eight and even nine on the line, yet will also drop linebackers and safeties into coverages as needed. Senior Keith McClain moved from linebacker to end, bringing speed to the front, while three-year starting linebacker Patrick Schultz provides priceless leadership to a revamped unit. The odd-man interior front has two first-time starters in Gerald Goldberg and Barry Thomas, along with Mizou transfer Fabian Bean. In fact three more I-A transfers are expected to start on defense this game. In all five first-time starters are booked for the debut and another, LB Nathan Williams, missed all 2004 with injury. One of the incoming players, former Louisville cornerback Derrick Parrott, should be instant help in downfield coverage. Placekicking is an obvious question here. Morgan Riley is listed #1 after hitting just one of his eight field goal tries in '04, while Gary Crass was 2-of-2 on very short kicks. Tim Wright is the new punter. And of course Turner is the re-Turner on both punts and kickoffs, though Akeem Lofton might get a chance too.
Connections: In this game's case the connections are unique, to say the least, as three Racers are former Bulldog players: RB Nick Turner and QB Ken Topps were 2002 freshmen; Topps, a Shannon native, left after one season for a year at Itawamba CC before signing on at Murray State. Turner played two seasons, the first interrupted by legal issues, then was dismissed in January 2004. Tight end Linzy Patterson of Amory was a 2003 walk-on at State who earned a scholarship for 2004 and transferred this past summer without ever playing. Also, receiver Akeem Lofton of Waynesboro signed with MSU in 2003 and had to go the juco route. He signed with Murray State out of Jones County JC this past spring.
*Beyond that, a dozen more Racers hail from Mississippi hometowns and high schools: TE Bo Baxter (Tupelo), LB Stefon Culberson (Gulfport), DE Dione Davis (Meridian), LB Sederick Eichelberger (Noxapater), WR Jonathan Eiland (Hattiesburg), C Matt Garrett (Dundee), OL Quinton Hankins (Batesville), FB Nate Moore (Drew), DE Jerome Perez (Greenwood), LB Charles Rainey (Amory), OL Damius Robinson (Shaw), TE Ben Rush (Starkville), DE Adam Speeg (Lloyd Star), CB Dominic Spinks (Meridian), and P Tim Wright (Bay St. Louis).
*Pannunzio is an old SEC hand, having coached four years at Mississippi (1995-98) and one at Auburn (1999) under Tommy Tubberville each time. His teams were 2-3 in games against State. Three of his aides at Murray State are Mississippi alumni; wideouts Bobby Hall, defensive ends Morris Scott, and secondary Dwike Wilson. Pannuzio has coached only twice against SEC teams, losing to Kentucky and Mississippi. And Murray State head trainer Alan Lollar is a 1981 Mississippi State alumnus.
The Series/Last Time: Mississippi State has won the only meeting of the programs, a 69-0 victory in 1946. That was the Homecoming Game on campus and one of eight victories for Coach Allyn McKeen's club. The point total is recognized as the highest of the ‘modern' (post WWII) MSU records. The four even larger margins of MSU victory came prior to the first World War. State so dominated the romp that the Bulldogs never had to punt the ball away…something MSU teams have done only three more times since. The home team piled up 530 yards, 350 of it on the ground, and the total at the time was a MSU record. End Bill Grace caught only two passes for MSU but both went for touchdowns and 105 combined yards. The nine good PATs by Ted Shuff is another MSU ‘modern' era mark, though he did miss one attempt. The rout also began a run of four-straight shutout wins by that team, followed by blankings of Auburn, Northwestern State, and Mississippi.
Murray State Notes: Murray State has not won the first road game of a season since 1998, at Southeast Missouri, and four of the six losses have been to I-A teams.
*Murray State has not beaten a I-A opponent since a 1984, at the expense of Louisville and then-UL coach Frank Beamer. (Son Shane Beamer, the secondary/recruiting coach for Mississippi State, was seven at the time.) The program's all-time record as a I-AA club against I-A is 2-15-1, with the other win in 1980…also against Louisville. The Racers have played eight I-A teams since 1998, all losses.
*The 2004 Racers ended their season with four-straight victories but did not earn a berth in the I-AA playoffs after finishing second in the OVC standings.
*Racer staff must not have heard about the SEC rule against artificial noisemakers, because reports out of Murray are that the team has practices with cowbells being rung at the stadium.
MSU vs. the OVC: Technically that 1946 game was not against an Ohio Valley Conference team, because it came two years before the league was formed. But since Murray State is now in the OVC that is how the outcome is counted, giving Mississippi State a 18-1-1 mark against that league's current lineup. Of that, a 16-1-1 mark against Samford accounts for practically the entire record. The other win came in 2002 with a homefield win over Jacksonville State.
Opening-Night Notes: Mississippi State is 73-30-1 in all season-openers dating back to 1895. That includes a 67-20-4 mark, over 76%, in season debuts against non-conference competition. The record is even better over the past quarter-century with a 21-4 scoresheet since 1980, though the 2002 and '03 Bulldogs did lose their first times out. State is 49-13-1 when kicking off a campaign on the home field against an out-of-conference foe.
Record Watch: Bulldog halfback Jerious Norwood goes into his senior season with 2,193 career rushing yards. He needs 735 yards this fall to become Mississippi State's all-time ground gainer. Norwood has taken aim at the mark set by Walter Packer (2,820) in 1973-76. Norwood ran for 394 yards as a freshman, 642 in 2003, and 1,050 last season, the fifth-best year ever for a Bulldog back.
*Tight end Eric Butler caught four touchdown passes as a freshman in 2004. Not only did that set a season mark for MSU tight ends, the sophomore now needs one more to tie the career record for his position of five set by Treddis Anderson (1989-91).
*In his first year of kicking PATs, Keith Andrews was a perfect 21-of-21. He begins his junior season setting sights on MSU's record for consecutive points-after, the 37 by Kinney Jordan in 1975-76.
New Kids on the Block, and Tackle: Four Bulldogs expect to get their first career starts on Saturday. On offense, RFR guard Anthony Strauder, SR tackle Avery House, and RFR end Keon Humphries are slated as first-time starters, along with RFR linebacker Anthony Littlejohn on defense. It is the first college action for Strauder and Littlejohn, while Humphries saw the field briefly before injury in '04. And true freshman punter Blake McAdams goes into the game listed first at his position.
*State could play over a half-dozen other true freshmen in this year's opener, though in many cases this will hinge on performance or injury by starters and top backups. True rookies who are the primary alternate at their spots for Saturday are OG Michael Gates, OG Anthony Dunning, SE Aubrey Bell, DE Charles Burns, LB Jamar Chaney, CB Keith Fitzhugh, CB/KR Derek Pegues. Juco transfer DT Antonio Johnson is expected to make his MSU debut also.
Old Dawgs: Two 2005 seniors will play in their 36 career game this weekend, HB Jerious Norwood and DE Willie Evans. Evans has 25 starts to Norwood's 19. But the Bulldog with the most career starts is CB Kevin Dockery with 27 out of his 33 career games.