About the Rebels: Not that either side cares to be linked with the other, but the idea is unavoidable because there is a whole lot more in 2005 to compare than to contrast. Two struggling offenses, a pair of competent if overworked defenses, and dual kicking squads nobody can figure out. Comedians on both campuses are quipping that the only real differences are the uniforms and the labels. Certainly there is frustration in each camp and each coach can really, really use an end-of-schedule victory to salve the season's wounds. First-year Rebel coach Ed Orgeron's first season has brought plenty of sound and fury to Oxford, just not the sort intended, and as the unsuccessful debut campaign winds down even more change is in the UM winds. Naturally the Rebs are only going through the same sort of transition process, in terms of staff, style, and personnel, still underway at Mississippi State. Realistically, then, the outcome of this game is hardly a harbinger of future success since both regimes are still setting up their long-term systems. But the winner will have a much more pleasant off-season. And of course nobody can be dispassionately objective when the object of desire is the Golden Egg.
Offense: Think Mississippi State has had quarterbacking questions? Changing Bulldog triggermen has been a (forgive the pun) snap compared to the shuffles under center at UM. Three quarterbacks have started this season and at least two have usually played in each game. While this reflects the erratic results whoever takes the snap, this also has obvious implications for defensive planning. This week Ethan Flatt is scheduled for his third-straight start after being ignored for two months. The 6-6 junior is the pocket-passer of the group, though he's only thrown 69 balls in three games with 58% accuracy, one TD and three interceptions. So State is also preparing for seven-game starter Micheal Spurlock, a much more mobile thrower/runner. The senior has thrown for 1,617 yards with six TDs, seven picks, and 53% completions, and he can gain ground on his own faster feet. That's the sore (literally) spot in UM's arsenal at the moment because the leading Rebel runners are hurting. Halfbacks Mico McSwain (612 yards, 3 scores) and backups Larry Kendrick and Antonio Turner are all gimpy to some degree. They're still listed as possibles Saturday and State must plan accordingly, but in the meantime bruising big back Jamal Pittman is practicing there. Of course they could always line up Robert Lane, who ran over MSU last fall as the starting quarterback. It's not inconceivable all three quarterbacks could line up in the backfield at the same time, as UM seeks any way to help a ground game averaging just 78 yards and 2.5 per rush. Even the wideouts have been used to tote the ball this season. It's certainly a group with play-making potential in three familiar seniors. Mike Espy (47 catches, 500 yards, 3 TDs) tops the list, while flanker Mario Hill (34, 524, 2 TD) is the big-play threat but also has a tender hamstring. Taye Biddle (31, 421, 1 TD) rounds out the wide receivers while the versatile Lane has emerged as a quality tight end and caught 14 balls with a 13.6-yard average since the changeover. 270-pound Jimmy Brooks is the blocking tight end, and when he lines up on the right side it makes for a sizable front with 317-pound senior RT Tre' Stallings and 330-pound true freshman RG Michael Oher. Those two have combined for 19 of 20 starts and senior Bobby Harris has opened two years at left tackle. It might not be the star-studded group of blockers UM featured a few seasons ago, but these guys have been through the wars and by now know how to work with either style of quarterback. The Rebels have a few turnover issues, particularly in the passing game, possession time tilts the wrong way, and only the MSU offense can look up to the 13.4 points this group averages. But the Rebels don't draw a lot of flags. And then there's the headaches of guessing which quarterback—or quarterbacks--will play when, where, and how, and who will be healthy by gametime.
Defense: It's really not fair. Now that the Rebels have put together a strong, sometimes spectacular defense the unit is forced to work without consistent support from the other side of the ball. The stats speak for themselves as despite being on the field a whole lot this defense is still giving up just 325 net yards a game and 21 points-even. Ole Miss' specialty on D is stuffing the run, allowing 3.4 yards per rush and 138 a game. This group also does an excellent job creating turnovers with 21 fumbles by foes, of which 13 have been recovered by the Rebs. It's no secret where efficiency this starts. There are four seniors up front with ten varsity letters (soon to be 14) amongst them. The offset line puts 290-pounder Michael Bozeman on the center with 285-pound McKinley Boykin in the tackle-tandem that has combined for 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. End Jayme Mitchell has tackle size and linebacker agility as shown by six pass breakups, while one-time MSU signee Corvelli Haynes is the 255-pound other end. It's a stout front in its own right, but with all-star Patrick Willis ‘backing them up the line is that much better. Willis has had a phenomenal year with 114 tackles, nine for loss, and three sacks…and all in nine games. The 230-pound junior missed one contest with a broken hand before pulling on a heavy wrap and getting back in the fight. Not only have opposing coaches noticed, so have the pro scouts. Senior Kelvin Robinson is second on the squad with 82 stops from the weak side, with soph Garry Pack third playing off the strong side with 51 tackles. And if any further support is needed, strong safety Jamarca Sanford has a way of getting in on the action. No wonder teams prefer to throw on the Rebels, which has been good for 186 yards weekly. The completion rate of 57% points to UM's softer spot, as does a 10-to-5 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. Of course whether a rock-bottom air attack like State's can take advantage of this is another matter. Senior Travis Johnson and junior Trumaine McBride are on the corners and have 12 break-ups between them with an interception each. Junior Charles Clark has 37 tackles at free safety. True, UM allows 43% conversions on third downs and uncertain offensive support means there is little margin for error. By the same token opponents cannot count on any breakdowns and points are precious against what is without doubt the best Rebel defense in years.
Specialists: Admittedly no Bulldog has a right to criticize here this year. But there hasn't been a lot to call special from UM kicking teams in 2005. Net punting is 34.5 yards, with true frosh Rob Park hitting them an average of 37.5. Soph squadman Matt Hinkle has emerged as the starting placekicker out of three who've tried their leg this year with two 40-plus yarders and a 5-of-10 record on field goals. The return teams have really struggled lately, yet it would be foolish to rely on low season averages against Espy or Biddle when they catch a kick. Besides, it's not as if the Rebel coverage hasn't been able to put the clamps on the other side.
The Series: This is not Mississippi State's oldest rivalry, as Alabama and LSU were played earlier. But it is the longest with 101 games played since 1901—including two in 1918. In fact the Bulldogs scored their first points in a football game against the Rebels in the first meeting, a 17-0 A&M victory. State dominated the first few decades and had a 13-game win streak from 1911-1925. The Rebels revived in the 1930s, then after one last successful State stretch in the 1940s Mississippi took total control. From 1947-1969 the Rebels won 18, lost once in 1964, and tied three times. Things have been a bit more balanced since but UM still holds a 58-37-6 lead and has won the last three games. They are also 20-9-3 in games played in Starkville, though State has defended the home field four of the last eight times.
Did You Know? Mississippi State has won more games against the Rebels in Oxford (10) than at Scott Field (9). All six ties in the series came in campus games, three at each site.
*40 members of the published Rebel roster are Mississippi natives, while 41 Bulldogs on the updated roster have in-state home addresses.
*We shouldn't dare promote such things, but…Jerious Norwood has not fumbled since October of 2004, having touched the ball 295 times since losing the handle.
Bulldog Record Watch: Senior halfback Jerious Norwood became the 23rd back in SEC history and the first Bulldog to rush for over 3,000 career yards. Norwood broke the 3K in the third quarter at Arkansas, in his 45th MSU game. He now has 3,018 with one game left to extend his Mississippi State record.
*Norwood came up nine yards short against Arkansas in his bid to set the program record for 100-yard games. He has broken the century mark a dozen times in four years and is tied with Walter Packer (1973-76) for the school record. He is only the third Bulldog to rush for over 200 yards in a game, joining James Johnson (1998) and Kevin Bouie (1994). Norwood set the MSU game record when he ran for 257 yards against Houston in October.
*Norwood has 932 yards for this senior season and will be running to become only the second Bulldog back with a pair of 1,000-yard campaigns, along with James Johnson (1997-98). He had 1,050 yards as a junior. Johnson's season record of 1,383 set in 1998 will stand for at least four more years now. *Norwood ranks third in career carries with 539, and will stay on that rung behind the record 578 of Michael Davis (1991-94) and 572 of John Bond (1980-83). *Senior Willie Evans became the fifth Bulldog to record more than a score of sacks for his career, and he now ranks fourth on the MSU list with 22.5. He was credited with 1.5 in the Arkansas game, which pushed him past Mike McEnany (1979-82). Evans needs another 1.5 to catch Johnie Cooks (1977-81) at 24, while Tyrone Keys (1976-80) is third at 26. The career record of 49 by Billy Jackson (1980-83) is out of reach and likely always will be, though 25 years ago the statistic was judged very differently.
*Evans' 13 sacks through ten games this season leads the SEC and is the third-best season by a Bulldog so far. Jackson had 17 in 1980 and 15 in 1981. Evans also paces the conference in total tackles behind the line of scrimmage at 19.0.
*Junior linebacker Quinton Culberson is headed for the team ‘title' in total tackles for 2005, with 72 through ten games. He has a nine-stop lead now over safety Jeramie Johnson at 63, while Evans has 53 tackles and senior cornerback Kevin Dockery 49.
*Dockery has three of State's eight interceptions, and now has six for his college career.
*Freshman punter Blake McAdams has been erratic of late with a couple of sub-40 yard average games in November. The rookie hit them for a 43.7 average against Alabama but fell back to just 31.0 yards on six punts against Arkansas. McAdams is still averaging 42.0 yards for the season. He has booted the ball away 65 times this rookie year, and should finish with the most punts in a season since Mike Riley had 75 punts in 1989. Riley had a total of 3,078 yards that year while McAdams has 2,732 in ten games.
*Tight end Eric Butler started this sophomore season strong with ten catches in the first four games. Since then he has snared only three passes in six games with one grab in all October. He had two more grabs in the Arkansas game. Butler had 15 catches as a freshman. Along with his four TD catches in 2004, Butler holds the tight end record with seven scoring passes already. He needs two more to move into the MSU career top-ten this early in his tenure.
*Junior flanker Will Prosser has not caught a ball in three weeks but still leads the team with 28 receptions, for 286 yards. That puts him ten balls and 72 yards ahead of Tee Milons in second place.
*Eight-game starting quarterback Omarr Conner has only played two games at wide receiver but already has five catches, for 47 yards. Conner turned an ankle in Tuesday's practice but it expected to play Saturday.
*Placekicker Keith Andrews has not kicked in three games with a strained groin, and is stalled with 11 field goals on 18 attempts in his two seasons. His career PAT mark is 28-of-28, leaving him nine shy of the school record. Kinney Jordan set the standard in 1975-76 by making 37-of-37 points-after.
Rookie Update: Mississippi State has played 10 true freshmen and one junior college transfer this season, out of the 22 eligible recruits of 2005. The freshmen who have not played this year are: WR Tay Bowser, OG Johnny Carpenter, WR Adron Chambers, QB Ty Evans, WR Corey Gardhigh, OL Craig Jenkins, DB Jarvis Kyles, QB Tray Rutland, OL Chris Spencer, DE Quinton Wesley. Of these, only Wesley could still play before the season ends.