*This is the third top-ten opponent State has played in 2006, joining then-#4 Auburn and then-#9 LSU. The Bulldogs lost both games and have not beaten a top-ten foe since knocking off #3 Florida in 2000. State's last win over any ranked opponent was in 2004 over #20 Florida; since then there have been seven losses to ranked teams.
*This debut meeting with the Mountaineers is the first half of a home-and-home contract. State is to travel to WVU in 2007, on October 30 according to the tentative current slate.
About the Mountaineers: It might seem Rich Rodriguez has been on a fast coaching track after four exceptional campaigns at West Virginia. In truth, the 1986 Mountaineer alum first had to work his way up the professional ladder with a decade spent in small colleges. Then two-year stints as an aide at both Tulane and Clemson, with four bowl trips, were enough to bring him back home in 2001. Succeeding a WVU legend wasn't easy at first with a 3-8 mark but it's been all good since with 40 wins, and counting, and consecutive conference crowns the last two years. Rodriguez, one of just 19 ‘bowl division' (formerly called D-IA) coaches working at his alma mater, has literally gotten the Mountaineers up to speed with a fast-paced and explosive attack few in the Big East can follow. Post-season success has also extended the recruiting reach well beyond the region, to the point West Virginia looks to be king of these mountains for a long time to come.
Offense: Much was made of West Virginia's offensive velocity last season but folk from bigger leagues dismissed it as picking on lesser opposition. Then in the Sugar Bowl the Mountaineers ran through a pretty fair Georgia defense as if the Dogs were standing still. Now WVU's option-attack is regarded as the gridiron equivalent of a relay team on turf (literally, as the one slightly weak link has been their record on God's own grass). In fact few track teams would care to match paces with the Mountaineer troika of QB Pat White, FB Own Schmitt, and HB Steve Slaton. These three have accounted for over 900 of the team's 1,200 rushing yards through four contests. Soph Slaton (583 yards, 6.8 per carry, six TDs) is sixth in the NCAA at 145.8 per game, and already eighth in school annals after just 11 career starts. He burned Georgia for 204 yards in the Sugar Bowl. Schmitt is much more than a blocker with his 4.8 yards per tote and two scores. And White doesn't have to pitch the pigskin to either, he can scamper for big gains himself. The QB has 194 yards and 6.1 per carry. Oh, and for '07 reference all three are underclassmen. Not surprisingly WVU stays on the ground about three of every four offensive snaps. But the air game can't be ignored; not when White is the all-time career passing percentage leader with a 61.8% rate to date. Sure, he's only thrown 51 balls this season…but those tosses have produced five scores and 475 yards. The only downside are three interceptions, but of course there aren't many opportunities for picks. Still WVU will line up in three-wides as needed and these patient veterans can produce. Junior Darius Reynaud leads the list with 13 catches and two scores, while senior Brandon Myles has three TDs and 10 grabs. Neither of the listed tight ends has a catch so far. Several offensive linemen were shuffled around for this season, but not RG Jeremy Sheffey; he's made 24 starts at right guard. The key was moving veteran LG Dan Mozes to center for his senior season, and first-game starter Ryan Stanchek out to LT so redshirt Greg Isdaner could start at LG. He's the big boy of the bunch at 315 pounds; otherwise this unit isn't particularly heavy. Then again in an offense built on movement bulk isn't as much a matter. Not that these guys have to hold their blocks too long anyway. Where the Mountaineers do go ‘long' is on drives, with nine scoring series covering 70 or more yards. One incredible drive lasted 21 snaps against Eastern Washington. Who says this bunch can only run at one speed?
Defense: Naturally their offensive counterparts get the spotlight. Still the Mountaineer defense can't be overlooked. Despite a relatively young lineup, showing just three seniors as of this week, WVU has more than taken care of business in four wins. In fact with only one rushing touchdown and four thrown scores this defense is on pace to set a school record for season-points allowed. The base set is a 3-3 but this bunch will line up in a variety of schemes and more often than not shows seven or even eight up around the line. This works because the secondary is first-rate in either coverage or support as needed. The latter is a specialty as some of the team's top tacklers come racing in from the backfield. SS Eric Wicks, the lone senior back there, and redshirt FS Quinton Andrews have combined for 43 stops already, as well as half of the defense's six interceptions. WVU has picked off a pass in ten-straight games. Antonio Lewis is settled at one corner while either Vaughn Williams or Larry Williams cover the other. They get plenty of work because opponents have thrown 145 passes at WVU compared to just 112 rushing attempts. There is more combined experience at linebacker, though 15-game starter MLB Jay Henry is getting pushed by junior Marc Magro who has piled up more stops so far this campaign. Senior Kevin McLee is a 255-stalwart on the weakside with 24 tackles, though he has six starts on the strong side as well. 230-pound bobby Hathaway will open at the weakside slot. The odd-man interior has seen three starters so far on the nose, with junior Pat Leibig back in the lineup now after opening the season. More of a fixture is the 6-5 tall, 295-pound bulk of Keilen Dykes at DT. That size in the middle lets redshirt James Ingram operate on one end and use movement more than muscle in a versatile front. This defense obviously benefits from the offense both piling up the points and eating up the clock. But this leads to other challenges because, as the stats show, teams go early and often to the air. And WVU has yet to record an official sack. If that is a problem it hasn't shown up yet where it counts, on the team's record.
Specialists: Redshirt Scott Kozlowski has taken over punting duties this year and done well, with a 41.7-yard average. Of course that's on just ten kicks so far, with that offense he doesn't get a lot of work. Coverage is steady so the net punting is 40.2. Soph Pat McAfee is 4-of-5 on field goals though none has been longer than 29 yards. Not that they have to return too many kickoffs, but duties have been divvied around with four different guys taking turns.
The Series: There is none. But Mississippi State is 5-3 against the current Big East membership, the last game being 20 years ago with the Bulldogs winning at Syracuse. In 1979 the Bulldogs played a team from West Virginia, beating Marshall 48-0 at Scott Field. West Virginia is 19-17-1 against Southeastern Conference schools, including a 38-35 victory over Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl. The last regular-season Mountaineer game against the SEC was a win at Kentucky in 1979.
Did You Know? Mountaineer OL Coach Rick Trickett held the same post at MSU in 1989-92. Bulldog strength coach Jim Nowell was an assistant at West Virginia in 2002-03.
*WVU tight end Brandon Tate hails from Macon, Miss., and played with Bulldogs Omarr Conner and Joey Sanders at Noxubee County HS.
Bulldog Player Notes: Senior QB Omarr Conner threw for 212 yards at LSU, his second 200-yard game of this season and sixth of his career. In the process Conner moved up to 8th in MSU completions (237), and 9th in passes thrown (448). He now has 2,705 yards in 26 games as a college quarterback and needs just 41 yards this weekend to move into a tie for 10th on the MSU list.
*Conner's 15 touchdown passes already ties for tenth at 15, even with Jackie Parker (1952-53).
*Though he only has 19 starts at quarterback, Conner is one of the most efficient passers in MSU annals. He ranks fifth in completion percentage at 52.9%, and first in interception percentage at 2.9%. Second-best is Derrick Taite's 3.4%, though he threw 734 balls in four seasons.
*Conner also has a team-best 4.4 yards per carry average. HB Anthony Dixon is second at 3.8 yards.
*Dixon does have the most total rushing yards for State at 247, on 65 carries. He has started just one of his five games but is bidding to become the first true frosh to lead State ever.
*Senior DT Deljuan Robinson will have his string of 35 consecutive games-played, every game of his MSU career, end this week due to his knee injury suffered at LSU. Robinson recorded one tackle for loss before leaving the game late in the second quarter, giving him 8.5 stops behind the line this season. He had 5.5 in the previous three seasons. Robinson was leading the SEC in tackles-for-loss prior to his injury.
*Senior LB Quinton Culberson continues to build his career tackle total, which now stands at 218 in 35 games. He had six stops at LSU giving him 42 for this season. Culberson has six double-digit tackle games in his career with two (Auburn, Tulane) this season.
*Senior DE Michael Heard is the team sack-leader with 7.5 in 33 career games. He is also just behind Robinson in career tackles-for-loss at 14.0.
*Sophomore CB Derek Pegues recorded his second career interception with a pick in the third quarter at LSU. Not only that but he got his first college touchdown in the process on a 23-yard return. It was State's first defensive score since 2004, against Kentucky when Culberson returned an interception for touchdown.
*Pegues is averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return, and 12.5 yards on punt returns. He had 99 yards worth of returns at LSU.
*Junior TE Eric Butler is not having the all-star season forecast, with just two catches in the four games he has played. He has grabs of 20 yards (S.C.) and 19 (@UAB), and missed one entire game with a toe problem. In his first two years Butler had 29 grabs in 21 games, with seven touchdowns to set both a season (four) and career record for his MSU position.
*Soph P Blake McAdams rebounded from a slump to boot seven balls at an average of 44.1 yards at LSU, after he had averaged 38.6 in the previous four contests. McAdams was good for 41.9 yards his freshman season. McAdams has already punted 33 times in five games, after 69 punts in 11 games as a 2005 true freshman.
*Soph PK Adam Carlson has hit all six of his PAT tries this season, and is 13-of-13 career. More encouragingly, he booted a 47-yard field goal at UAB, the first of this year, and followed up with a 32-yarder at LSU.
*Three Bulldogs have now played in 39 career games: CB David Heard, S Jeramie Johnson, and DS Russell Cook. Heard and Johnson are tied with 24 starts, though as a snapper Cook is unfairly excluded in this category. But the most starts by a current player is the 29 for MLB Quinton Culberson, in 35 games.
*OG Brian Anderson inherited the team-lead in consecutive starts when DT Andrew Powell did not open against Auburn. Senior Anderson has opened 23-straight games for State, and at four different positions. LB Quinton Culberson and CB David Heard have 21-straight starts.
*There are 44 players on the current roster who have started at least one MSU game since 2004, including specialists. OG Michael Gates was the latest to join the list by opening play at UAB. A total of 68 Dogs have played in at least one career game on this roster, though four—WR Aubrey Bell, TE Jeremy Jones, OG Anthony Dunning, and OT Roland Terry—have yet to see the field this season.
MSU Rookie Report: Nineteen Bulldogs have made their college-game debuts this season, including seven true freshmen. HB Anthony Dixon, ST Anthony Johnson, and ST Marcus Washington all played in the South Carolina game, and the next week HB Arnil Stallworth and S Anthony Summers joined them. At UAB, LB Jamon Hughes and DT Kyle Love saw their first college action.
*Redshirted 2005 freshmen who have played so far this season are: QB Tray Rutland, OT Craig Jenkins, DT Quinton Wesley, ST Jarvis Kyles, CB Adron Chambers, ST Christian Ducre, and ST Tay Bowser.
*Other first-year players are juco transfers WR Tony Burks, OT J.D. Hamilton, and LB Tim Bailey; soph HB Justin Williams, and soph WR Jamayel Smith.
*True freshmen yet to play are: OG J.C. Brigone, WR Alex Carpenter, DL Brandon Cooper, DS Aaron Feld, TE Chris Herrera, TE Brandon Henderson, OT Mark Melichar, WR Keith Mills, DT Reggie Odom, and DE Rodney Prince.