M&F Bank Football Scouting Report

The Game: Mississippi State (1-1, 0-1 SEC) is still on the road but this week in conference action as the Bulldogs visit Auburn (1-1, 0-0) for a Saturday contest. Game time at Jordan-Hare Stadium is 11:30am with regional telecast by Lincoln Financial Sports. The Bulldog network broadcast with Jack Cristil, Jim Ellis, and John Correro is being carried on XM satellite radio on channel 199.

About the Tigers: It's been a great decade down on the plains. So much so that any signs of slippage are certain to panic the spoiled fan base, who are seeing the loss to South Florida and lack of national ranking in near-apocalyptic terms. Seriously, what was to expected otherwise after two years of graduating all that talent and experience? If they'll be patient (right, in the SEC?) Auburn will have pieces back in places soon enough, Tommy Tuberville always does. Until then though the Tigers will have their work cut out against the typically-grueling schedule that is atypically unfriendly this fall, with trips to Florida, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia…hmmm. Maybe there's reason to get nervous after all. Especially a team visiting the plains to face a squad that surely is looking to make a mid-September statement before hitting that SEC road.

Offense: Look no further than the front line for the reasons Auburn hasn't burned up the field or scoreboard so far. And it was entirely expected. You don't lose four offensive linemen of that caliber without taking, so to speak, some hits. Which is what QB Brandon Cox is doing now, not fun for a senior used to success. A 58% passer his first three seasons, southpaw Cox is just over 50% after two games with twice as many picks (four) as touchdowns (two). Still a guy with 20 winning starts and 5,300 yards on the resume can't be written off. Backup Ben Field hasn't seen action so far this season. The Tiger triggerman was expected to hand the ball of often to Brad Lester; then the junior was suspended pre-season for unspecified academic issues. It's an ‘indefinite' situation, too, but all State can do is prepare for the guys who have toted the ball this year. Soph Ben Tate is producing 7.15 yards on the ground, while redshirt frosh Mario Fannin is good for another 31.0 yards with a better per-carry rate. Certainly Auburn is used to better than 2.6 yards net each rushing attempt. Then again the play-calling has been just about balanced with 72 rushes against 65 passes, not your typical Tiger tactics of this era either. Prechae Rodriguez has nine of the team's 33 receptions and a 12.0-yard average, while Rodgeriqus Smith is the big-play man with over 22 yards when he grabs the throw. And indications are redshirt freshmen Tim Hawthorne and Terrell Zachery are due more snaps, soon, as more such production is needed from the wideouts. It's a cliché of sorts, but always keep an eye on the Tiger tight end in the red zone. Gabe McKenzie is the second-leading receiver so far with seven catches, two for touchdowns. Bigger senior Cole Bennett, back from a '06 injury, is the blocking end of the bunch. And such contributions are necessary as the line is rebuilt. The size is certainly there, it's just not the sort of upperclassman group Auburn's thrived behind for years. LT King Dunlap is the lone returning starter and senior of the bunch, while LG Tyronne Green and C Jason Bosley at least are juniors familiar with the system. It's the right side with more questions, starting a couple of freshmen (one true). While Auburn has allowed seven sacks through two games, the bright side is everybody but Dunlap will return for '07 or beyond. So maybe opponents should take advantage now, while they can.

Defense: They're more accustomed to reloading than rebuilding, yet this 2007 Tiger defense is still putting a few pieces together two games into the campaign. ‘Only' four starters were lost from a unit that allowed less than two TDs per game in '06. But all were headliner-talents that combined for over 200 tackles last fall, and their absence is at least partly why Auburn is allowing over four yards per-snap. Not to mention giving up 60% pass completions. Few expect such generosity to continue much longer though as younger cats on this side of the ball mature. One Tiger already aged to perfection is senior DE Quentin Groves, nominated for every national honor out there and the SEC's best at his position. The Greenville native is one sack from tying the team record of 24. Sen'Derrick Marks was moved from tackle to be a 290-pound end and had ten stops last weekend. The switch made room for 316-pound Pat Sims to become a starting tackle, and he belies the bulk by putting pressure on passers. He's missed six quarters with an ankle injury; now State's staff has to wonder if middle LB Tray Blackmon is back for this game. Yet his replacement, Chris Evans, made the most of a starting shot last week with a team-best 14 tackles. He might have to repeat that performance, as tentative starting OLB Merrill Johnson has a hurting shoulder himself and opposite outside ‘backer Craig Stevens is a redshirt freshman. They're not full-strength in the secondary either as right CB Jonathan Wilhite has a gimpy hamstring; he's still supposed to start this week. And FS Aaron Savage missed the USF game with an ankle injury, his place would be taken by Mike McNeil who had nine tackles last weekend. Frosh SS Zac Etheridge hasn't been hurt, he's just pained offenses in his first two college starts. Hmmm, perhaps those uncharacteristic numbers of points and yards Auburn has allowed so far need to be put in another perspective. As in, watch out for this bunch to return to more traditional form when—if—the first unit gets healthy again. Not that MSU will mind if they don't push the recovery process, you understand.

Specialists: Freshman Ryan Shoemaker leads the SEC in punting at 45.1 yards, though an elbow injury (suffered making a tackle) raises some concerns about his availability. Patrick Tatum would take over if necessary. Losing John Vaughn's reliable three-point production suddenly is not an issue as freshman Wes Byrum has stepped right in and hit six-of-seven with a long make of 49 yards. He also kicks off, though there's an ankle problem to deal with. Patrick Lee returns kickoffs, Matthew Motley the punts.

The Series: Auburn owns a 56-22-2 advantage in a rivalry dating back to 1905. The Tigers took command of this series immediately, winning the first ten games played through 1919. State didn't scratch until 1927, but owned the series in the 1940s and gained ground by winning six-straight. Then Auburn regained control and took 18 of 20 meetings from 1955-74. State has strung together consecutive successes four times since, though two had to be forfeited later, and won four-straight from 1997-2000. Since then it's been all-Auburn with a six-year streak going into this game. The Tigers are 25-5 playing State on their home field where the Bulldogs haven't won since 1999. Sylvester Croom is 0-3 against Auburn teams. Tommy Tubberville is 8-4 against State overall, 6-2 with Auburn.

The Last Time: September 9, 2006 Mississippi State was intent on containing Auburn halfback Kenny Irons, and did so reasonably well. But the Bulldogs had no such answers for either alternate back Brad Lester or quarterback Brandon Cox, who each accounted for a pair of touchdowns in a 34-0 victory at Scott Field. Any one of those scores would have sufficed for the win as for a second-straight weekend the MSU offense was shut out at home. It took most of the quarter for anyone to get on the scoreboard, until Cox hooked up with tight end Gabe McKenzie for a six-yard touchdown at 1:07. A Bulldog fumble early in the next period set up Lester's first score as he got around the end for a two-yard dash. Even when the Tigers did wrong it worked out right; a delay penalty negated a 50-yard field goal by John Vaughn before halftime, but given a repeat shot from 55 yards he connected for a 17-0 intermission lead. Lester scored o a 20-yard burst and Cox threw to Rodgeriqus Smith for a 20-yard touchdown in the third period, and Vaughn was good on a 22-yard kick that only mattered for the final margin. Cox was 18-of-27 passing for 249 yards and Lester ran for 40 yards on just five tries; Irons managed 69 yards on 21 rushes. Freshman quarterback Tray Rutland had a miserable start, going 12-of-25 passing for 82 yards with an interception and that second-quarter fumble. Anthony Dixon got 69 rushing yards on 15 carries.

Did You Know?: Auburn is 19-7 in games played on LFS, or its predecessor Jefferson-Pilot Sports. That includes a 28-0 shutout of State on the JPS network the last time the Bulldogs went to Auburn.

*Auburn has the best winning percentage in the SEC since 2000, with a 42-14 record. LSU has as many wins but one more loss, while Florida is 41-15.

Bulldog Player Notes: DE Titus Brown was unable to tally a sack at Tulane, keeping him just outside the MSU career top-ten. The senior has 11.5 baggings in 33 career games. He had 7.5 sacks as a junior, tying for 5th in the SEC standings. Brown did get a tackle-for-loss against the Green Wave, something he's done in nine of his last ten games. He has 133 total stops as a Bulldog.

*Junior FS Derek Pegues is off to a slow statistical start in his new position, with just four total tackles in two games. Yet three of those stops could be called ‘saves' as each time he prevented an opponent from scoring by running them down from behind and from a long ways.

*Pegues is looking for the next chance to add to his career interception total of five; he needs nine to break the career top-ten at MSU. He already shares first place for both season and career interception touchdown returns, with two.

*Pegues ranks fourth in MSU career kickoff returns (65), and just passed Pig Prather (1998-01) for third in yards (1,412). He is five yards from breaking into the top-ten in punt returns; his 382 yards trails the 387 by #10 Robert Isaac (1994-97).

*Mississippi State is starting three transfers, two juco and one I-A, on defense this week. Between them LB Dominic Douglas, DT Jessie Bowman, and DT Cortez McCraney have 22 tackles. Weak-side LB Douglas leads the team in stops after two games with 12.

*Another juco, DE Jimmie Holmes, doesn't start tops the team with 2.5 tackles for losses. Bowman and McCraney have a pair of TFLs themselves.

*Junior P Blake McAdams has booted the ball 145 times, passing Jeff Walker (1996-99) for 8th-most punts by a Bulldog.

*Senior WR Tony Burks had four catches in the Tulane game, none of the gains longer than ten yards. That goes against his career track for big plays as in 2006 he averaged a SEC-best 24.3 yards every time he caught a ball. He's still netting 15.2 per-catch this year. Burks had five 100-yard games as a junior, tying Mardye McDole (1978) for the season record. That's also tied for fifth on the career chart, with the record eight 100-yard games by David Smith (1968-70).

*Two games into the year and TEs Jason Husband and Eric Butler both have three catches. For three seasons Butler has 44 catches, in 33 games, for 577 yards.

*Junior FB Jeremy Jones' touchdown reception at Tulane was the first receiving score by a Bulldog fullback since Bryson Davis in the 2005 Egg Bowl.

*HB Anthony Dixon recorded a career-best 131 yards rushing in the win at Tulane, on a career-high 27 carries. It was the sophomore's third 100-yard game, and he scored his 10th and 11th career touchdowns in the process.

*Last year Dixon was the first Bulldog rookie to lead the team in rushing since 1989, with 668 yards. He also set the freshman records for rushing touchdowns (9) and carries (169).

*A week after tying the program record for interceptions, with six picked passes, QB Mike Henig had a better-balanced outing at Tulane. He threw one touchdown pass, to FB Jones, and had one tipped pass intercepted. Henig had his fourth career 200-yard game in the win, with 223. The game pushed him over the 2,000-yard total.

*Henig's completion rate at Tulane of 20-of-31, 64.5%, was the best of his Bulldog career as a starter or any game he threw more than two passes.

*And the junior scored the first rushing touchdown of his MSU career when he ran 18 yards into the Wave's end zone in the first quarter.

*Henig has completed passes to a dozen different receivers already; six wideouts, four running backs, and two tight ends.

*PK Adam Carlson has converted all five of his PAT tries this season. Last year he was one of four SEC kickers who did not miss a point-after, and he is now 39-of-39 for his career.

*But Carlson was 1-of-3 on field goal tries, though one of them was a 51-yarder at the end of a half. Carlson is now 9-of-19 for his career with a long make of 47 yards last year at UAB.

*Two Bulldog seniors hold the team lead in career games played. Both TE Dezmond Sherrod and DE Avery Hannibal have gotten on the field in 36 contests through three seasons.

*But by not starting at Tulane, Butler fell one behind P Blake McAdams who has started 25 times. Those are consecutive starts for the specialist, also the team-lead. C Royce Blackledge is first among non-specialists with 20-straight starts.

*OT Derek Sherrod became the fifth true freshman to play this season, working at right offensive tackle in relief. He joins LB/ST Karlin Brown, QB Wes Carroll, S Zach Smith, and DT LaMarcus Williams as having made their college debut. True freshmen who dressed for the Tulane game but did not play were: S Wade Bonner, HB Robert Elliott, RB Marcus Green, LB Jamie Jones, and LB K.J. Wright.

*True frosh who have not dressed out yet are: CB Damein Anderson, LB Terrell Johnson, OL Addison Lawrence, OL/SN D.J. Looney, OL Dakota Merritt, QB Chris Relf, PK Eric Richards (injured), DL Quentin Saulsberry, and FB Ethan Stockett. Per SEC rules, State can carry 70 players to Auburn instead of the 80 for home SEC games.

*Redshirted 2006 freshmen who have played so far are: OG J. C. Brignone, SN Aaron Feld, OT Mark Melichar, and DE Rodney Prince. Classmates who have yet to see action are WR Alex Carpenter, DL Brandon Cooper, TE Chris Herrera, TE Brandon Henderson, DT Reggie Odom.

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