Dogs' Mario Haggan feels 'few surprises' left

Hustle, hustle, hustle!<P> That's what it's going to take to have a chance to beat nationally-ranked Alabama, according to Mississippi State all-American linebacker Marion Haggan.<P> "Playing Alabama in Tuscaloosa, you have to hustle on every down," said Haggan, who had double-digit tackles last week and is fast closing in on the century mark for the second time in a brilliant career with the Dogs.

"If we're prepared to hustle on every play and stay focused, I believe we can come away with a win," said the 6-3, 253-pound senior from Clarksdale, MS. "It would mean a lot to get a win, and maybe string together a few W's down the stretch."

Mississippi State renews its long-standing Southeastern Conference series with the No. 11-ranked Crimson Tide at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium on the Alabama campus.

"Alabama has a great team ... they have two great running backs (Shaud Williams, Santonio Beard), an impressive 7-2 record, they're ranked and they should be favored, but that doesn't mean we can't win," said Haggan, who had 11 tackles in last week's game against Kentucky and 93 stops for the season.

"We feel like we're getting better and better, so it's up to us to come out and play a good game. We're still confident we can put it all together," added Haggan, who has refused to give an inch even after several tough losses this season.

Mississippi State (3-5, 0-4 SEC) led at halftime last week against "potent" Kentucky and one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the SEC.

The Bulldogs held talented QB Jared Lorenzen to 10-of-22 passing for 141 yards and one TD, while not stopping but limiting Artose Pinner, the SECÕs leading rusher, to 104 yards on 31 carries.

Haggan and junior Jason Clark of Starkville, MS, who also had 11 tackles, joined hands with their teammates on defense to step up the attack, holding Kentucky to one of its lowest offensive outputs of the season in a game the Dogs let get away in the second half.

Despite their subpar record, Mississippi State has gained a measure of respect on defense in recent weeks. The Dogs are fourth in the SEC in total defense (316.7 ypg) just behind Tennessee (294.7 ypg).

On the improved play of the defense, Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill said he thinks it comes from playing together.

"The five guys in the secondary along with the guys up front are playing together. They have been on the field at the same time for more than one game, which really helps."

Invited to play in the 2003 Hula Bowl in Hawaii, Haggan is still confident the Bulldogs have a "few surprises" left this season.

"Alabama's a great team, there's no doubt about that. Of course, Alabama's knows that Mississippi State will come to play," noted Haggan about the longtime rivalry that's seen a number of close games since the arrival in Starkville of Sherrill, a former Alabama player who helped lead the Tide to a couple of national titles.

"Things aren't going our way right now and things are going their way. They know it's going to be a game this weekend. They can't just come out and not be prepared because we do have the weapons to beat people. We just haven't done it or put it together a full game.

"I'm waiting to see what happens this weekend. I'm very excited about playing," added Haggan, who has 333 career tackles and has been on several lists for awards such as the Butkus, Nagurski and Lombardi Awards.

Mention MSU is showing signs of returning to the feared style of defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn and Haggan says "we can thank God" for that.

"The guys have learned how to play football and how to fight for four quarters. We're going to continue to do that and things will come together for us before this year is out," said Haggan, who led the SEC and finished eighth in the nation with 132 tackles his sophomore campaign.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State has a tough assignment preparing for Alabama's quarterback tandem of Tyler Watts and Brodie Croyle, receivers Triandos Luke, Dre Fulgham, Sam Collins, running backs Beard and Williams, and courageous punter Lane Bearden who continues to kick with a torn ACL.

The Bulldogs also showed signs of "breaking out" on offense in their last outing, chalking up 392 total yards to the Cats' 266, highlighted by quarterback Kevin Fant's 91-yard, school-record TD pass to Terrell Grindle and freshman Jerious Norwood's 138 yards rushing on 15 carries.

Mississippi State returns to Starkville following the annual showdown with 'Bama for back-to-back November home dates with Tennessee and Arkansas before their Thanksgiving Special on ESPN against rival Ole Miss at Oxford.

But for the present, Mario Haggan and the Dogs are contemplating "one surprise" at a time.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.

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