*This is State's second appearance of 2008 on ESPN2, along with the opening-night loss at Louisiana Tech. MSU football is only 5-13 in games played for this branch of the cable sports empire. Though prior to this season, the last time State had played for the ‘deuce' was in 2004. MSU's last win on ESPN2 was that year's opener, against Tulane. The only time State and Auburn have played on ‘2' was in 2001, with the Tigers winning at home.
*The 2007 Bulldogs won their last two SEC home games; the first such two-game streak for a State team since 2004 with wins over Florida and Kentucky.
About the Tigers: By most standards 2007 was a fine football fall for Auburn; nine wins, a bowl victory, and continued domination of Alabama. Yet Tommy Tuberville isn't one to stand-pat very often, and despite those seemingly excellent results he changed coordinators to bring a more ambitious attitude to 2008. Their changes aren't exactly radical, but more an amplification of directions the program was already headed on both sides of the ball. Two routine victories and a top-ten ranking indicate the choices were correct, though now comes the real test as the Tigers open a brutal seven-game stretch. If they survive it unscathed this truly is a top-ten team to contend with again.
Offense: For the Peach Bowl, Tony Franklin was brought in to coordinate a more varied system—which falls under the current catch-all title of ‘spread'—to use more players and run more plays. It worked well in Atlanta last December and is off to a good start this fall with typical gain per-play up a whole half-yard. QB Kodi Burns was a pace-changer last season with fancy footwork and is ready to run in relief again. Because former Texas Tech triggerman Chris Todd opened game-two and tossed for 248 yards in his first start, showing how much more smoothly he fits into Franklin's plans. But then Auburn could roll with Burns and still win a lot of games behind a gifted and still-improving front wall. Playing underclass linemen in '07 brought some growing pains but it's paying off this year with everyone back, though there have been some adjustments with the two tackles swapping ends of the line. Seniors G Tyronne Green and C Jason Bosley are the solid core, which gets even stronger when soph G Chaz Ramsey is healthy again. TE Tommy Trott can certainly block his three catches last Saturday remind how often this position is utilized in Auburn schemes. It's a good indication how diverse things have become that Rodgeriqus Smith has only six catches through two games and 78 yards. He isn't being ignored; he simply has to share routes and catches with a host of quality receivers such as Montez Billings, Chris Slaughter, Robert Dunn, Mario Fannin, and many more. You really will need a program to track who is rotating into the three designated wide-out positions. Though, for two games the Tigers have opened up in two-back sets. Not that it matters who opens because while technically a ‘backup' Ben Tate has got just as many totes so far as Brad Lester, but doubled the output at 186 yards to 97. Each has a touchdown so it all works out, and Auburn nets over five yards per rush. Schemes can come and go, Tigers will always pound the ground with the only concern early on a tendency to fumbling the ball away.
Defense: Tuberville was annoyed last year about lapses in both consistency and technique. So Paul Rhodes was procured from Pitt to fix these issues, and two games-in the Tigers have only allowed a couple of meaningless second-half touchdowns. The general theme is still a four-man front built around a nose guard and single tackle. The nose-man could have been either junior Sen'Derrick Marks or soph Mike Blanc; instead Auburn wants both on the field so all-star candidate (and former d-end) Marks takes the tackle slot. It's hard to argue with the results as Marks has 3.5 tackles for losses already. And DE Antonio Coleman is even more active with 11 tackles and a pair of sacks. Tray Blackmon was pretty good playing hurt last year; healthy he is among the best middle LBs in the land. But tackles must be parceled-out among the ‘backers because Merrill Johnson and Craig Stephens are outstanding athletes able to cover lots of land. This doesn't even account for Chris Evans who had 64 tackles as an OLB last year but has yielded his slot to Johnson. There were natural pre-season concerns about a secondary that had to re-fill a few slots, and whether it's from falling behind early or just the matchups, but opponents have thrown 88 times on the Tigers compared to 57rushes. Still run or pass, count on safety Zac Etheridge being near the ball; he had 65 stops as a freshman and is the top returning tackler. Etheridge was listed at strong in the media guide but has started these first two games at free, while classmate Mike McNeil has stepped right at SS. Jerraud Powers was brilliant as a sophomore on one corner with four picks and 63 tackles. He's on an even faster pace this time around with a team-leading 14 stops and one interception already. Walter McFadden has won a close battle for the other cornerback starting job.
Specialists: Dunn is pretty special this year, too, ranking first in the SEC and ninth nationally in punt returns at 24.4 yards-per after two games. The net-punting would be tilted in Tigers favor anyway as Clinton Durst has averaged 43.8 yards and dropped four of his 12 punts inside the 20-yard line. Auburn hasn't had much live kickoff-return work so far, just three chances all returned by different Tigers. Wes Byrum is 4-of-5 on field goals and has a 52-yarder to his credit last weekend.
The Series: Auburn holds a 56-23-2 lead in a series dating back to 1905. The Tigers took control of this rivalry immediately, winning the first ten meetings, aided by MSU agreeing to play practically all games on the other side of the state line in either Birmingham or Montgomery. There have been 35 games played at neutral sites. An Auburn team didn't come to Starkville until 1950, and there have been only 15 games played at Scott Field. Auburn leads in those 10-4-1, and has won on the last three trips here. Sylvester Croom is 1-3 against Auburn as a coach, though he did have more success as a player. Tommy Tuberville is 8-5 against Mississippi State as coach at both Auburn (6-3) and Ole Miss (2-2).
The Last Time (September 15, 2007): The pivotal period of Mississippi State's successful season, with enough offensive and defensive drama for an entire month, hinged on a punt. With the Bulldogs trailing 14-13 in the fourth period, Blake McAdams booted the ball away and Auburn let it bounce…and roll for a 73-yard net. Being pinned so deep coaxed Tiger quarterback Kodi Burns to throw long, and his tipped pass was picked by State safety Demario Bobo. Coordinator Woody McCorvey convinced his boss to let Wesley Carroll return to quarterback a do-or-die series and the freshman did, a 10-play drive all on the ground with Christian Ducre scoring on a five-yard burst at 5:29. Carroll's read and Ducre's 18-yard draw earlier in the series converted the crucial 3rd-and-12, too. Auburn pushed the Dog defense to the limit to hold that lead, though, driving to State's nine-yard line before a fourth-down throw fell harmlessly in the end zone. Carroll was running things because on the first offensive series starter Mike Henig broke his hand. The rookie had a 10-3 lead to work with in the second period with field goals of 32 and 30 yards by Adam Carlson around a 20-yard interception return from Derek Pegues for touchdown. That pick came off Tiger QB Brandon Cox, benched for Burns. He led Auburn's first touchdown drive with a 28-yard blast by Ben Tate at 4:18. Pegues fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Burns scored on a one-yard scamper for the 14-13 halftime, home-team lead. Ducre's score was the only points of the last half, and he finished with 63 rushing yards while Anthony Dixon had 103 on 29 totes. Carroll only completed three of his ten throws for six net yards, while Josh Riddell was 1-of-15 for 15. Tate topped Auburn runners with 91 yards and Burns added 87 off keepers, while he was 8-of-12 throwing for 65 yards.
Bulldog Player Notes: *Senior P Blake McAdams now stands, or kicks, alone as the most prolific punter in MSU history. A week ago he set the career record for most punts, now at 224. Saturday night he surpassed Dana Moore's mark for total yards by five. McAdams has kicked balls for 8,865 yards, just over five miles.
*McAdams rebounded from a 31.9-yard average in the opening game, lowest rate since his freshman year, to get 43.0 on three kicks against the Lions. And only one of his punts was returned, for eight yards. McAdams has put three kicks inside the 20-yard line so far and four others have not been returned.
*After two games the Bulldog defense ranks 8th in pass efficiency, 15th in rushing, and 17th overall.
*The Dog defense is also forcing fumbles, but not converting them into true turnovers. Of the six loose balls in two games State has recovered only two.
*Though MLB Jamar Chaney was not on the field as State defeated Southeastern Louisiana, his number was. Senior S Keith Fitzhugh gave up his #1 to wear #22. Chaney's number is supposed to be handed-off this week to fellow senior LB Dominic Douglas.
*In the new number, Fitzhugh had four tackles. A week earlier he picked a pair of passes at Louisiana Tech giving him six career interceptions.
*The Bulldog defense intercepted no Lions passes, but broke up eight of the total 20 tosses. Four of these were credited to DT Jessie Bowman, batting down passes at the line of scrimmage.
*After not getting a sack in the opener, State's defense bagged Lion quarterbacks five times…all by different Dogs.
*Soph SLB K.J. Wright already has three tackles behind the line for net losses of 14 yards.
*True freshman S Charles Mitchell tied for the tackles lead Saturday with five stops, including special teams work.
*DE Sean Ferguson has opened both games this year at left end, and is the first true freshman to start on State's defense since Quentin Culberson in 2003 at cornerback.
*He only had two tackles himself, and broke up no passes. But the presence of S Derek Pegues was evident in a defensive effort that held SELa to just 148 total yards. And almost half that, 70, came on a single play while Pegues and the starting group were on the fourth-quarter sideline.
*Pegues had a streak of 25-straight starts snapped by suspension for the season-opener.
*Pegues has ten career interceptions, half of them last season. He is tied for fifth in career picks at State, with Frank Dowsing, Steve Freeman, Kelvin Knight, and Fred Smoot. With his next pick he will tie for third with Henry Davison and Kenny Johnson.
*Pegues already owns the career record for interception-touchdowns with three; two in 2006 and one last season. And his average return, scoring or not, of 21.8 yards on each pick is by-far the best of any Bulldog ever.
*Good kicking and coverage kept Pegues from breaking any big returns, but he did manage 30 yards on the four punts he fielded…including the one-yard ‘return' on an unwisely fielded ball at the goal line. Still Pegues added to his career totals; he is still 4th in punt return yards at 650, and just became 3rd in punts returned with 57. He passed Tom McWilliams (55, 1944-48) and Bernard Euell (56, 1992-95) on the same night.
*His career average return is 11.4 yards.
*Pegues already has the MSU record for kickoff returns at 83. His 1,815 yards are second only to Tony James (1,862, 1989-92) so that mark should fall soon…though obviously State would prefer only to be kicked-off to once per game.
*Counting both punts and kickoffs, Pegues has the 9th-most return yards in SEC history.
*By busting into the end zone twice, HB Anthony Dixon just tied for the MSU record in touchdowns. The junior has rushed for 25 scores, caught passes for two more, and now is knotted at 27 with Michael Davis (1991-94) for first place.
*His 25 ground-touchdowns pushed Dixon past Bulldog greats Jackie Parker, John Bond, and James Johnson (24 each) for second career-place. All 27 of Davis' scores came via rushing.
*He hasn't been able to add to his six 100-yard games. Still Dixon is off to a very strong start with 171 yards in two games on 36 carries…18 each game, interestingly. He's getting 4.8 yards each touch. Dixon hasn't got to the 100-yard mark since at Kentucky last October.
*Dixon is closing in on the 2,000-yard mark though, with 1,905 only two games into his third year. With 80 yards this past Saturday he blew by three notable names (Wayne Jones 1,865; Don Smith 1,868; and Dontae Walker 1,875) on the same night and now stands alone in 10th place on the career list. He began this year 15th on the list.
*Dixon's 162 career points stand 6th on the MSU list.
*His yardage in the two games was roughly the same, 172 to 158. But QB Wesley Carroll was much more efficient in the second game, with 15-of-23 completions compared to 12-of-25 at Ruston. And where at LaTech he was picked three times against one touchdown, Carroll tossed a pair of scores Saturday with no picks. This pushes his career-rate back into positive ground with 12 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
*Carroll averaged 14.3 yards per completion at Ruston; it was 10.5 against SELa. For his career his typical caught ball has netted 10.7 yards.
*Carroll now has thrown for 1,722 career yards. That's just over half what he needs to break the MSU top-ten, with Matt Wyatt's 2,940 yards the target. The MSU record is 6,336 by Wayne Madkin.
*Of Carroll's dozen touchdown passes, seven have gone to wide receivers, three to tight ends, and two to halfbacks. Or halfback with Dixon catching both.
*HB Christian Ducre's 67-yard night was the third-best game of his State career. And his 6.7 yards per-carry were better than Dixon's 4.4 rate. That's been true for their careers as Ducre has netted 4.5 each time he gets the ball so far.
*Of State's six touchdowns this year, three have been career-firsts. WR Brandon McRae and FB Brandon Hart got their first college scores at Tech, and TE Austin Wilbanks scored his first D-I touchdown against SELa on a throw from Carroll.
*McRae is off to a super start this junior year, with 12 catches and 132 yards in two games. And, a touchdown snagged in each. As a soph he had only two catches and 50 yards all season.
*Senior WR Aubrey Bell came down from a six-catch, 67-yard night at Tech (both career bests) to two grabs and 14 yards against the Lions. And rookie WR Delmon Robinson went from five catches, 63 yards to zero in the second game.
*So it would seem to be senior WR Jamayel Smith's turn to star this week. The top returning target has had just two catches for five yards each to open this season. Last year Smith had 33 catches for 510 yards.
*Tight end was an obvious worry with all three veterans who caught a ball in 2007 graduated. None of the new guys had a reception at Ruston, but the two best throws of Saturday went to TEs. That included the longest, a 50-yard grab and run by Marcus Green; and the shortest, the one-yard touchdown pitch to Wilbanks.
*Redshirt freshman HB Robert Elliot made his college debut against SELa. His five carries netted just seven yards, but he got 19 on a single throw from QB Tyson Lee.
*Lee completed all three of his throws in relief, for 27 yards. At Tech he was 10-of-15 passing.
*Senior PK Adam Carlson hit field goals of 33 and 41 yards in Saturday's second quarter, extending his streak of makes to nine over 12 games. Then he missed a 32-yarder to snap it. Carlson is now 20-of-32 for his career. He did hit all four PATs and is 73-of-74 in four seasons with a 26-make streak going now. He hit the first 47 of his career.
*Carlson is now 9th in field goal attempts at State. He needs to make four more to move into that top-ten.
*Carlson needs one more PAT to tie for third with Bob Morgan (1980-82) on the career list. The record is 89 by Brian Hazelwood.
*69 Bulldogs played in the SELa game, after 56 played at Tech. Another true freshman, DT Joshua Jackson, joined the list of rookies seeing action so far this year along with SE Sean Ferguson, TE Nelson Hurst, S Charles Mitchell, WR Delmon Robinson, and LB Bo Walters.
*First-year frosh who have yet to play are: WR Arceto Clark, WR Terrance Davis, DB Louis Watson, CB Corey Broomfield, RB T.J. Patterson, DE Nick Bell, LB Mike Hunt, DE Trevor Stigers, DT Devin Jones, OG Tobias Smith, OT Templeton Hardy, WR O'Neal Wilder, WR Charles Bailey, TE Kendrick Cook, and DE Shane McCardell.
*Every 2007 freshman who redshirted last year, and returned for 2008, has now seen action. Latest to join the active roster were HB Robert Elliot, QB Chris Relf, and OG Dakota Merritt.
*P McAdams leads this team in career starts (38). OG Anthony Strauder leads the non-specialists in starts with 32.
*S Keith Fitzhugh, P Blake McAdams, LB Anthony Littlejohn, and S De'Mon Glanton all share the games-played lead with 38 apiece.