Bulldog Football Scouting Report

The Game: Mississippi State (3-4, 1-2 SEC) returns to conference competition by hosting Florida (6-0, 4-0 SEC) in a 6:30 inter-Division matchup at Scott Field. Kickoff is 6:31 for ESPN telecast, while the broadcast is available on the Mississippi State network as well as world-wide on XM channel 199 and Sirius channel 215.

*As best can be determined, this will be the first time an opponent ranked as #1 in the country by a recognized national list has appeared on Scott Field. The Gators are first in the initial release of the Bowl Championship Series standings, as well as the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. They are a close second in the Associated Press poll though, slipping behind Alabama.

*Mississippi State is 1-2 against teams ranked #1, having: lost at Alabama in 1979, beating Alabama in 1980 in Jackson, lost to Tennessee in the 1998 SEC Championship Game, and lost last year at Alabama. However, team rankings from the 1950s and '60s are sketchy so there may well have been other opponents ranked #1 by the primary or lesser polls of the day.

*State's last win over a team ranked in the top-ten came in 2000 when the Bulldogs knocked off then-#3 Florida at Scott Field. State is 0-16 since that win against top-ten teams.

*Bulldog teams are 11-16 in games played on ESPN's primary network, 4-10 in this decade. The last win on ESPN was at the 2007 Liberty Bowl over Central Florida; the last home win on the network was the 2001 Egg Bowl.

The Opponent: Yeah, ‘uneasy lies the head' and all that jazz. Fact is, until somebody can knock it off the crown for college football—or given the consecutive titles of their hard-court counterparts, college sports in general this decade--resides in Gainesville. And Urban Meyer and the Gators show no signs they're weary of wearing it, as Florida's bid for a third B.C.S. title in four years remains on track. Not smoothly, though, with a couple of consecutive escapes that expose uncomfortable concerns about whether these Gators are lacking just a little something to survive both their 2009 season stretch run as well as the tickets-practically-printed rematch with Alabama in Atlanta. Though the best college ballplayer of this generation remains in charge, he's had to cover for backs and receivers who are very good but just a little short of go-to greatness. Then there's the rash of defensive injuries, as well as that bell-ringing heard ‘round the land a month ago, that could still take a toll over the longer haul. Yet make no mistake: until otherwise Meyer still has that crown and likes how it fits Florida.

Offense: Sure, State fans, there is some inevitable transition involved with the loss of a proven play-caller coach that has altered Florida's offense from superb to merely super. The greater change though was the departure of big-play-makers like Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy who left defenses the painful choice of bunching the line or spreading the coverage. Without them, these Gators are down a whole touchdown off their 43.6-point production of 2008…and they still lead the SEC halfway through '09. There isn't much mystery to Florida's preferred path with the league's leading ground attack getting 260 yards per game and 5.8 each attempt. Jeff Demps wasn't exactly untested coming into the soph season, having picked up 605 yards as a rookie with five starts and seven scores. So far as the #1 guy he has 444 yards, sixth-best in the SEC this week, and an improved per-tote rate of 8.4 with five touchdowns. Classmate Chris Rainey has 278 on a 6.8 average gain and former Southern Cal runner Emmanuel Moody numbers of 237 yards, 8.8 per himself. Wanna see which way the play-selecting has been shifted? The leading receiver is a tight end, though junior Aaron Hernandez is no ordinary blocker/receiver. After making 34 grabs with five touchdowns last season the 6-2, 250-pounder is pacing the pack with 28 catches in six games and a 12.9-yard gain, two scores. Still the wide receiving squad has been an obvious letdown and, given the quality of recruiting, rather surprising. Injuries have been a big factor with two expected long-ball threats, Carl Moore and Andre Debose, confined to sidelines. Still there's no lack of athletic bodies to fill the two, three, and four wideout slots as assigned. Senior Riley Cooper has already surpassed his '08 production with 23 catches and 333 yards, and he owns a dozen career touchdowns. Yet nobody else on the roster has more than eight receptions through a half-dozen games. Though, soph Donte Thompson sure makes the most of his chances with 127 yards on five grabs, a 25-plus average, and three touchdowns. Though, 77 of those yards came on a single reception last week against Arkansas. Senior Brandon James is just 5-7 but stood tall last fall with 26 catches and two scores; he always must be accounted for despite modest stats this season. Though, opponents so far stack the front and take their chances with a passing attack ranked SEC-fifth. Given the big bodies up front it makes sense for Florida to pound the ground. Junior Maurkice Pouncey has started all but one of his 33 career games at center and grades 90% or better weekly. Mike Pouncey began as a defender but moved to offense in '08 at guard and can play either side of his bro now; he's listed at RG for now as soph James Wilson has been promoted to starting LG. Though in their first years as the full-time starters, both LT Carl Johnson and RT Marcus Gilbert have plenty of games and blocks under their quintuple-X-size belts. Nobody in this starting five checks in less than 310 pounds, by the way. So while perhaps not as purely explosive as a year ago, nor as efficient (8th in SEC redzone work and 8th in turnover margin), no defense in their right minds likes the odds of stopping this squad when they absolutely, positively need a yard or a score. Oh, and rumor has it that the guy playing quarterback is pretty good under pressure, too.

Defense: The numbers certainly tell a story…but not the complete tale. Because as good as the Gators are here, this defense is not even playing at 100%. The mind boggles at how stout the unit would be if everyone were healthy, especially up front. How many squads could have, say, standout nose-man Lawwrence Marsh barely seeing the field with an ankle problem and not miss a beat…or rather a beating, as UF is simply throttling foes. Especially on the ground, giving up 95 yards-per and 3.0 each tote. The tackle position is a worry this week though as the Gators have to shuffle both their four- and three-man plans. With Marsh still gimpy, frosh Omar Hunter has stepped in and had a big day against Arkansas; and former starter DT Terron Sanders has returned to that status with good results. That's near enough 600 pounds of muscle in the middle, too. Soph Jaye Howard, who took Sanders' job this year, is getting back from his own injury issues. That's key as he can play over the ball in an odd-front as needed and 265-pound junior Duke Lemmens is another, faster option in the middle. Not that any speed or skill lacks on the ends. 290-pounder Carlos Dunlap has been a beast the last two SEC wins and was defensive MVP of last year's national title game. Meanwhile all Jermaine Cunningham does is pace this squad in sacks and tackles for losses. Normally the top defensive concern would be the groin strain to brilliant MLB Brandon Spikes; he's supposed to play but how much is a question. Yet if any squad can have possibly the land's best ‘backer watching from the sideline it's Florida. After all, backup Dustin Doe is only a senior with 137 career tackles to his credit. SLB A.J. Jones has 24 starts to-date and had ten tackles in the LSU win, though '09 starter Brandon Hicks is likely to participate here too. And senior WLB Ryan Stamper is leading this squad, no modest feat, in tackles; he had a dozen against Tennessee and nine more at LSU. Notice, the top-tackler here has 33 stops, reflecting just how hard it is to be first Gator to the ball. S Ahmad Black finds his way to enough; once a cornerback he converted in '08 and has been starting ever since. Two-way safety Will Hill is coming off a season-best effort in the Arkansas win with six hits; and S Major Wright had four more, bringing his career total to 142. Joe Haden became the first true-frosh starting cornerback in program history four years ago and hasn't budged since, with six picks and 182 tackles after 32-straight openings. Coincidentally, fellow CB Janoris Jenkins also started as a true freshman last year and is on an even faster pick-pace with five after 19 games! These DBs get plenty chances to chase passes since foes are forced to put it up early and often. With little more success and only 800 yards in gains and two scores. It brings to mind the sour joke about the wisdom of punting on third down and saving the trouble.

Specialists: Could any program be faintly disappointed with only two touchdown returns at mid-season? Well, that's how high the standards are here, or maybe the focus foes have on trying to limit the damage Brandon James does. He's gotten hands on 14 punts for just a 3.6 average; kickoffs are another matter with a 28.7-yard average and 85-yard score in the '09 opener. Junior Chas Henry is a three-year veteran having a somewhat down-season at 38.8 yards, though coverage is so good Florida is second in net SEC punting. Caleb Sturgis has been promoted from freshman kickoff man to soph placekicker and made 10 of 12 tries with a 51-yarder last week. He also hit the chip-shot kick to win the game.

The Series: Florida holds a 32-18-2 advantage in a series dating back to 1923. These original SEC members have been playing since before the league's founding, and—oddly considering the distance—met regularly up until SEC went Divisional. They played annually from 1962-93, and State did not help its cause by holding all home games from pre-Pearl Harbor to the early 80s in Jackson. Ironically it was returning the series to campus that helped State cut into the deficit, with a 7-3 lead in all Starkville games and four-straight wins dating back admittedly to 1986. Florida last visited in 2004, while the Bulldogs most recently appeared in Gainesville in…

The Last Time: October , 2005 Florida avenged an upset loss in Starkville the season before with a thorough 35-9 thumping of the visiting Bulldogs. The Gators were playing under new management as that '04 defeat led to the firing of Ron Zook and hiring of Urban Meyer, along with assistant Dan Mullen, from Utah. But Mississippi State wasn't equipped to upset anyone this time around, other than the stomachs of fans who saw a series of special-teams breakdowns make the Gators' job much simpler. Ironically both sides got on the first-quarter scoreboard with field goals, but in the second quarter State's self-destruction began as a pinned-punt led to a safety at 7:38. Forcing Florida to punt didn't help as Jonathan Lowe fumbled the ball, setting up a short field for a 13-down TD run by DeShawn Wynn for a 12-3 halftime lead. It would have been worse but the Gators fumbled at the one-yard line for a touchback; which State offset by missing a field goal before intermission. Quarterback Chris Leak expanded the margin to 19-3 with his third-quarter keeper. State's best bid came as Jerious Norwood tore off a 76-yard touchdown run at 5:04 of the period. But Dog quarterback Mike Henig was caught for a safety at 0:59, and Leak threw a 15-yard touchdown to Dallas Baker two minutes into the last quarter. The final margin came on a blocked Bulldog punt in the end zone 53 seconds later. Florida had 480 total yards and Leak was 18-of-33 for a score and two interceptions. Henig was 9-of-20 for 119 yards replacing Omarr Conner after he was 2-of-5 with a pick. Norwood only carried 13 times for 11 yards.

Bulldog Notebook: Through seven games Mississippi State has scored 192 points, surpassing the entire 2008 season total of 183 points. But of these, two touchdowns have been on intercept returns, another on a blocked kick, and a fourth on a kickoff return.

*The Bulldog offensive line has allowed just eight sacks in seven games. That's tied for 5th-best in the SEC, though leader Auburn has allowed five sacks so it's close enough. But the real point is in comparison to last season when State gave up 36 sacks in 12 games.

*State remains the only SEC team credited with attempting an on-sides kickoff; two of them in fact.

*After losing the ball by fumble or interception 13 times in a three-game span, the Bulldogs did not commit a turnover at Middle Tennessee. They still rank 11th in SEC turnover margin, though, despite getting four picks at Murfreesboro.

*Those four interceptions give State eight for the season, fourth-most in the league. And, equals the pick-total for all of 2008.

*Mississippi State is one of four SEC teams rushing for over 200 yards per-game. In fact, the current rate of 219.0 yards is more than double the 101.7 average last season.

*Mississippi State still does not have a receiver ranked in the SEC's top ten for either receptions or yards per game.

*Now that the program record is his, RB Anthony Dixon will be tracked as he climbs the Southeastern Conference rushing list. Dixon just broke Jerious Norwood's MSU record of 3,212 yards when he scored on a 57-yard blast at Middle Tennessee, and he came back home with 3,299 yards for his four seasons. He also moved past Norwood and a couple of other league greats on the SEC list, where as of now Dixon ranks 17th. If he were to get another 100 yards this week Dixon would jump to 14th place.

*And odds should look good because Dixon has broken 100 yards in five-straight contests, in the process surpassing Norwood's career mark of 13. A.D. now has 14. If he can get 100 or more this week he'll match the six-game record of Dicenzo Miller in 2000.

*Dixon's 787 rushes are 6th-most in SEC history.

*Dixon also just moved into the SEC top-ten for touchdowns. His program-record 37 rushing scores are 10th-most, though he'll need three more TDs to climb a rung. Adding in his four receiving touchdowns, Dixon is tied for 9th in scoring all TDs.

*Dixon keeps shoving his school scoring record farther out of future reach. He now has 246 points, all on touchdowns.

*More remarkable is that Dixon is 4th in MSU all-purpose yards without returning a kick of any sort, unlike the trio still ahead of him. Because he doesn't do return duty Walter Packer's mark of 4,169 is likely out of reach.

*After having six passes picked in three games, QB Tyson Lee didn't turn the ball over at Middle Tennessee. He also had one of his most efficient days throwing the ball with 14-of-20 completions.

*Lee didn't throw a touchdown in the last game, but the senior did run for one on a 39-yard keeper. It was not only the longest run of his two-year MSU career but his second touchdown tote. Lee ran for one score with a long carry of 18 yards last season.

*Lee remains the most accurate passer in program history with a 58.7 completion percentage. He also best in interception ratio at just 2.69% of his passes picked. The best four-year averages in those categories belong to Sleepy Robinson (1989-92, 55.7% completions) and Derrick Taite (1993-96, 3.41%).

*Lee is one of just 11 Bulldog quarterbacks to complete 200 passes. He's ninth on the list with 240 completions in two years, also the best two-year total in MSU annals. But his 2,500 yards even are lowest on the top-ten list by a sizable margin, 440 yards still behind Matt Wyatt's 1996-99 total.

*He's still a pup in this kennel but WR Chad Bumphis is plenty precocious. His 23 receptions lead this club, as do his 267 yards and three touchdowns also. In fact he has half of the team's touchdown catches.

*TE Marcus Green has two of the other three touchdowns, and is second in catches (18) and yards (238). His average game of 13.2 yards betters Bumphis' 11.6.

*WR O'Neal Wilder has the top average-gain of the regular receivers, 17.0 per catch.

*WR Leon Berry is third on the squad in receiving yards but first in all-purpose gains thanks to his kick return duties. He has 790 yards or 113 per-game. Berry's kickoff return touchdown against Georgia Tech was the first scoring runback by a Bulldog since 2002.

*State's September MVP had to be P Heath Hutchins with a 42-43 average in his first college month. He's slipped some since, though within the context of a more efficient offense that leaves him kicking with less downfield room to boom. Hutchins is 6th in SEC average this week at 40.4 yards.

*The Bulldogs as a team are 5th in net punting with just one real breakdown in coverage, the return touchdown by LSU that skews the stats a bit now.

*Mississippi State and Arkansas are the only SEC schools without a kickoff –touchback this season.

*PK Sean Brauchle has been sidelined for ten quarters with a leg muscle strain. He was six-of-nine on field goals before the injury with a long make of 49 yards. That tied for the longest MSU make since 2002.

*PK Derek DePasquale has stepped up to make four of his five field goals with the lone miss an iffy 51-yarder before halftime against Tech. Between them Brauchle and DePasquale are 22-of-22 on PATs.

*The Bulldog defense has two touchdowns to its credit this season, both on interception returns. CB Corey Broomfield returned a Jackson State pass 43 yards for the first MSU defensive points since 2007; and SS Charles Mitchell brought back a Houston throw 71 yards the other way.

*Of State's eight interceptions, seven are from first-year starters or players and their initial college interceptions. The lone old hand getting a pick this season so far is senior MLB Jamar Chaney, intercepting Houston in the end zone.

*SLB K.J. Wright is in a tight race with Chaney for the team tackle lead. Junior Wright has 47 total stops, Chaney 46.

*Wright and SLB Chris White both have 3.5 tackles for losses.

*But nobody is getting to opponents behind the line better than DE Pernell McPhee, with 6.0 credited. His 2.5 sacks also top the squad.

*Re-review gave DT Fletcher Cox credit for the field goal blocked in the Houston game, as most thought at the time. It was the freshman's first big special teams play, and the second stuffing by State this season. At Auburn FB Patrick Hanrahan stuffed a Tiger punt that was returned for a touchdown by RB Robert Elliot.

*Seven 2009 freshmen signees have played to date: Bumphis, WR Brandon Heavens, ST Cameron Lawrence, DB/ST Jonathan Banks, WR Chris Smith, DT Fletcher Cox, DT Josh Boyd.

*True frosh yet to play are: RB Montrel Conner, WR Dennis Thames, WR Ricco Sanders, QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, DB Nickoe Whitley, RB Williams Shumpert, LB Deonte Skinner, OL Gabriel Jackson, DL Johnathan McKenzie, OL Sam Watts.

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