Bulldog Football Scouting Report

The Game: Mississippi State (4-5, 2-3 SEC) begins the annual November run of three conference contests, beginning with a home game against Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC). Kickoff at Scott Field is 6:00 for ESPN telecast, with the broadcast airing on the statewide MSU Network as well as XM 199 and Sirius 220.

*Alabama is back up to #2 in this week's B.C.S. calculating as well as 3rd in both major voting polls. Either way, this is the fifth foe Mississippi State has faced this season that has been ranked at some point in 2009. The Bulldogs lost the previous four such meetings and their last five overall. The most recent win over a ranked team was last October with a victory over #13 Vanderbilt.

*State has not beaten a top-ten team since 2000 when those Dogs beat #3 Florida at Scott Field. Since then MSU has lost 17-straight games with teams ranked 10th or higher.

*The Bulldogs are looking for their first home-field win since the season-opener. They have lost the last four home contests, all to teams that have been ranked which would make for a most formidable ‘RPI' on the 2009 home slate.

The Opponent: Déjà vu all over again, eh? Even SEC fans of limited historical appreciation should try to savor the events of 2008 and '09, with each entire season tracking towards all-or-nothing showdowns in Atlanta. Florida took the first round; the second seems slightly tilting in Alabama's favor as the Crimson Tide looks primed for the big prize this time. By most measures that matter Alabama is playing the better ball here in November, shaking out of a touchdown slump that might well prove beneficial in preventing overconfidence. Not to say that a stumble isn't possible down the stretch, of course, but it won't be because this club is overlooking either of the rivalry road trips ahead. And should they and the Gators each reach the Georgia Dome unscathed, the mind boggles at what an available ducat could demand even in this economy. Because history is again here for the making.

Offense: So what if they didn't burn up scoreboards for the last month? Any foe assuming Alabama has a sputtering offense will get what they deserve: to wit, whupped. And not merely by a ground game that is far more efficient than any stat-chart lists, because the Tide's air attack is taking off just in time for the end-season-stretch. A two-year apprenticeship served, QB Greg McElroy has matured over the course of this junior season and now is making his own plays happen. Such as that 276 yard heads-up sent to the football world last weekend against LSU, meaning McElroy now does more than just avoid errors. In fact he's got 11 touchdowns and just four picks for the season on 59% completions. Rushing-reliance and a new passer is why no Tide receiver is in the SEC's top-ten for either yards or catches; it surely isn't lack of explosive ability. Thus nobody is fooled because WR Julio Jones has ‘just' 24 catches and two scores this soph season after a 58-grab, 924-yard debut year. No other SEC receiver so distorts a defensive gameplan. Or creates chances for cohorts, as in the six grabs Marquis Maze got last week to give him 21 for the year and two more scores. And coverage racing up to support the run often miss TE Collin Peek who has gotten loose for 19 catches. The #2-leading target has just as many grabs as Jones and one more touchdown; but then Mark Ingram more often gets the ball handed directly to him in his usual backfield job. After sharing the job and carries as a freshman, Ingram has stepped into the soph-spotlight and paces league rushing at 127.6 yards. A 6.6 average gain and eight touchdowns, and his frustrating talent for making the correct cut every time and turning a three-yard stretch play into a 30-yard burst make him a legit Heisman candidate right now. Obviously fears of Jones and Ingram getting loose mean defenses can rarely risk all-out rushing, with just nine sacks scored in as many outings. But the Tide line is quite capable of handling most pressure on their own. The fivesome has stayed intact all nine games, and if not quite the heaviest front in the league they're certainly one of the tallest outside the NFL at 6-5, 6-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 across. It's more likely a McElroy throw will be deflected by a blocker's helmet than any rusher. Again, this may not be the most productive offense in the league, but it absolutely gets the deed done…and by the way leads the SEC in both possession time and fourth-down conversions.

Defense: Who has the better defense, Florida or Alabama? Hmmm, what would you rather cross paths with, a cottonmouth moccasin or timber rattler? Either will administer a real hurting, though the sense now is the Crimson Tide's D can strike a bit faster and harder. Even more so than last year's unit that finished top-ten, even top-three, in NCAA scoring, rushing, and total defense. No surprise given that nine starters were coming back…yet there have been a couple of injuries and changes over the course of this campaign and the defense has only improved. It might base off a three-man front but this trio might outweigh some four-fronts. And how many places could 290 and 306 pound ends be the lightweights on the line? That's the case for a group anchored around 350-or-so-pund NG Terrance Cody, who might have only 20 credited tackles but seizes a literally outsized portion of offensive gameplanning due to his sheer disruption of anything at the point of contact. And with linebackers like these just getting a tackle is an individual triumph. It's usually a four-man group headlined by junior MLB Rolando McClain (66 total stops, two sacks, 7 TFLs) with ‘jack' man Eryk Anders notching four sacks and 44 tackles. But the Tide will alter the scheme and has started an extra safety in backup CB Marquis Johnson in place of the strong-side linebacker. It doesn't give up any efficiency either since SS Mark Barron has made 55 tackles in support; while also picking off a team-best four passes with seven total breakups. FS Justin Woodall has a pair of his own picks, and is free to roam the backfield since CB Javier Arenas is as likely to come on a blitz as drop into coverage. Arenas tops the roster in tackle-losses at 10.5 and has four sacks as well. There's also a dime package with backup FS Robby Green starting in place of yet another ‘backer. Teams complete under 50% of throws against this group anyway, but there is still little choice but to chuck it as Alabama strangles ground games to merely 68 yards gained—if that's the word—per weekend. Oh, and guess who leads the SEC in sacks?. As they say, it's a matter of picking your poison.

Specialists: They're seniors and thus far too familiar. P.J. Fitzgerald has been punting it away for four years and is getting 42.0 yards, but classmate Leigh Tiffin is having an even better senior season with a SEC-best 23 field goals (26 tries) and 50-yarder to his '09 credit. Oddly, he's missed a couple of PATs, but his three-pointers capably carried the offense during their October issues. State folk would rather forget Arenas' heroics a year ago, and it's not exactly encouraging he hasn't scored a TD return so far this season; it only means he's over-due on averages of 14.4 yards punts and 27.4 kickoffs.

The Series: It goes back to the second year of State football, to 1896, and with brief and scattered exceptions has belonged to the opponent as Alabama owns a 72-18-3 record. That lead was inflated by a stretch of complete domination as State won just once (1980) from 1958-95. Since then Bulldog teams have cut into the margin a bit with three-straight wins in 1996-98 and consecutive victories 2006-07. But the Crimson Tide still holds a comfortable 14-4 lead in games played in Starkville.

The Last Time: November 15, 2008 Alabama snapped a two-year losing string to Mississippi State and defended their then-#1 ranking with a 32-7 victory in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide more than doubled the Bulldogs in offensive output, 364 yards to 167, which would have sufficed to control the contest. But it was two big special teams plays by Alabama, or breakdowns by MSU coverage, that kept the home team in charge. In fact it was a Tide punt pinning State at the one-yard line which led to the first points, as the Dogs had to try kicking it back and were blocked for a first-quarter safety. Alabama added a field goal before the period was out, then saw MSU take a brief 7-5 lead as Tyson Lee threw to Jamayel Smith for a 31-yard touchdown. But State's next turn again had them starting deep in a hole, and when they had to punt Javier Arenas fielded just inside midfield and evaded coverage for a return to the MSU two. John Wilson put his team ahead with a one-yard dive at 4:47. Arenas struck again in the third quarter, this time going all the 80-yard way for a touchdown at 12:14. Field goals stretched the lead to 25-7 and midway of the last period Mark Ingram dove a yard for the final points. Ingram had 78 yards on 13 carries and Glen Coffee 71 more on 17 totes; while Anthony Dixon mustered just 26 yards on 11 rushes. Lee was 11 of 28 for 132 yards and State's only score.

Bulldog Notebook: If Mississippi State can maintain the current rate of 385 yards offense per-game, it would be the 3rd-best annual average ever and the best since 2000 when those Dogs compiled 386 per-game.

*After scoring just 183 points in all 2008, the '09 Bulldogs have put 242 points on the board this season already. The average scoring of 24.6 points compares to the 15.3-point rate of last season.

*However, State this week ranks last in the SEC in third-down conversion rate at 32.2%.

*The MSU offensive line has allowed just 12 sacks this season, tied for fourth-best in the SEC this week. And that compares to the 36 sacks allowed all last season.

*While the overall turnover rate is still negative (19 takeaways, 23 giveaways), this year's defense has made significant progress in creating turnovers. State has 12 interceptions this season compared to eight all last year. And four of those have been turned into touchdowns, most for a Dog defense since 1994 (six).

*For that matter this State team has scored six non-offensive touchdowns, including a blocked-punt return (FB Patrick Hanrahan/ST Robert Elliot vs. Auburn) and kickoff return (Leon Berry vs. Georgia Tech). These Dogs need two more such non-offense scores to match the 1998 record of eight.

*State's ground game is up to 3rd in rushing at 219 yards per game. That is more than double the 102 average of last season; in fact it far outruns, so to speak, the 137-yard rate of the 2007 squad that won eight games.

*And central to this success of course if RB Anthony Dixon, who a week ago added game-rushing to his list of State standards (252 yards, five more than the previous mark of 247 by Jerious Norwood in 2005). Dixon also holds the program records for:

--career rushing at 3,604 yards; 100-yard games with 15; total rushes at 835; rushing touchdowns with 39; total touchdowns with 43; and total points with 258

*Dixon also now is just the third Bulldog back with two 1,000-yard seasons, joining Norwood (2004, '05) and James Johnson (1997, '98). Dixon got 1,066 yards as a sophomore and has 1,001 through eight games this senior season.

*It will take 382 more yards to catch Johnson's season record set in 1998. His next 100-yard game will tie the season record shared by Johnson and Wayne Jones (1973).

*Having claimed most all program rushing and scoring records, he is now climbing the SEC's career charts. He now stands 11th in rushing yards, 227 behind Auburn's Carnell Williams for 10th. Dixon is already top-ten in SEC rushing touchdowns and 8th in total touchdowns.

*QB Tyson Lee could end his two-season career as the most accurate passer in MSU history. As of now his 59.0% rate is well in front of the 56.8% of two-year quarterback Dave Marler (1977-78). The four-year standard is 55.7% by Sleepy Robinson (1989-92).

*Lee already has the best season completion percentage ever at MSU, 58.8% last year; and now he is at 59.3% as a senior. In the last five games Lee has completed 74 of 113 passes, or 65.5%.

*With 265 completions Lee is ninth on the MSU career list. And he needs 150 yards to move into the school top-ten for passing yardage.

*However, Lee has been intercepted five times in the last two games and 11 for the season, compared to four touchdowns. He went three games without tossing for six points until hooking up with WR O'Neal Wilder for a score in the Kentucky game.

*That 67-yard strike at Lexington was the second-longest TD toss of Lee's career, after a 69-yard play in the LSU game to WR Chad Bumphis.

*Since returning to active status QB Chris Relf has not thrown a pass in two games. But he has rushed ten times for 94 yards, with a 60-yard jaunt against Kentucky to set up a touchdown. Relf has a 6.8-yard gain on his average rush this year, best in this offensive lineup.

*For four weeks WR Chad Bumphis was the hottest target on the team, with 17 catches and 222 yards. But he was held to one reception by Florida and two at Kentucky, for a combined 23 yards.

*True freshman Bumphis remains the leading receiver for the season with both 26 catches and 290 yards, as well as in touchdowns with three.

*Bumphis has also rushed for a touchdown, against Georgia Tech. And he has tossed two passes this year, one complete for five yards.

*Add to that his work returning kicks, and Bumphis accounts for 452 yards of all sorts.

*That is still well-short of Berry's total 1,038 all-purpose yards this season. The junior transfer has vanished from the receiving stats with no catches in the last three games, but is still third on the squad with 14 receptions. It is on kick returns Berry makes his mark, as he just broke the season record of Derek Pegues (2008) for kickoff return yardage. He's up to 801 through nine games.

*Berry's KOR touchdown against Georgia Tech was the first by any Bulldog since 2003.

*TE Marcus Green has been gaining ground on Bumphis in the receptions race, with 22 grabs now and 264 yards. For the entire 2008 season Bulldog tight ends combined for just ten catches.

*The best per-catch average belongs to WR O'Neal Wilder, aided by that big grab at Kentucky for his first college touchdown. Wilder is netting 17.7 yards on his dozen catches this season.

*Besides Bumphis, the only Dog to catch a touchdown and rush for one as well is RB Christian Ducre. The senior got his second rushing score of the year at Kentucky and is up to 5.8 yards per-carry, better than starter Dixon's 5.5 rate.

*Ducre has 263 yards rushing and 151 in receptions, a third of the latter coming on a 54-yard grab and run against Florida.

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

*MLB Jamar Chaney played the game of a career, so far, when he got in on 15 tackles (five primary, 10 assists) at Kentucky. His previous best was a 14-tackle effort in 2007 at Arkansas.

*Thus Chaney scored some breathing room in the team tackles race on SLB K.J. Wright, who he now leads 73 tackles to 65. Chaney's best year was in '07 when he was credited for 89 tackles in 13 games.

*Both Chaney and Wright have two official sacks to their '09 credit, but junior Wright has the edge in total tackles for losses at 6.0 to 4.5 on his senior teammate.

*But no Dog is getting to opponents behind the line of scrimmage more or better than DE Pernell McPhee. The junior transfer now has 9.0 TFLs for 31 yards. He also has 4.0 sacks, again tops on the team so far. Those two totals match the best output of 2008 already when Wright had 9.0 and 4.0 respectively.

*WLB Chris White rounds out the linebacking trio atop the defensive stats, as he's third at 56 tackles.

*Chaney's 15-hit night matched the previous team best this season as S/CB Marcus Washington had that many tackles in the Florida game.

*Last year the Bulldog defense had 19 sacks for the season; this year's unit is up to 16 with at least three games still to play.

*It took half-a-season for S Johnanthan Banks to become a starter, and just one game to write his name in the MSU record book. The true freshman turned a pair of interceptions against Florida into interceptions, with returns of 100 (official) and 20 yards. He became the first Bulldog ever to score twice on interceptions in the same game.

*And in that single game Banks tied the MSU season record for pick-sixes. He matched the pair of TD returns by five predecessors in full seasons.

*Banks was coming off a two-pick game at Middle Tennessee, giving him four for this rookie season. That's one shy of making the season top-ten.

*The Dog defense has two more pick-sixes this season so far. CB Corey Broomfield returned an interception 43 yards against Jackson State, and SS Charles Mitchell took one back 71 yards against Houston.

*State's 12 total interceptions this year surpasses the eight in a dozen games last year. All but one has come from a first-year starter or player getting their first college pick(s) this season. The only veteran starter getting picks so far is Chaney (vs. Houston and Kentucky), and these were also his first career interceptions.

*RB Robert Elliot's touchdown on a blocked punt at Auburn was MSU's first such score since 2001.

*DT Fletcher Cox is credited with a blocked field goal in the Houston game.

*PK Derek DePasquale is 7-of-8 on field goals, with a long make of 43 yards, since taking over for injured PK Sean Brauchle in the Georgia Tech game. Brauchle was 6-of-9 kicking with a long make of 49 yards prior to his injury.

*Between them the two placekickers are perfect on 27 PATs.

*State has twice tried two-point conversions and failed each; a pass against Vanderbilt and a called pass that turned into a run against Florida.

*Mississippi State is the only SEC school without a kickoff –touchback this season.

*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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