*State's last win over a ranked opponent was a year ago at home against #13 Vanderbilt.
*The home team has succeeded in this series the last five meetings, since Ole Miss took the 2003 game in Starkville.
The Opponent: Outside forecasts did prove somewhat overhyped, as was the undeserved backlash. And yes, maybe a couple of contests got away to prevent reaching the greater goals. Still only the most ardent Rebel could be disappointed with how Houston Nutt's second season has played out, especially if Ole Miss can score another nine-win record. So what if he's done this with inherited talent, Nutt has maximized it in entertaining ways his predecessor would never have schemed. Though there are perhaps hints of discomfort lurking behind the current success, with graduation, the NFL, or both about to gut the lineup and leave Nutt to truly rebuild relying on his own recruiting results. Ahhh, well, as the line goes, they'll worry about that tomorrow.
Offense: At least they're consistent; after averaging 407.6 yards last fall, this edition of the Ole Miss offense is getting 407.5-per. Rushes? 40.0 last year, 39.1 this year though with a bit more production per carry. Similar story on the aerial front with stats eerily similar save in one interesting aspect: the touchdown-to-intercept ratio is down this time around. And nobody denies 2009 hasn't been quite the campaign expected of Jevan Snead, as despite a much easier strength-of-schedule his yardage, completions, and points have slipped behind some pretty average other SEC passers. Which is not nearly the same thing as saying he is struggling, since an offense we know would worship a 17-TD thrower getting 13.4 yards each completion. And if lots of those yards come on short tosses turned into big gains by play-making teammates, this scheme keeps coverage up close enough to allow the occasional deeper strike to senior SE Shay Hodge, a real long threat getting 16.3 on his 57 catches with seven scores. Junior Markeith Summers can break it long as well with 24.5 yards per-grab and three TDs, and frosh Pat Patterson (11, 14.8, 1) has taken turns in multi-receiver sets. But of course it is the spectacular receiver/runner and even thrower, senior Dexter McCluster, who causes the most hair loss among league defensive coordinators. He's caught 34 balls for 412 yards as a flanker, while running for a team-best 903 and six scores more with a typical gain of 6.9 toting either on handoff or direct-snap. Then there was that 27-yard touchdown toss last week to turn the LSU game around entirely. If there was a production-per-pound trophy awarded in college football, McCluster might well retire it. Though he has to make room for his special teammate soph Brandon Bolen is a fine back in his own right with four TDs and 4.9 per carry. And if any wonder the play-calling breaks down 59% runs since Snead can gain ground on his own. Nutt hasn't much track record using tight ends as targets, but he will sneak the ball to fullback Andy Hartmann when least expect and that's produced three touchdowns to date. But want to know this coach's core offensive philosophy? Look at the interior line with stands 6-7, 6-6, 6-2, 6-6, 6-6 and adds a 6-6 tight end as needed. They might not have a first-round draft here but the group can stand both tall and proud having allowed only 13 sacks in 11 games. Oh, and looking for positive trends from a year ago? Red zone scoring is outstanding and not just because they've produced points on 33 of 35 trips; but 25 have been touchdowns.
Defense: Maybe the offense isn't quite as productive as a year ago. That's OK since, despite some high-profile graduations, the defense might be better in some areas…aided admittedly by the lesser opposition played. Passing defense is where the progress has been made with yards-allowed falling from 222 last fall to 187 this year, and throwing touchdowns cut in-half to nine this year through 11 games. And this isn't necessarily the coverage itself as there are areas for exploiting; but simply that getting a good throw off is a success in itself. Led by a brutal defensive front the Rebels have tallied thirty sacks and many more hurries, with DE Kentrell Lockett setting the pace. The 254-pound junior has come through for five official sacks and ten hurries, not to mention blocking a kick. On the other end Marcus Tillman has 3.5 sacks and five hurries. They get a lot of individual blocking matchups, and thus a lot of straight shots at passers, since O-lines have to start by holding back 640 combined interior pounds of Jerrell Powe and Lawon Scott. Powe in particular is effective stuffing runners with ten tackles behind the line. Meanwhile LB Patrick Trahan comes off the weak side and makes a living in the backfield himself, while 235-pound Jonathan Cornell supports the middle to the tune of 65 tackles so far. And that's not even best on the team, a status held by FS Kendrick Lewis with 71 stops to go with nine pass break-ups. He has to cover a lot of ground back there too as opponents do put the ball up early and often. This keeps the two senior corners, Cassius Vaughn (2 INT, 9 PBU) and Marshay Green busy as well. It's worth noting that the Rebel defense has only picked eight balls this season compared to 14 for foes…but they've also broken up nearly twice as many passes as the opposition. And perhaps the stat that matters most for this defense is where the Rebs rank in stopping third downs: second in the SEC at 28%, behind only Florida and even ahead of Alabama. ‘Nuff said.
Specialists: PK Joshua Sheene has been nearly automatic again this year, making 13-of-16 field goals with a 45-yarder. And one of those misses was a block. Freshman Tyler Campbell has been the big special teams addition with a 43.8-yard punting average and 15 fair-catches. Another frosh, Jesse Grandy, has taken over returning kickoffs and produced not only a 27.4-yard average but two touchdowns already as a collegian. Green handles punts and nets 7.5 yards.
The Series: This isn't the longest series for the in-state rivals but is the most-played with 105 meetings in the books since 1901. Ole Miss has had the better of things with a 60-39-6 lead, that margin built almost entirely between 1947 and '73 when the Rebels won 21 of 27 games with only two losses. And since 1991 these arch-foes have split the 18 games nine apiece. Though the series went off-campus from 1973-90, the Rebels hold a 20-11-3 lead in games played at Starkville.
The Last Time: November 28, 2008 It took 140 seconds for the Rebels to post all the points they would need, but they kept the home crowd happy by continuing to pound away en route to a 45-0 victory. Ole Miss got the winning score at 12:40 of the opening quarter as Dexter McCluster crossed the goal line after a 36-yard dash. And before the first period was done the scoreboard showed 24-0 as Jeven Snead tossed touchdowns of 10 and 17 yards. Each score was set up by an intercepted Bulldog pass thrown by Tyson Lee and Wesley Carroll. A strike of 72 yards to Michael Wallace before halftime made it 31-0, and Snead would throw his fourth score in the third period with a one-yard flip on fourth down. Brandon Bolen accounted for the remaining points with a 24-yard rush at 12:18 of the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs mustered just 37 net offensive yards on 56 plays with ten, or 11 depending on who was counting, sacks scored against Lee (5-of-9, 49 yards) and Carroll (3-of-13, 26 yards). Anthony Dixon was shackled to 17 yards on eight carries. Meanwhile Snead was 14-of-19 for 213 yards with one interception. Wallace turned four catches into 105 yards and two touchdowns, while McCluster ran for 68 yards as Ole Miss netted 461 total. The blowout loss also ended Sylvester Croom's five-season tenure as Bulldog coach, after a hasty post-game meeting with his boss and an abrupt Saturday morning announcement. The change came a season after Croom had been tabbed SEC Coach of the Year in his only winning season at State.
Bulldog Notebook: The 2009 Bulldog offense is averaging 368.3 yards per game, the ninth-best rate in program history. The 205 first downs through 11 games are also ninth-best on record.
*Though Arkansas got through to sack State quarterbacks four times, the '09 season total of 18 sacks allowed is just half the 36 given up in the 2008 season.
*While the overall turnover rate is still negative (21 takeaways, 28 giveaways), this year's defense has made significant progress in creating turnovers. State has 14 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).
*This State team has scored six non-offensive touchdowns and a kickoff return. These Dogs need two more such non-offense scores to match the 1998 record of eight.
*State's ground game is 4th in SEC rushing at 219 yards per game. That is more than double the 102 average of last season; in fact it far outruns the 137-yard rate of the 2007 squad that won eight games.
*With one game left in his college career RB Anthony Dixon seeks one remaining rushing record. The senior has 1,258 yards for this season, and needs 125 to catch the one-year standard of 1,383 set by James Johnson in 1998. Of course Johnson had 13 games to get his gains while Dixon gets just 11 chances here in 2009 due to an opening-day suspension.
*This season's 1,258 tally is still the second-best year ever for a MSU runner and Dixon's second 1,000-yard campaign. He's one of just three Dog to have a pair of 1,000-seasons.
*Dixon already owns the career rushing record, now standing at 3,861 yards in four seasons. And at Kentucky he set the State game rushing record of 252 yards.
*Dixon has used this senior season to expand career touchdown records he already held after just three years. He now has 41 rushing scores and 45 overall.
*At Arkansas, Dixon became the all-purpose yards leader in MSU history as well with 4,298 yards. All came on running or catching. He surpassed Walter Packer (4,169 1973-76) who also returned kicks.
*With so many Mississippi State standards to his credit, Dixon also has moved on up the SEC careers lits as well. Only Herschel Walker (Georgia 1980-82, 994) and Dalton Hilliard (LSU 1982-85, 882) have carried the football more often than Dixon's 881 totes.
*Dixon goes into the finale #9 in SEC career rushing yards; tied for 7th in rushing touchdowns; and tied for 7th again in total touchdowns.
*Only seven SEC backs have rushed for 4,000 yards.
*Dixon's 16 catches and 111 yards are the best such season of his State career.
*Senior QB Tyson Lee could end his two-year MSU career with both of the most-accurate passing seasons ever for a Bulldog quarterback. His 58.8% rate of 2008 is the all-time program standard; but he goes into his last game with a 59.0% even rate for the senior season.
*In just two years Lee has completed 278 passes, ranking 8th on the MSU career list; while he is 9th in career passes thrown at 472.
*He also needs 29 more yards' worth of catches this week to tie Matt Wyatt (1996-99, 2,940) for 10th on career yardage.
*But, nine of the ten quarterbacks ahead of Lee on the career-yardage list have higher yards-per-catch rates, topped by the 15.28 of Don Smith (1983-86) and 15.1 of John Bond (1980-83). Lee's average completion has gone for 10.47 yards.
*Also, Lee has gone from the least-intercepted (by percentage) MSU passer ever to 5th on that career list, having been picked off seven times in the last three games against a single touchdown. For the year he has 13 picks and four scores.
*In a four-game stretch (Georgia Tech through Florida) Lee completed 66% of his throws; in the last three games he is 23-of-40 or 57.5%.
*Counting his suspended status for Houston/Middle Tennessee, QB Chris Relf did not throw a pass for five-straight games and had not completed a throw in six games. Then he went 4-of-7 at Arkansas, for just 27 yards though.
*But he rushed for 68 yards in his last game, and has 369 net-gains for the season; second-best on the squad. And his 6.0 average gain is better than Dixon's 5.5.
*WR Chad Bumphis has made the biggest freshman impression on offense with a team-best 29 catches and 323 yards. The last time a freshman led State in receiving was 1977, when Mardye McDole had 29 catches also.
*But Bumphis has collected just six catches in the last four games, for 56 yards. And his last touchdown came in the Georgia Tech game.
*Bumphis has rushed for one touchdown this rookie year, against Georgia Tech. He's yet to throw for a score but that will come in time. Bumphis is 1-of-2 passing for five yards.
*Bumphis has also taken on more special-teams responsibility in November. Against Arkansas he had two punt returns (32 yards) and five kickoff chances (98 yards). This gives the rookie 774 all-purpose yards, behind Dixon and WR/KR Leon Berry.
*Junior transfer Berry has 1,162 all-purpose yards, 10th-best in the SEC. He is 4th in league kickoff return average, and has obliterated the season KOR record set only a year ago by Derek Pegues with 708. Berry has run back kickoffs for 923 yards this year.
*Berry's KOR touchdown against Georgia Tech was the first by any Bulldog since 2003.
*But, Berry has not caught a pass in the last five games.
*Instead WR O'Neal Wilder and TE Marcus Green have been targeted more often of late. Wilder has nine catches in the last five games and his 16.9-average gain is best in the lineup. Wilder had his first college touchdown catch at Kentucky.
*And Green bounced back from a catch-less night against Alabama with three grabs at Arkansas. He trails only Bumphis in total catches with 25, and yards with 281. Green and Bumphis have five of State's seven touchdown catches between htem.
*Bulldog tight ends had only ten catches all of 2008. Kendrick Cook (1, 13 yards) is the only other tight end with a grab this year.
*Mississippi State does not have a receiver ranked among the SEC's top ten for either catches or yards per game.
*Senior MLB Jamar Chaney needs just one more tackle to tie his best season, when he had 89 stops in 2007. Chaney's 88 tackles this year top the team with SLB K.J. Wright well-back at 75.
*Chaney goes into his last college game with 286 total tackles, solos or assists.
*Chaney's second senior season also produced his first career interceptions, with pickoffs against Houston and Kentucky.
*Junior ‘backer Wright might trail his elder teammate in total tackles but is tied with two sack each, and Wright is ahead in tackles for losses at 6.0 to 4.5.
*WLB Chris White had 26 tackles in the first five games; he's had 44 stops in the last six.
*Junior DE Pernell McPhee isn't just the leading tackler among MSU linemen this year, he's pacing the whole team in tackles for losses (12.0) and sacks (5.0). He also has a team-high seven quarterback hurries to his credit and four passes broken up.
*The Dog defense still needs another two sacks to match their 2009 total of 19.
*But they have intercepted 14 passes this season, compared to only eight in 2008.
*And nine of those picks belong to first-year players. Redshirt freshman CB Corey Broomfield intercepted a pair of balls at Arkansas, matching his two-pick day at Middle Tennessee. He has five total interceptions for the season, which had been done 15 other times by a Bulldog before. His first pick, against Jackson State, was returned for a touchdown.
*Meanwhile true frosh Johnathan Banks needs one more pick to add his name to that long list. Banks has four interceptions this season.
*But, Banks also ran back two of those interceptions –and both against Florida's Tim Tebow—for touchdowns, of 100 and 20 yards. He became the first Bulldog ever to pick-six twice in the same game, and in the process tied the season record as well.
*Adding a 71-yard TD return by SS Charles Mitchell against Houston, this Dog defense has four pick-sixes; that's two shy of the program record set in 1998.
*All 14 picks this season came by a Bulldog who had never intercepted a college pass before 2009.
*Along with the four intercept-touchdowns, State has scored this year on a kickoff return (Berry vs. Ga. Tech) and a blocked (by FB Patrick Hanrahan) punt return (by RB Robert Elliot) at Auburn. So this Bulldog squad has scored six non-offensive touchdowns.
*DT Fletcher Cox blocked a field goal in the Houston game.
*PK Derek DePasquale had a six-make streak of field goals snapped when he missed a 36-yard try against Alabama. He came back to hit a 34-yarder that night, making him 8-of-10 on the year. His longest make is 43 yards against Florida.
*DePasquale has been kicking in place of PK Sean Brauchle who is 6-of-9 on the year with a 49-yarder at Vanderbilt. That matched the longest make by a Bulldog since 2001.
*Between them the two placekickers are perfect on 30 PATs.
*State has twice tried two-point conversions and failed at each; a pass against Vanderbilt and a called pass for a run against Florida.
*Mississippi State is the only SEC school without a kickoff-touchback this season.
*Eleven true 2009 scholarship freshmen have not played in 2009: RB Montrell Conner, OL Gabe Jackson, DE Johnathan McKenzie, RB LaDarius Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, WR Ricco Sanders, RB William Shumper, LB Deonte Skinner, WR/DB Dennis Thames, OC Sam Watts, DB Nickoe Whitley.