This will be the second of two meetings between the Mountaineers and the Bulldogs, with West Virginia winning last year's game in Starkville by a final of 42-14. By all appearances, this season's Mississippi State squad is vastly improved over the team from a year ago. The Bulldogs hold a winning record of 4-3, and hold a marquee road victory over SEC foe Auburn. Though they are coming off of a loss to Tennessee, there is reason for optimism in the Magnolia State with things looking up for the maroon and white.
"They're not making the mistakes to beat themselves, other than the first game against LSU when they had some turnovers," said West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez, who holds a 2-0 record over SEC foes. "Other than that, I think they're really pleased. Their quarterback, (freshman Wesley) Carroll, has been impressive. They have not made a lot of mistakes offensively to put their defense in a bad situation. That's probably the biggest thing that I can remember from last year to this year."
Indeed the Bulldogs are doing a much better job of holding onto the football. Through seven games, the MSU offense has lost just four fumbles. In fact, nearly half of Mississippi State's 15 turnovers this season came in the season opener against Louisiana State. In that game, the Bulldogs threw six interceptions in addition to losing one fumble.
Another positive for Sylvester Croom's club is the ever-emerging threat of tailback Anthony Dixon. The physical sophomore is more of a North-South runner in the mold of Corey Dillon as opposed to the lateral quickness and open-field moves that propel West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Noel Devine to big numbers. Dixon is averaging just under 100 yards per game, and has scored 10 touchdowns so far in his sophomore campaign.
"They're establishing the run, particularly with Dixon, who is a big, strong, physical guy," Rodriguez noted. "Their offense has been able to control a lot of games, particularly the Auburn game. Everybody knows Auburn is good at Auburn, and they were able to control some long drives with the running game and hitting a few passes to keep it going."
Needless to say, a similar emphasis on ball-control and game management is likely in the works for Saturday's showdown with No. 8/9 West Virginia. If the Bulldogs hope to minimize big-play opportunities for the powerful Mountaineer offense, moving the chains and holding onto the football will go a long way in doing so. Through his first 74 collegiate passing attempts, Carroll has yet to throw an interception. Punter Blake McAdams is also a weapon for MSU, as his 41.7 yards-per-punt average (including a 73-yard bomb earlier this season) can certainly flip the field position.
When West Virginia does have the football, the speedy MSU defense will do its best to give the Mountaineer ball carriers fits at the line of scrimmage. The Bulldog defenders remind Rodriguez of other opponents this season, specifically the South Florida bunch that limited his team to less than four yards per carry in the Mountaineers' lone loss of the season.
"Defensively, they look a lot like South Florida," noted the seventh-year Mountaineer mentor. "They have fast guys everywhere. I believe even the Tennessee coaches said before and after the game that it was as good a defensive front and as fast a defense that they've played all year.
"Their base is an even front," he continued. "They'll get in some odd fronts, like everybody does, on occasion. Then they'll run what we call a bear front, where they cover everybody up. They will play man coverage, and they're not afraid to play press-man coverage. They'll challenge the wide receivers a little bit. We see some press-man coverage, but we do not see a lot. I would not be surprised to see a lot in this game."
With the exception of Western Michigan, every opponent on West Virginia's 2007 schedule played the Mountaineers a year ago. Obviously the Bulldogs are no different, and having seen the real life speed of Slaton and White will certainly give Croom's defense a better understanding of the task at hand in preparations for Saturday's game.
"I think whenever you play somebody for the second time, you can adjust to their speed," Rodriguez opined. "The first time, you may have thought you had the angle for a tackle and maybe the guy was faster than the angle.
"Having seen Steve before, and Pat, and in particular seeing the system before is not going to be something that is new," he continued. "I always think it's an advantage offensively when you play somebody for the first time if you use a different system. The second time, (the defense) can adjust to it."
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During last week's open date, the Mountaineer coaches had a chance to take a look at some of the younger players in practice. During normal game weeks, freshmen predominantly make up the scout teams. However with no game on the docket last weekend, the youngsters were put under the gun a little bit in a brief scrimmage.
"We didn't do much, because I didn't want to damage our scout teams, but we scrimmaged for about 15 or 20 minutes," Rodriguez said. "It was pretty spirited. I like the group. We're playing some of these freshmen, but we have some very athletic guys in our young class on both sides of the ball.
"If we can follow that up with another similar type of class this year with specific needs…I think we'll be sitting pretty good."
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For the second consecutive home game, the Mountaineers will use honorary captains during pre-game. Against East Carolina, former running back Undra Johnson, wide receiver Grantis Bell, defensive back Jerry Holmes, and offensive lineman Rich Braham served as honorary captains.
Against the Bulldogs, West Virginia greats Brian King, Quincy Wilson, Steve Newberry, and Garrett Ford, Sr. will have the honors.