MSU (4-3) has fumbled 12 times on the season. It has lost just four, but the dozen drops are providing opportunities for foes to gain turnovers while also causing lost yardage or a negation of any gains. West Virginia, known for its ability to get players to the ball in its 3-3-5 odd stack set, will try to swarm tailbacks Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre' to not only secure the tackle, but try to rip the ball out as well. The Mountaineers (5-1) are allowing an average of just 96.8 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 17th in the NCAA. The Bulldogs are netting 301 per game (NCAA 110th) and rank 59th in rushing offense at 157 yards per outing.
"They try to use their size to their advantage," said linebacker Reed Williams, WVU's leading tackler with 48, including three for loss. "They have improved from where they were the last two years. Coach (Sylverster) Croom has done a great job for them. They are playing well and utilizing what they want to do, which is old-fashioned football that you don't see any more."
Outside of the SEC and Big Ten. Mississippi State is a classic I-formation team that emphasizes establishing the run and not turning the ball over. West Virginia had traditionally matched up well with such foes, but has not seen the style since it won at Maryland on September 13. Since, it has played a spread offense in East Carolina and South Florida and Syracuse's west coast scheme. An off week has helped WVU shore up fundamentals, and also allowed it to again familiarize itself with the more physical, run-based attack. That should help when it plays at traditional, run-first Rutgers next week.
"It will be ground it out," Williams said. "And anytime you are getting popped by several guys, that ball is likely to come out. It's something we have been working on, getting the ball out. If we can get more guys to the ball, it helps. When you run inside, you are more likely to get hit than you are otherwise. They have big backs and they can do some damage."
Dixon, a 6-1, 240-pounder, has rushed for 694 yards, 99 per game, and 10 total scores. The workmanlike sophomore averages 4.2 yards per carry and, though he lacks the burst and overall speed of West Virginia counterpart Steve Slaton, set MSU freshmen records with his attempts, yards and scores on the ground. Ducre' is a change of pace at 6-0 and 222 pounds. He originally inked with Tulane – where hiss father, Brad, played from 1991-94 – only to transfer to Mississippi State when the New Orleans-based school dropped his academic major. He was granted immediate eligibility via NCAA waiver and played in three games last year, mainly on special teams. In 2007, the sophomore, a former 5A all-state back, has tallied 256 yards and one touchdown on 56 runs.
The duo is the main playmaker on an offense just recently finding downfield threats in the passing game. State has played three quarterbacks over the seven games and, though all three have decent numbers, it's the running game that will allow the Bulldogs to stay in the game with West Virginia or force it to rely on by far its weakest area to win. MSU cannot get behind by two-plus scores early, and thus will try to avoid the fumbles that have plagued it to this point.
"When you watch film and you see a guy carrying it loosely, your eyes get big," cornerback Larry Williams said. "We pay attention to that. When it comes to the game, we try to create a turnover. Mississippi State is actually carrying it well. They are the kind of team you can't sleep on. They will come at you hard. They have speed, but they are more of a power team. Everybody has speed. But they run right at you."
West Virginia held Mississippi State to 56 yards on 37 attempts in last season's 41-14 win in Starkville. But it failed to pull away until a 21-point outburst in the fourth quarter, though it took that long just for the Bulldogs to score an offensive touchdown via a one-yard Dixon run. WVU doesn't believe last year's success will deter MSU from its initial game plan.
"They love to run it," linebacker Marc Magro said. "That is what they will do, come up here and try to establish the run game. With that, we are going to get a lot of hats on the ball. That gives us chances."