*Mississippi State has scored its first consecutive victories of 2011 with wins over Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin. The last time MSU had a streak of three or more regular season wins was also going into an Alabama game, in 2010.
*This is the 15th-straight sellout at Davis Wade Stadium.
*This is MSU’s only consecutive home games of the 2011 season. Last year the Bulldogs had there back-to-back home dates.
*Alabama is ranked #4 in the writers poll this week and #3 in the B.C.S. standings. State is 0-3 against ranked teams so far this season with two more such dates this regular season. Dan Mullen is 2-11 against ranked teams with State, the most recent win in 2010 at #22 Florida.
*In three seasons Mullen is 2-10 in games with Western Division teams, both wins coming against Ole Miss.
The Opponent: Delete any ideas of a normal letdown in this case. While there are bruises to bodies and egos alike, Alabama’s ambitions are far from finished. If anything the Crimson Tide finds a little more incentive this week for staying the B.C.S. course, and for that matter the SEC West isn’t exactly a done deal either. How much physical damage was done is anyone’s guess, as a CIA drone couldn’t obtain accurate injury updates. Regardless, Nick Saban will have his squad as ready for this game as with any other. And, playing the same fundamentally physical style which negates schemes to keep this a very simple proposition: the best athletes, who play better, will win. Just as football should be.
Offense: The debate begun three falls ago continues: Mark Ingram, or Spencer Richardson? Even as the former won the 2009 Trophy his younger counterpart had loud advocates, and they very well could be vindicated if the junior tailback wins Alabama’s second-ever Heisman. Richardson might be a bit more muscular, but while most often seen running over defenders he has shown such moves as needed. The result is a SEC-best 120 yards each week with 17 touchdowns on 172 carries. Oh, and 6.3 yards each touch, a rate some receivers can envy. It’s no one-hoss backfield either as soph Eddie Lacy, actually a bit taller and stouter, rotates in for 61 yards a game and a, get this, 7.7-yard average. No wonder play-calling is 60% rushing in SEC games. Not that they shy away from chunking; in fact the most under-appreciate stat in the league has to be how UA leads all SEC squads at 67% completions with just three interceptions in conference games. For the entire season A.J. McCarron has ten touchdowns against four picks and is the SEC’s third-most efficient passer. There’s no one headline receiver on this roster…which might be worse since it merely means spreading the ball around to all sorts of playmakers. Senior Marquis Maze has 45 catches for 543 yards and one score, balanced by Darius Hanks (20, 268, 1) on the other side. With so many man-matchups (Richardson is second in receptions with 23) tight ends Brad Smelley and Michael Williams have been able to beat coverage for 28 catches and three TDs between them. The front features four returned starters led by junior LT Barrett Jones and senior C William Vlachos with 70 combined starts. If’n one wishes to look ahead…all but the center are underclassmen. Depressed yet? This offense has the most third-downs converted and least penalties assessed.
Defense: Is it really a surprise Alabama bucks the usual depth-chart protocol, listing the defense first? This is not a unit one wishes to offend, least of all by advancing a football. Which is something opponents struggle mightily to do, especially on the ground against a unit allowing a measly 56 rushing yards per weekend. Or, allowing just 27% third down conversions. Or just five touchdowns in red zone settings. Then there are national rankings this week of #1 in scoring, rushing, passing, and of course total defense. Not a surprise really given that besides sheer talent there’s so much mutual experience; three of the seniors here have 50 starts apiece. One lines his 310 pounds right over the ball, where NG Josh Chapman sets a near-immovable tone that goes far beyond mere statistics. For that matter the nominal three-man front averages 305 pounds. ‘Nominal’ because as others have noted with linebackers of this size it might as well be a six- or seven-man setup. Most notably end/linebacker Courtney Upshaw, a 265-pound senior who lives in the backfield with 5.5 sacks and seven other stops for losses. In fact the Lombardi and Upshaw awards finalist accounts for almost 1/3 of the squad’s sacks. He doesn’t top in total tackles though; that status belongs with middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower with 60, 6.0 for losses. The junior already has 204 career tackles and the only reason for so few sacks (1.5) is so much competition getting to passers first. There may be more spectacular defensive backs in the league, but senior FS Mark Barron is just plain steady and fits the ‘always around the ball’ stereotype. ‘Cuz he is, with 46 tackles and seven passes broken up. The two cornerbacks are having a fun race for who busts up the most passes, and after nine games senior DeQuan menzie and junior Dre Kirkpatrick are tied at eight apiece. But its SS Robert Lester with ten career interceptions, two this season. Alabama is conceding just ten earned first downs each weekend which, yes, again tops the SEC category just like so many other numbers do.
Specialists: OK, a weak link has been exposed. Placekickers James Shelley and Cade Foster are just 14-of-22 on field goals including four high-profile misses last weekend. Small solace though given how efficient this team is at reaching the end zone…which means lots and lots of kickoffs. They’ve only got two touchbacks in 63 tries but coverage nets out in UA’s favor. By contrast P Cody Mandell (39.0) has only had to kick it away 29 times and generally in fine field position already. Maze is getting 13.0 yards each punt returned, and 29.3 yards on kickoffs.
Bulldog Notebook: A year ago the Bulldog offense posted the second-best season ever at State averaging 401.3 yards. The 2011 squad started much more slowly but suddenly is right behind at 400.2. State has gained 398 and 570 yards in the last two wins.
*The Bulldog ground game has been doubling-up of late. After being held to 108 rushing yards combined by LSU and Georgia, the Dogs gained 131 against South Carolina and 134 against Kentucky. Now in the win over UTM they gained 288 yards, more than the prior two SEC outings.
*In last week’s win State was practically dead-even between rushing and passing, 288 to 282. At Kentucky it was two-to-one passing yards to rushing. Yet the play calling was practically the same split of around 60% rushes, 40% passes.
*In their first four league games State had just four offensive touchdowns total. The Dogs matched that in a single evening at Kentucky.
*Mississippi State has scored 28 offensive touchdowns. Of those 16 have been on plays inside the red zone, including all four at Kentucky and four of six against UTM.
*The Dog defense has allowed just over eight points per second half this season, and only 26 points in all third quarters combined.
*But the 66% passing allowed by State is the highest in the SEC this week. And there have been more passes thrown against MSU’s defense, 295, than any other league team.
*TB Vick Ballard is back on a roll, with 360 yards the last four games. In the last two games he has averaged 6.6 yards per carry.
*And after not scoring a rushing touchdown in October, Ballard got his November off to a better start with two scores against UTM. One was on a 54-yard burst, his longest run of the season since a 66-yarder at Memphis on opening night.
*Ballard scored seven of his 19 touchdowns last year in November and post-season play.
*The senior is now up to 1,758 rushing yards in two seasons, ranking 15th in program career history. But he’s far higher up the scoring charts now. Those two TDs last week gave Ballard his 25th and 26th rushing scores for #3 spot, just one back of Michael Davis’s 27. He is 8th in points at 162 and will jump two places with a single touchdown more.
*Ballard has eight 100-yard games in two years, tying for 9th on the career chart with three others.
*Ballard has averaged 7.7 yards per carry in non-SEC games. His rate in conference games is 4.6.
*But alternate TB LaDarius Perkins has averaged 5.8 yards per rush his last three games. Perkins has not scored a running TD since opening night at Memphis.
*In the last two games, both wins, Ballard gets 6.6 yards per rush; Perkins 6.5.
*Perkins and WR Jameon Lewis are the only Dogs so far with a touchdown both rushing and receiving.
*His 78-yard touchdown play against UTM was WR Chad Bumphis’ 12th TD of his career, tying him for 6th on the MSU list. Ten of those scoring plays have been in non-conference games.
*Bumphis’ last SEC touchdown reception? Last year against Alabama, a 44-yarder.
*Bumphis has caught a pass in every game of his college career except against UAB in 2010. He now has 96 receptions and is 8th on the MSU list.
*And he needs just 61 more yards to crack that top-ten.
*In the last four games Bumphis has averaged 18.8 yards per-catch. In the three preceding games it was just 6.5 yards.
*QB Chris Relf has been a different Dog since sitting out the South Carolina game. Coming off the bench the last two weekends, the senior has completed 11-of-15 passes for three touchdowns. He had four touchdown passes in his six starts the first half of the season.
*As an alternate, Relf’s completions have netted 13.9 yards. Prior to that his rate was 10.4 yards.
*Relf jumped back to #2 in MSU career completions rate at 58.0% even, just eight-thousandths of a point behind Tyson Lee. And Relf is third-best of any Bulldog quarterback ever in interception-per-throw percentage.
*Relf is now responsible for 34 career touchdowns, 9th-best at MSU. But his 25 touchdown passes are 5th-best ever here.
*New starting QB Tyler Russell is 29-of-59 passing in that status, or 49%. And he has three touchdowns against three picks.
*But his completions are worth right at 18 yards each. And Russell’s six touchdowns thrown in the last four games have averaged 34 yards. Relf’s three scores have been a typical 20.3 yards.
*Tight ends Marcus Green and Malcolm Johnson have three touchdowns between them this year, after their unit accounted for zero in 2010. Neither caught a ball against UTM, though in the previous three games they combined for ten balls and 202 yards.
*Green has caught three passes in his career that went for fifty yards; no more, no less.
*WR Arceto Clark is one of two Dogs with a catch every game this season. And the junior has been on a true tear the last five weeks with 20 grabs and 271 yards. That included a career-night against UTM with five catches and 96 yards. That was more than any two consecutive games combined his first two State seasons.
*Clark had two touchdowns in those 2008 and ’10 seasons. He matched that with two last Saturday, his first scores since Memphis.
*WR Chris Smith has a seven-game receiving streak going, and needs just two more catches to match his soph-season total of 24.
*WR Ricco Sanders has five catches in the last two games, including his first 2011 touchdown on a throw from Relf against Kentucky.
*State’s 14 touchdown passes this season are spread among nine receivers.
*State looks to start the same offensive line for a fourth-straight game, longest stretch of the season.
*Senior Quentin Saulsberry has started 45-straight games at four different positions. The only place he has not worked is left tackle.
*Of the 16 sacks allowed this season 14 have been in SEC games.
*Opponents have scored touchdowns on just 13 of their 30 trips inside State’s red zone.
*In a three-game stretch DT Fletcher Cox had 20 total tackles and four sacks, and each time was SEC d-lineman of the week. He was the first three-peat Bulldog for any such SEC honor.
*Then last week for Tennessee-Martin, the junior got a short night of maybe 18 snaps and did not record a tackle of any sort. Still Cox now has 36 tackles for the season, a career-best after 29 stops in both 2009 and ’10.
*His 4.0 sacks are also more than the first two years combined.
*His 9.0 tackles for losses not only lead the team but are more than any other two Dogs combined.
*The closest competitor is the guy lined up beside him, as DT Josh Boyd has 5.0 tackles for losses. And Boyd now has 35 tackles. Last year the classmates finished just five tackles apart.
*State has held its last two SEC opponents to 110 and 118 rushing yards respectively with an average gain of 2.8 yards each run play.
*The Dogs intercepted a pass in their first seven games, 11 total. Now they have gone two games without picking any passes, yet won both.
*State has two pick-sixes on the season, none since October 1 though.
*One of those belongs to Thorpe Award finalist CB Johnthan Banks (at Auburn), giving him three for his career which ties for the MSU record.
*Banks had picked a pass in five of six games during the team’s streak. With one more he ties the MSU season record shared by six others.
*He has been stuck on 12 career interceptions for two weeks, tying him for second all-time with Derek Pegues and Izell McGill. The record is 16 by Walt Harris.
*Classmate and fellow CB Corey Broomfield has watched Banks race by on the interceptions list. Broomfield began the season ahead with nine through his first two years, just outside the top-ten. Broomfield hasn’t picked a pass since last Egg Bowl.
*Broomfield is still even with Banks at three interception/touchdowns though.
*The six regular Dog defensive backs now have 33 interceptions among them. That includes a pick-six by CB Darius Slay at Georgia.
*LB Cameron Lawrence’s excellent junior season continues with an average 9.3 tackles the last three games. He now has 78 stops for the year and ranks not just first on his squad but #3 in the SEC.
*But fellow LB Brandon Wilson isn’t conceding the team tackle title. He’s right behind with 73 stops and is #4 in the SEC himelf.
*Senior S Charles Mitchell had a short night so younger safeties could get more snaps. Mitchell still used his final Homecoming game to surpass 250 career tackles. He now has 252 in four seasons.
*State had one defensive touchdown all last year; they have two so far this season.
*And now the Dogs have doubled last year’s kick-return touchdown total. Bumphis and Banks have each returned a punt for a score.
*That gives State four non-offensive touchdowns this season, compared to two in 2010. But they had seven in 2009.
*P Baker Swedenburg has had two easy weeks with just a pair of punts in the Bulldog wins. He is maintaining a 40.4 average his first years punting with 15 hit inside 20-yard lines and 15 fair-catches.
*KO Brian Egan has four touchbacks this season, as many as MSU got all of 2010.
*A month ago PK Derek DePasquale was on pace to be the most accurate field-goaler for a career ever at MSU. Now he has missed four of his last five tries and is at 29-of-38 career. That’s still good for #2 all-time. He needs another make to become just the sixth Bulldog with 30 or more field goals.
*And DePasquale remains perfect on 78 career PATs, the only Dog kicker on the top-ten to have never missed.
*DE Preston Smith, DT P.J. Jones, and S Dee Arrington are the only true freshmen to play so far this season. That matches the total for true frosh activated in 2010.