*This meeting completes the two-year series under the SEC’s inter-Division 5-1-2 rotation. Vanderbilt is replaced on State’s 2010 schedule by Georgia, while the Commodores pick up Arkansas. Until the SEC revised their rotation from the 5-1-2 begun in 1992, these teams would go six years between games; now it is down to three years between games.
*Commodore Stadium is the smallest and youngest venue in the SEC with a listed capacity of 39,773. That is actually smaller than the 41,000-plus official capacity previously listed, following a 2008 renovation; the first since construction in 1981.
The Opponent: Has Bobby Johnson actually called Nashville home for eight years now? Indeed, giving Vanderbilt’s boss the second-longest active tenure in the SEC East. And last fall it paid off with the program’s first winning record since 1982 and first bowl victory since Eisenhower. The Commodores had been closer to that breakthrough for a while as a 21-27 record the past four seasons shows. Johnson has been able to put sound defensive squads on the field since arrival, and now with the offense getting up to speed—or spread, rather---the ‘Dores can dare dream of consistent competitiveness. Though, an early rash of injuries will show now if Vanderbilt has fixed the traditional issues with depth, or of the 2009 edition will be worn down over another grueling campaign.
Offense: Speaking of injuries, the bug has bit the offensive line already and taken starting right tackle James Williams. The 310-pounder is being replaced by either frosh Caleb Welchans (290) or junior Rielly Laucher (275). The consolation here is having senior starting blockers at all four other slots, including 315-pounder Thomas Welch who moved from right to left tackle this year, and veteran center Bradley Vierling. Vanderbilt could have stayed with a comparable upperclassman at quarterback as senior Mackenzi Adams returns as the top passer of 2008…not that 882 yards and a 49.4% is a great resume. But VU wants more from the triggerman this season and has gone with younger, faster Larry Smith who was 56% throwing in his two games last year. Through two ’09 games he’s 21-of-42 for 241 yards, which has to be put in perspective of relentless LSU pressure stifling the stats. Smith might get sacked in the pocket but outside it the soph can scoot, keeping the defense guessing and guarding the edges. Adding frosh backs Zac Stacy and Warren Norman also has Vandy running faster-forward this year, too, as this pair are averaging 5.7 yards per tote and have lost ground just once in 58 combined attempts. The ‘Dores will line up in multiple receiver sets but the top target so far is tight end Austin Monahan, a 6-7, 255-pounder with six grabs. That doesn’t sound like a lot but then VU is spreading the ball around now and making it work for gains of all sizes. Still, the play calling to-date is two-to-one rushes in keeping with Johnson’s fundamental approach and it’s hard to argue with a #3 ranking in SEC running this week. Not to mention just two turnovers in as many games. Now, take care of some penalty issues, and this offense really is on the move.
Defense: The coaching staff could almost have stood-pat on this side of the ball with nine starters back from 2008’s unit. Nope. Vanderbilt is taking advantage of some good younger talent to mix in with all those veterans and put an even better squad on the field in ’09. At least they’re ahead of last year’s pace in yards, points, first downs and third downs. VU also celebrated the first shutout of Johnson’s tenure by blanking Western Carolina 45-0 in the opener. Just like on offense, the defensive front returned intact with most un-Vandy-like muscle in the middle, in tackles Greg Billinger and Adam Smotherman. But DE Steven Stone is sidelined to October by injury. On the other end senior Broderick Stewart by contrast might weigh under 230 pounds but makes big things happen with 2.5 tackles for losses already. He’s chasing the program record for sacks, with 17 for his career. The real stats of course go to the linebackers in this 4-3 set, and it was a heckuva race last season for the tackle title. WLB Patrick Benoist came out ahead with 109, edging MLB Chris Marve by four though both tied in tackles-for-losses. For now Marve has a two-tackle edge on his cohort, as Benoist got banged-up in the LSU game making nine stops with two sacks. They expected to compete again with FS Ryan Hamilton all through this season, but the senior is out for the year with a chest injury. Both replacements are seniors, Joel Caldwell or converted linebacker Brent Trice, and either seems capable of getting the job done. Myron Lewis is back on one corner and Sean Richardson at strong safety. Vanderbilt is off to a good defensive start despite the injuries, fourth in SEC scoring and fifth in yardage. More impressive is a +3 turnover ratio, though foes aren’t making as many mental mistakes so far judging by a last-place ranking in opponent penalties.
Specialists: Early-September averages are iffy things but the Commodores may be worried with senior P Brett Upson’s league-last 34.6 yard average. For that matter VU is last in SEC net punting at just 23.8 yards. Kickoffs and coverage are a little bit better, and wideout Alex Washington fields the punts. Redshirt Ryan Fowler has won the placekick job and hit one of thee tries, good from 25 with misses of 32 and 43 yards.
The Series: Though both are original members of the Southeastern Conference, there have been only 17 meetings since the league organized in 1932 and 20 total games played since 1904. Mississippi State holds a 11-7-2 lead in the very rare rivalry and has won five of the six games played since 1989. But the Dogs lost on their last trip to Nashville (2004) and Vanderbilt has a 5-4-2 lead in home games.
The Last Time: October 11, 2008 Vanderbilt came to Scott Field both unbeaten and ranked 13th, and had both spoiled as Mississippi State took a 17-14 upset win. Down 7-3 at halftime, the Bulldogs scored touchdowns in both the third and fourth periods for just enough margin. State had also got on its scoreboard first when Adam Carlson kicked a 33-yard field goal at 9:16 of the opening period. That lead held up until just before halftime when VU quarterback Chris Nickson squirmed across from a yard out at 19 seconds showing. The Bulldogs answered after intermission with a drive capped by Tyson Lee’s four-yard flip to tight end Brandon Henderson for touchdown at 8:09. In the fourth period Vanderbilt was moving until safety De’Mon Glanton intercepted Nickson and gave his team the ball on the seven-yard line. Three snaps later Christian Ducre made it 17-7 with his touchdown drive. The ‘Dores responded immediately behind backup quarterback Mackenzi Adams with a 57-yard drive ending on a two-yard TD run. Vanderbilt got the ball twice again but Adams was picked by linebacker Karlin Brown at 3:18 and State ran out the clock. Over half of Vanderbilt’s total 107 yards came on their last TD drive, and the ‘Dores mustered just 45 rushing yards. State had 166 ground yards, 107 of that by Anthony Dixon, while Lee went the distance at quarterback and tossed for 81 yards.
Bulldog Notebook: After watching the opener, RB Anthony Dixon returned to action in typical style. The senior picked up 92 yards at Auburn with his first touchdown of 2009, on a one-yard dive. Dixon extended his MSU career records for TDs to 31 rushing and 35 overall.
*With that touchdown at Auburn, Dixon has now scored against all five SEC West rivals.
*Dixon began the season fourth in MSU career rushing. He’s still there but needs just 26 yards now to catch Michael Davis (1991-94) at 2,721 yards for third place. Walter Packer (1973-76) is third at 2,820.
*Had the Dogs not fallen behind in the second half at Auburn, Dixon would surely have notched his 10th 100-yard rushing effort in 39 varsity games.
*Dixon now has 210 career points, most by a non-kicker. The record belongs to Brian Hazelwood (1995-98) at 218, a mark that ought not last much longer.
*Dixon’s 673 rushes are also a MSU record.
*Dixon just became the seventh Bulldog with 3,000 all-purpose yards (3,021 to be exact).
*He’s only thrown 24 passes this young season. But QB Tyson Lee has completed 15 of those, a 62.5% rate, and none have been intercepted. This raises his career completion rate to 59.2% which is better than any MSU passer in history. He’s also the record-holder for interception percentage at 1.76%, compared to Omarr Conner’s 2.96% in second place.
*And Lee’s typical completion has netted ten yards this year.
*By contrast, QB Chris Relf’s average gain per-catch is 12.7 yards. He’s been a 57% thrower through two games, but also had a pair of passes picked at Auburn.
*Relf not only threw for three touchdowns in the opener, but he ran for another. It was the first such four-TD day by a Bulldog quarterback since Kevin Fant against Oregon in 2003.
*Relf has 134 yards in two games and averaged seven yards each attempt.
*He hasn’t had a single big play, but WR Brandon McRae has been consistent these first two games back from a broken leg last November. He has a team-leading five catches worth 54 yards. Last year McRae led the squad with 51 receptions and 518 yards. He is the only true wideout on this year’s roster who caught a pass in 2008.
*After a college debut of two catches and two touchdowns in the opening game, WR Chad Bumphis saw limited action at Auburn due to both illness and poor blocking against Jackson State. He still got in for a third-quarter catch of eight yards.
*True freshmen (Bumphis, Brandon Heavens, Chris Smith) have five catches in the first two games.
*But it is juco transfer WR Leon Berry turning into State’s big-play threat. He turned a 15-yard catch at Auburn into a 32-yard gain, MSU’s longest play of the night. Berry had four catches in all for 80 yards after not getting a ball tossed his way a week earlier.
*Berry also returned AU Tiger kicks for 186 yards. His 246 all-purpose yards, catching and returning, were the sixth-most in MSU history and tops in the SEC so far this season.
*He only caught one ball at Auburn but it was good for a touchdown by RB Christian Ducre. That was the senior’s second career touchdown catch, after a five-yarder at LSU last year. Ducre has 1,057 career all-purpose yards.
*Three Dogs share the team tackle lead. SLB K.J. Wright had a eight-tackle night at Auburn, but through two games he’s tied with FS Zach Smith and SS Charles Mitchell with ten total stops.
*Fresman DT Fletcher Cox has two tackles for losses, best on the team so far.
*Senior MLB Jamar Chaney now has 207 career tackles in 39 games.
*Senior CB Marcus Washington has, broken up two passes, forced one fumble, and recovered one this season.
*State’s defense already has put points on the board, with a 20-yard interception return against Jackson State by backup CB Corey Broomfield. It was the first defensive score for MSU since November 2007 against Alabama.
*In the opener State’s kick-block teams had a point, on a rejected and returned PAT try, negated on penalty. But at Auburn they did better as FB Patrick Hanrahan blocked a punt and RB Robert Elliot returned the loose ball for a touchdown. It was State’s first punt-block touchdown since 2001.
*P Heath Hutchins has made the most instant impact of any Bulldog newcomers. The juco transfer is averaging 46.1 yards through eight punts. Officially it is second in the SEC to Georgia’s Drew Butler at 54.1 yards, but since Butler has just seven punts he doesn’t qualify for the NCAA rankings. Thus Hutchins is #2 in the nation officially this week.
*State leads the SEC in net punting at 45.4 yards, and is third in kickoff coverage.
*After missing his first two college field goal attempts, PK Sean Brauchle has hit the last two; 25 yards against JSU and 29 yards at Auburn. And he’s been good on all nine PAT tries.
*A major concern for State now has become penalties. The Bulldogs have drawn both the most flags of any SEC team, 22, but for 241 yards.
*No more true scholarship freshmen were activated for the Auburn game. Seven 2009 freshmen signees have played to date: WR Chad Bumphis, WR Brandon Heavens, ST Cameron Lawrence, DB/ST Jonathan Banks, WR Chris White, 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.
*Chaney leads this roster in career games (39) but OG Craig Jenkins leads in starts (32). And CB Marcus Washington leads in consecutive starts at 15.