*This is the first meeting of the programs since December 31, 2000 when the Bulldogs and Aggies played in the Independence Bowl. A snowstorm that began two hours before kickoff covered the field all evening and resulted in it now being recalled as the ‘Snow Bowl’. Mississippi State won in overtime 43-41. That game is being commemorated Saturday and the Bulldogs will wear special helmets and uniforms to recall the all-white garb of that bowl.
*Mississippi State is ranked 17th AP this week, dropping just four spots from the season-high of 13th last week. That was also the highest AP ranking of Coach Dan Mullen’s tenure to-date, and the best by a Bulldog team since the 1999 team reached #8.
*This is the 15th game out of Mullen’s 46 which State is itself ranked, with a 9-5 record so far. And Mullen teams are 2-12 against ranked opponents.
*The last Scott Field game matching ranked teams was last season, #25 State against #3 LSU.
*These opponents’ positions are flipped in the B.C.S. calculations, which find State 15th this week and A&M 16th. Neither is in contention for the championship bowl but with no ‘buster’ team in this week’s first 16 the post-season stakes remain high for each.
*The Bulldogs had their seven-win season streak snapped last week, stopping this team at the second-best start in program history behind only 1999 (8-0). They also saw a multiple-season win streak ended at nine, the third-longest ever.
*Mullen has 28 victories in four seasons. His next win will match W.D. Chadwick for fourth-most among all MSU coaches.
*This is Texas A&M’s first visit to Starkville.
The Opponent: Those clubby SEC questions about which Big XII transfer would best adapt to a new conference address are answered, emphatically. While Missouri struggles along this first fall, Texas A&M has fit right in…as most expected. Though, even the most optimistic Aggie must be a bit surprised how productive the offense has proven against comparable opponents. And such pointing-prowess has eased demands greatly on a defense that need only make a stop here or a turnover there to change the entire game. They might not threaten the reigning West heavyweights yet, or for years for that matter. But Texas A&M has strengthened what was already the fiercest Division in any conference, any where. Like we needed it.
Offense: Safe to say summer concerns about replacing some big 2011 play-makers are forgotten. These Aggies are in the NCAA top-twenty in scoring, total, rushing, and passing; and are on a school-record streak of seven games with 400-plus yards. Before focusing on the obvious stat-stars, though, fans should attend to the five up front first. A tough and talented offensive line, anchored at each end by tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews with senior center Patrick Lewis, is what really allowed a typical Big XII offense to find its SEC footing. Their job is made even easier by a quarterback few have gotten a good grip on yet. Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel defines ‘dual threat’ in today’s quarterbacking context. He doesn’t just lead his team in rushing, his 99 yards-per tops the entire SEC this week as does his 13 touchdowns. Playing contain is wise but no sure thing either as Manziel has tossed 16 touchdowns against six interceptions. Targets abound in three- and four-wide sets, and veterans Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu have caught a combined 37 touchdowns over their careers. Freshman Mike Evans is setting the receiving pace this season with 47 grabs and a 15.0-yard average. Don’t overlook the other runners either as Ben Malena nets 6.6 yards each carry. A&M will turn the ball over, and they do get flagged often and for big yards. But the points are going to come often and early. Literally, because A&M has scored first every game this season.
Defense: Sure, the best defense is a high-scoring offense. But the Aggies are no pushover on this side of the ball either. They’re also an aggressive gang, with 16 SEC-game sacks and a chance-taking mentality that matches the offense nicely. It’s listed as a 4-3 type of scheme but is flexible as needed for matchups, and to allow a little less size on the front with obvious gains in agility. 300-pound Kirby Ennis lines up over the ball with 277-pound Spencer Nealy playing the technique-tackle. Damontre Moore is titled ‘rush’ end and does he ever, with 10.5 sacks out of his 65 total tackles; his career shows 42 stops for losses in 33 games as Moore spends more time in backfields than some runners. Senior LB Jonathan Stewart (51 tackles) keeps the middle under control so outside ‘backers Sean Porter (13.5 career sacks) and Steven Jenkins can roam. Or, the Aggies can go with a nickel set moving Toney Hurd (44 tackles) up from the usual strong safety role. FS Steven Terrell has two of the team’s six interceptions, while CB Dustin Harris has broken up nine passes. SEC opponents are throwing against the Aggies about 45% (allowing for sacks and scrambles) of the time but netting just seven yards each try. That’s still better than relying on extended ground-pounding as A&M allows 3.7 yards per rush in league play.
Specialists: Senior Ryan Epperson is punting at almost a 44-yard clip without any blocks so far, while PK Taylor Bertolet is 10-of-16 on field goals with a 54-yard make. Of his 65 kickoffs, 44 have gone for touchbacks. Dustin Harris has been held in-check by league coverage but with three punt return touchdowns, one this year, he’s sure to burn somebody this month.
Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State leads the NCAA again in turnover ratio, at +17 this week per official statistics. They are tied for fourth in total turnovers gained, with 21 (nine fumbles, 12 interceptions).
*They might have lost their proud top perch in NCAA turnover margin after a rough weekend at Alabama. Still the Bulldogs rank among the elite, #6 this week in margin and #13 in turnovers gained. Only a dozen FBS teams have more than State’s dozen interceptions.
*With just seven turnovers lost (five fumbles, two interceptions) State still ranks sixth-best in the country this week.
*And no other team has allowed fewer punt-return yards than the 0 (zero, nought, zilch) accumulated against State.
*In fact, only eight of P Baker Swedenburg’s 33 punts have been returned at all. There have been 17 forced fair-catches and two touchbacks off the junior’s foot.
*State comes in just 77th in sacks this season; but are 12th-best in sacks allowed.
*Talk about well-matched; cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay are tied for 7th nationally with four interceptions this season.
*Not only was Alabama the first MSU loss of the year, for the first time this season State never led in a game at all.
*The Bulldog offense has notched 59 plays of ten or more yards in the four SEC games. Of that total, 20 came against Tennessee.
*Last week was the first time in 2012 State had more passes than rushes. For the full season though the plays break down 53% rushes, 47% passes.
*Despite a one-touchdown evening at Tuscaloosa, this offense remains on a record scoring pace of 33.0 points per week. That is better than the post-war standard of 31.7 set in 1994.
*Even in the first defeat, QB Tyler Russell continued his march up all sorts of Mississippi State charts. With 1,742 yards so far this season, the junior needs 143 more for the 10th-best year in program history. His 15 touchdowns are already the second-best in a single season, one behind Derrick Taite’s 1995 mark of 16.
*With 137 completion through eight games, Russell is three shy of tying for that #10 season mark.
*In four SEC games Russell is 81-of-135 (60%) passing with seven touchdowns and one interception. His four non-conference games have produced 57% passing. His average SEC-game completion goes for 11.7 yards, while the non-league rate is 14.1 yards.
*Russell’s first interception this season (South Alabama) snapped a 137-pass streak without a turnover, which tied Wes Carroll’s 2007 season school record. He then threw 88 more balls before being picked in the end zone at Alabama.
*For his career Russell has 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and combined with his yardage gives him a 139.84 quarterback rating; best in MSU history at this point.
*He is tied with former teammate Chris Relf for 5th in career touchdowns tossed; three thrown scores ties him for 4th with Don Smith. And at 3,411 yards in just 26 games (12 starts) he already ranks 8th on that career list.
*RB LaDarius Perkins had his own season-streak snapped last week, going without a touchdown for the first time in 2012. The junior had scored eight times in the first seven contests.
*Perkins also lost a three-game string of 100-yard games, with 38 yards on 15 rushes. That cost him the SEC rushing lead this week, as Perkins now checks in at 2nd place on a 95-yard average.
*Perkins is at 762 rushing yards through eight games. That is ahead of the pace set in 2010 and ’11 by former teammate Vick Ballard.
*But he has not caught a touchdown pass so far this season, after scoring on five throws the first two years.
*WR Chad Bumphis extended his streak of games with receptions to 25 with a single grab at Alabama. He has at least one catch in every college game played except UAB 2010.
*But Bumphis has been held to single grabs in both the last two games. In the preceding two contests, both SEC games, the senior had 16 total catches.
*With 131 career catches Bumphis is #4 on the all-time list, eight out of third place. And he is 5th-best in receiving yards at 1,834.
*Bumphis already holds one program record. His 18 touchdown catches are best ever by a Bulldog. Of those four have been against SEC defenses.
*The State season TD-catch record is nine, and Bumphis has six already this year.
*QB Dak Prescott accounted for State’s touchdown last week on a two-yard toss. In just 19 throws this season Prescott has a pair of touchdown passes. And on 20 rushes he has scored three times.
*In his last three seasons, WR Chris Smith has caught two or more passes in 25 out of 33 games.
*Smith averaged 24 yards on his three catches at Alabama. In the previous three wins he’d averaged nine yards per catch.
*WR Arceto Clark has 13 catches in the last four games.
*Russell has thrown to a fullback in the last five games now.
*The hot new face in the wideout corps is soph WR Robert Johnson. In the last two games he has six catches, 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He had four catches and 26 yards all last season.
*TE Marcus Green has a four-game receiving streak going with 11 grabs. The senior is averaging 11.2 yards per reception this season, and four of his five touchdowns have come in SEC games.
*Green is looking to finally snap his ‘cap’ on gains. In 2008, ’09, and ’11 he had one catch each year that went for 50 yards. His longest this season is a 30-yarder against Auburn.
*The three Bulldog tight end targets average 11.4 yards every reception.
*OG Gabe Jackson will make his 35th consecutive start.
*He’s matched the career record with 16 interceptions. Now CB Johnthan Banks bids to become Mississippi State’s all-time picks leader. He’s even for now with Walt Harris’ record.
*Banks and SS Corey Broomfield do remain tied with three career touchdown returns, one ahead of Slay. Banks has 124 yards’ worth of returns on his four interceptions this season.
*Banks has three two-interception games in his career, one this season (Auburn).
*Banks is closing in on 200 career tackles; he has 195 through 46 games.
*Broomfield is tied for 7th himself in the career-picks list, with ten.
*His teammates’ recent interceptions ought to give Slay more chances at passes now. The senior has gone five games without a pick, after notching four in the first three contests. Slay has five career picks, two returned for touchdowns (Georgia 2011, Jackson State 2012).
*Slay has averaged 31.6 yards returns on his picks.
*FS Nickoe Whitley has eight career interceptions of his own. So the current starting State secondary quartet has 39 picks between them.
*LB Cameron Lawrence now has 230 career tackles in 44 games. And while his per-game rate has dropped from the 2011 pace, in games that count most Lawrence is there. He had double-digit tackles in wins over Auburn, at Troy, and Tennessee; and ten more last week at Alabama.
*In four seasons, Mullen teams have scored 15 non-offense-sourced touchdowns on turnovers or blocks.
*PK Devon Bell is 9-of-14 on field goals. He did have a seven-make streak going, but is one for the last three and all those on the home field.
*Five Bulldogs have played in all 46 games under Mullen: Banks, DT Josh Boyd, Broomfield, FB Sylvester Hemphill, and WR Brandon Heavens. None have started every game. Banks has the most Mullen-era starts with 39.
*Five true freshmen have played: PK Bell, DT Nick James, DT Quay Evans, DE Ryan Brown, and CB Cedric Jiles. Only three true freshmen played in both 2010 and ’11.