October 24, 2013 12:45:17 PM
STARKVILLE - Welcome to Week 8 of the 2013 college football season. The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog will be LOOKING LIVE.....at Davis Wade Stadium as the Bulldogs (3-3, 0-2 in SEC) face Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 in SEC) (6:30 p.m., ESPN).
NOTE: As always go ahead and refresh this blog post up to kickoff for the latest information on the game.
Here's what we've always done for our pre-game blog: I'm going to give you the five major questions that will be answered on the field this evening two key players for both teams and numbers to keep in mind.
1. Did the bye week help Mississippi State recover at all from the previous injuries?
While it's not clear if any of the players held out of the Bulldogs' 21-20 victory over Bowling Green (junior guard Justin Malone, junior cornerback Jamerson Love and junior defensive end Preston Smith), Mullen said the practices have been solid in trying to plug in backups. Against Bowling Green, offensive lineman Justin Senior and defensive back Justin Cox made their first career starts.
"It has been a lot of injuries and I'm not sure we've ever had this many injuries in a season," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "I'm sure we have but it's been injuries in the secondary, injuries in the line, running back, quarterback, everywhere. That's what I do and it's our job to prepare all of our guys to be ready to play. We recruit guys to come play. A lot of guys have gotten opportunities and taken advantage of them and done a great job."
2. Can MSU get a early lead to get the crowd and Thursday night atmosphere into the game early?
Dan Mullen has never had a fourth quarter comeback in his MSU coaching career. Opponents are 22-0 against MSU when they have the lead going into the final quarter. MSU is 28-2 in Mullen's career in Starkville when the Bulldogs have a lead going into the fourth quarter. All these numbers represent MSU is operated to protect a lead going into the final quarter like they did two weeks ago against Bowling Green.
"We'll take it because a win is a win," Mullen said after the win over Bowling Green. "The time didn't run out on Bowling Green or anything like that. We had the ball at the very end of the game."
Minus the final drive at Auburn, the ability for the MSU defense to hold down the scoring in the second half has allowed Mullen to become more of a gambler. The Bulldogs fifth-year senior coach has taken to the idea of staying with his offense on fourth down more than any other Football Bowl Subdivision program through seven weeks of play.
"We you see your coach have confidence in your offense to get it done in a pressure situation like that, it give you that extra boost or extra juice you need to do well," MSU junior wide receiver Jameon Lewis said.
3. Will MSU make a move at kicker?
All signs point to Mullen is sticking with sophomore kicker Devon Bell going forward. The fifth-year head coach, who takes responsibility for the special teams unit at MSU, said he's worked with Bell on a technical issue with his plant leg, his left leg, this week in practice as the Bulldogs go through bye week preparations. Mullen and Bell both hope that mechanical change will translate in games as he's impressed the coaching staff in practice.
"He's a pretty mentally tough kid," Mullen said after Tuesday's practice. "He's done a really good job this week in practice. He's been really worried about his technique and fundamentals. We changed one little thing this week on his plant foot and when you talk to him, he's very professional about doing his job. It's not like the world is coming to a end. We changed one thing on his plant foot and it seems to have helped tremendously."
Bell missed another field goal last week to create more of a controversy among himself and the MSU special teams unit. Fans and message board chatter has been pushing for MSU to turn to walk-on kicker Evan Sobiesk for the rest of the 2013 season. Bell hit the right upright on a 44-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would've put MSU (3-3) up four points with 13 minutes left to go. Bell is now 5 of 10 on field goals this season while being a superior weapon on kickoffs by having over 75 percent of his kicks go out of the end zone. Over his career, Bell is now 19 of 31 on field goals and 7 of 14 from 30 to 39-yard field goals. Mullen was asked if his decision had anything to do with a confidence level in Bell, who is currently 5 of 10 on field goals this season, and it was essentially a one-word answer.
"None," Mullen said. "He would've made that kick. I don't know. If we would've lost the game, i would've been called a dummy. I guess I looked smart. Whether I looked smart or not, it was a gut feeling I had in the situation. I felt like hey, I want to go for it and I think we can get it. Almost did."
4. Does it matter at all who plays quarterback at Kentucky?
According to the leader of the MSU coaching staff, the answer to that question is a resounding no. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops officially named Maxwell Smith the starting quarterback for tonight's game in Starkville but added that Jalen Whitlow will be available "if we need him." Kentucky's "Air Raid" offense is averaging 352.3 yards per game and has a nice pass/run balance, completing 60.1 percent of passes while averaging 4.7 yards per rushing attempt. Kentucky as forced to going back to Smith against Alabama after Whitlow missed a majority of the game with an injury. Smith came off the bench to play the rest of the game for the Wildcats in a tough situation for the sophomore, who did not receive very many first- team reps in practice during the week. Smith finished 7-for-16 for 76 yards and a touchdown against one of the best defenses in the nation. Smith has thrown for 710 yards and five touchdowns. The sophomore ranks eighth in the SEC in pass- ing efficiency this season and also sits 12th in the league in passing yards per game and 13th in the SEC in total offense. Smith's best game was 15-of-23 for 310 yards and three TDs in the win over Miami (Ohio). Smith threw a 48-yard, 56-yard and 88-yard touchdown pass against Miami, becoming the first UK quarterback since Tim Couch in 1998 vs. Louisville (48-yard, 56-yard and 57-yard) to throw three touchdowns of at least 48 yards. The 88-yard touchdown pass was the longest completion of his career and fourth-longest pass in UK history. In the mind of Mullen and the MSU coaching staff, it doesn't matter who lines up behind center.
"I think a lot of times when you watch them, they don't run a different offense when a different quarterback's in the game," Mullen said. "You look at Kentucky's quarterback situation, I think it's very similar to our situation, we don't run a different scheme when we put another quarterback in. 80 percent to 90 percent is going to be about the same. Then there's going to be a little bit different flavor, because one guy's strengths are a little different than the other guy's strengths."
5. Will LaDarius Perkins start to become more of a factor in the offense?
For the first time since the season opener in Houston, Perkins was seen as a primary option for a MSU offense that desperately needed his production in a 21-20 victory over Bowling Green. He even scored his first touchdown of the 2013 season after not having found the end zone for 350 days.
"I think it's the first time since the opening week that he's been healthy. He got hurt in that first game," Mullen said. "He wasn't 100 percent for Troy and got hurt in that game with the same injury. He re-aggravated it again. So I think this is the first time he's been 100 percent."
The senior running back also needed to leap over the mental hurdle of scoring a touchdown Saturday in a frustrating start to the 2013 season. In the first drive for MSU, Perkins made that leap figuratively and literally after he took a handoff and went airborne over the pile to get the Bulldogs (3-3) on the scoreboard.
"Oh, it felt real good. It felt real good," Perkins said of his first touchdown since Oct. of 2012 against Arkansas. "(When) I came to the sideline a lot of teammates came and talked to me about it. They're like, '(You) finally got in.' But the main thing is we won."
Players to Watch
Senior RB LaDarius Perkins
Perkins is now as healthy as he's been this season. He suffered a debilitating ankle injury in the season-opening loss to Oklahoma State and was forced to miss the next contest against Alcorn State. Despite being in the lineup every game since, Perkins said Saturday he admittedly hasn't felt the same physically until his 83-yard performance Saturday against Bowling Green.
"Not quick enough hitting holes and stuff like that," Perkins said. "With an ankle injury it's hard to overcome so quick. Mainly, the quickness and hitting the holes like you should. You're not playing like you want to because you're scared. Something might happen to it."
Perkins' 83 yards gave him 2,285 in his career and moved him into seventh place on the Mississippi State career rushing yardage chart. Dixon is the career leader with 3,994 yards.
LBs Benardrick McKinney and Deontae Skinner
MSU was led with eight tackles each from Skinner and McKinney and Mullen commented on how dynamic the veteran linebackers were to the success of the Bulldogs defense. The duo recorded 14 of their 16 tackles in the second half. McKinney brought down a Falcon five times in Bowling Green's final drive and the Bulldogs won 21-20.
"They set a standard and then when the next guys come in with Zach Jackson and Richie Brown and Benequez Brown, that standard is set very, very high from the guys in front of them," Mullen said. "They're learning how to do their jobs the right way."
Senior TB Raymond Sanders III
Sanders is second on the team in rushing with 255 yards on 52 carries and two touchdown. Sanders had a season-high 98 yards in the opener vs. WKU. The Wildcats rushed for 216 yards vs. WKU, which is the most rushing yards for UK in a season opener since 2010. Despite having to split carries with freshman Jojo Kemp, Sanders had 72 yards on 14 carries against No. 1 Alabama in a 48-7 loss to the Crimson Tide.
Senior LB Avery Williamson
Williamson has picked up where he left off last season in tackles, ranking second in the SEC and 13th nationally with 10.7 tackles per game. Williamson has led Kentucky in tackles in five games this season, including three games with 10-plus tackles. Williamson had 13 tackles, a fumble recovery and 0.5 tackles for loss against Alabama. He has 258 career tackles. He has three games of double-digit tackles this season and has 11 in his career. Including a streak of 25 consecutive games with at least three tackles.
Numbers of the game
Number of Bowling Green players that returned from the 2012 season that were named to the all-conference team.
Percentage of the Bowling Green roster that consists of freshman and sophomores
In its four wins, Bowling Green has been 24-of-26 scoring on trips in the red zone. Both of the unsuccessful attempts came when the Falcons went into victory formation and kneeled down for wins over Akron and Umass.
Mullen's record against Kentucky while at Mississippi State and one of three SEC teams (UK, Vanderbilt and Tennessee) hat Mullen has never lost to.
MSU had eight pass breakups against Bowling Green. The most for the Bulldogs, even with a injury plagued secondary, since having nine vs. Georgia in 2010.
After being flagged 11 times for 74 yards in Hous- ton against Oklahoma State, the Bulldogs have been penalized just 25 times for 200 yards in their last five games. MSU is currently 9th in the SEC with 45.7 pen- alty yards a game.
In 73 drives this season, MSU's defense has held opponents to three plays or less (non-scor- ing) 27 times (37.0 percent).
That's an average of 4.5 drives a game, second in the SEC just behind Alabama and 26th nationally.
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.