December 29, 2010 10:01:00 AM
David Miller -
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Mississippi State football players and coaches are guarding against the perception they''ll have their way with Michigan''s porous defense.
The Wolverines'' defensive numbers this season are glaring: 33.83 points conceded per game; 447.92 yards given up per game; and 187.67 rushing yards given up each week.
All figures rank 94th or worst out of 120 FBS teams.
The No. 21 Bulldogs, who''ll face the Wolverines in the Progressive Gator Bowl on Saturday, are preparing as if they''re going to play against a defense in the Southeastern Conference, which boasts six ranked defenses in the top 50 in the NCAA.
In that vein, the strength derived from navigating a SEC schedule and the development of a suddenly potent passing game to complement its trademark ground attack isn''t enough to push their confidence over the edge.
"We don''t take anything for granted," MSU running back LaDarius Perkins said Tuesday. "Michigan is a great all-around team. If we go out there and execute like we''re supposed to, we should come out on top."
Michigan''s defense has experienced a similar youthful transition to the Bulldogs''. Five of its top eight tacklers are either sophomores or freshmen.
But while the Bulldogs (8-4) have thrived around sophomore defenders Josh Boyd, Fletcher Cox, Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks, the Wolverines have struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard and off the field.
Michigan (7-5) is 0-4 against teams ranked in the Top 25 and has given up 34 points or more in each of the losses.
The Wolverines enter the Gator Bowl having lost five of their last seven games, including the four losses to ranked opponents.
Despite UM''s poor run of form, MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning insists the cupboard isn''t empty for the Wolverines.
"They run around and have some good players," Koenning said of Michigan. "No. 8 (linebacker Jonas Mouton) and No. 68 (nose guard Mike Martin) are good players. Those guys have a chance to play on Sunday."
Two notable players won''t win many defensive battles, as evidenced by Michigan''s play this season. Especially when it comes to limiting big plays, which has been the Achilles'' heel of the Wolverines'' defense this season.
The Bulldogs are coming off their most explosive offensive performance of the season, beating Ole Miss with two plays of more than 70 yards and three past 30.
Additionally, quarterback Chris Relf has passed for more than 220 yards in each of the past two games.
The balance coaches have aimed to achieve all season is finally being reached, which could be a bad omen for Michigan''s defense.
Perkins sees it, too, though he''s quick to simmer his enthusiasm about Saturday''s matchup.
"They give up big plays, but defenses all across the country give up big plays," added Perkins, who had 241 total offensive yards in the regular-season finale against Ole Miss. "One busted play can cause a lot of big plays. We feel like they''re a great defensive team, just like they''re a great offensive team."
The key to MSU continuing its offensive momentum will be keeping the ball out of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson''s hands.
The first collegiate quarterback to rush for more than 1,500 yards and pass for more than 2,000 is the most dynamic player the Bulldogs will have faced this season, according to MSU head coach Dan Mullen.
The former Florida high school star committed to play quarterback for Mullen when he was offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators, but chose Michigan when Mullen took the MSU job.
"You see it in person, and he''s got that ''wow'' factor," Mullen said of Robinson. "He''s that explosive."
Conventional thinking would say MSU will lean on its trusted running game, which has helped it win time of possession in seven of its 12 games this season. The Bulldogs also won four of the five games in which it didn''t win the clock.
The rushing game is the bread and butter for the Bulldogs offense, even as teams have entered each week tailoring their game plans to stop it.
Ironically, Mullen is putting more of an emphasis on points than possession, acknowledging his defense has given up big plays to high-powered offenses of Arkansas and Alabama, both of which beat the Bulldogs.
"With playing such an explosive offense, we''re gonna have to score some points," Mullen said.
The Bulldogs could find scoring to be as challenging as it''s been all season without wideout Chad Bumphis, whose broken collarbone will force him to miss Saturday''s game. The team''s leader in receptions and receiving yards leaves a void in the slot coaches hope Brandon Heavens and Ricco Sanders will fill.
Koenning admits the team loses a downfield threat in Bumphis, but insists the Bulldogs'' downfield passing must continue to help open up opportunities underneath. Sophomore Chris Smith''s emergence over the last three weeks of the season helps offset the loss of Bumphis, but adequately replacing the team''s leading receiver looks to be a team effort.
Relf remains confident in MSU''s passing game, and has urged Heavens and Sanders to seize the opportunity.
"I really don''t have any concerns," Relf said. "The guys (Heavens and Sanders) have been working hard all year, but they just haven''t been getting that much playing time. I think they''ve looked pretty good for the past few weeks we''ve been practicing."