December 27, 2010 9:00:00 AM
Mississippi State''s football team has waited a month for its next game-week.
The players hope they''re rested, re-focused and ready to cap their break-out season with a win over the University of Michigan in the Progressive Gator Bowl on Saturday.
The Bulldogs (8-4) arrived in host city Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday and took part in their first practice, the first of five-straight training sessions to be held at the University of North Florida.
MSU spent nearly two weeks of its of Starkville-based preparation to brush up on basics and rest starters, the majority of whom gave way to backups during first and second team drills and the team''s intra-squad scrimmage at Davis Wade Stadium.
The Bulldogs used their five final practices to install the game plan for the Wolverines (7-5) and to get starters back into a groove.
The time off was crucial for players with nagging injuries, like Pernell McPhee and Vick Ballard, both of whom battled leg injuries down the stretch of the season.
"When you look at guys like McPhee, KJ (Wright), Chris White, (Derek) Sherrod, all of our guys, and the wear that the season takes on them, the opportunity to come out and have practices like this helps them immensely," MSU head coach Dan Mullen said.
MSU returned to game-week preparations Dec. 17 and concluded Dec. 21 before players left campus for the Christmas holiday.
The Gator Bowl will be air at 12:30 p.m. CDT on Jan. 1 and will be broadcast by ESPN2.
The Bulldogs followed the same five-day routine it would normally start on Sundays, installing game-plans for both sides of the ball in closed practices.
"We should be ready to play the game three days from now," Mullen said last Monday.
MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz joked about how much easier practice became once preparations for the Wolverines began, saying the veterans'' return to taking the majority of the reps was "better for his voice."
Still, most of Diaz''s veterans are underclassmen whose roles have been overshadowed by the monster statistical seasons of senior linebackers K.J. Wright and Chris White.
The Bulldogs'' two starting defensive tackles, Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, are sophomores, as are starting cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Safety Nickoe Whitley, a redshirt freshman, also is a starter. Banks, Broomfield and Whitley have recorded eight of MSU''s 12 interceptions and are ranked in the top six on the team in tackles.
Diaz hopes his young defensive players begin their inheritance of the soon-to-be-vacated leadership roles against the Wolverines.
"This is going to be a major theme in the spring, and really, with our junior class, -- Boyd, Cox, Banks, Broomfield -- they have really got to take the big step up," Diaz said. "For me, we still do it in flashes, but maybe when the seniors finally walk out the door, they''ll look around and realize that by their experience they have to be our top guys next season."
MSU''s first New Year''s Day Bowl since 1999 will feature an offense without leading receiver Chad Bumphis, whose broken collarbone suffered against Ole Miss will keep him sidelined until the spring.
In his stead in the slot will be sophomore Brandon Heavens and redshirt freshman Ricco Sanders, the latter of whom has yet to record a catch in his Bulldog career.
Heavens has 20 catches for 304 yards and two touchdowns but has just eight grabs in the last six games.
Bumphis, who leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns will quarterback Chris Relf without his top target. Relf enters the Gator Bowl with an average of 220 passing yards over the last three games.
Mullen is confident the Bulldogs'' offense won''t take a step back without Bumphis.
"(Heavens and Sanders) are guys that have played for us and been in that position," Mullen said. "We feel pretty good about those guys stepping up and being ready to play. When you have to deal with those season-ending injuries to some of your playmakers, other guys get their opportunity to make something happen."
MSU resumes practice at 11 a.m. today, followed a players outing at 2 p.m.