Bulldogs embracing challenge against Tide

STARKVILLE – In a way, Mississippi State is undefeated.
On the win-loss ledger, the Bulldogs are 4-5 overall, 2-3 in SEC games. At home, they’re just 1-4, with the lone win coming against Division I-AA Jackson State in the season opener. The proverbial lumps – literal and figurative – that inevitably plague a rebuilding effort are plentiful.
With No. 3 Alabama (9-0, 6-0), which has already clinched the Western Division title and a berth opposite Florida in the SEC championship game, coming to town today, there is the likelihood that more lumps, and another defeat, await.
Yet the MSU players are actually looking forward to the punishment that will come, win or lose.
“I’m just looking for one of those tough, physical games, one of them woodshed games,” senior tailback Anthony Dixon said with his ever-present smile. “They know it, and we know it.”
The reason for Dixon’s smile is that MSU’s season to date can’t be defined by something as shallow as a stat sheet, although when compared to last year’s, it’s quite clear progress has been made.
The unrelenting enthusiasm of first-year coach Dan Mullen has engendered record-setting fan support, and the players continually feed off all of it. During MSU’s bye week, Mullen said on his radio show that the Bulldogs would upset Alabama.
“Well, we’re not playing the game to lose, I can tell you that much,” he said a few days later.
MSU has shown it’s no pushover. Just ask Florida, Georgia Tech, Houston and LSU, the four teams that have defeated State at Davis Wade Stadium – by a combined 32 points.
All these intangibles are nice and can have a tangible effect. But the Bulldogs still must deal with the reality of Alabama’s talent.
The Tide has what MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning called a “who’s who on defense.” He said the Bulldogs can’t worry too much about individual players – guys like cornerback Javier Arenas, linebacker Rolando McClain and nose guard Terrence Cody.
“You start individualizing their defense, it’s going to be unreal,” Koenning said.
The key for MSU will be cliché, but true: one play at a time. The Bulldogs need two more wins in their final three games to become bowl eligible.
“We’re in the playoffs now,” senior linebacker Jamar Chaney said.
MSU and Alabama both have something to play for. Having wrapped up a trip to Atlanta thanks to a hard-fought win over LSU, though, is the Tide at risk of a letdown?
“Why would we have any thoughts of a possible letdown? No one in their right mind would even let that thought come up,” said Arenas.
If Arenas speaks the truth, then the Bulldogs can expect to take some more lumps today and will probably lose the game. But if they continue clawing and scratching and giving the fans a reason to come back for more, there is victory in that.

Contact: 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.

Tonight’s game at a glance
– Where: Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville.
– Kickoff: 6 p.m.
– Television: ESPN.
– Radio: MSU network, XM Channel 199, Sirius Channel 220.
– Records: Alabama 9-0 (6-0 SEC), MSU 4-5 (2-3).
– Rankings: Alabama No. 3 AP, No. 3 USA Today, No. 2 BCS; MSU not ranked.
– Series: Alabama leads 72-18-3.
– 2008: Alabama won 32-7 in Tusaloosa, with a Javier Arenas 80-yard punt return for TD sparking the Crimson Tide.
– Coaches – Alabama: Nick Saban, 119-50-1 overall (14th year), 28-8 at Alabama (third year). MSU: Dan Mullen, 4-5 (first year).
n Statistical leaders – Alabama: QB Greg McElroy 140-236-4, 1,721 yards, 11 TDs; RB Mark Ingram 175-1,148, 8 TDs; WR Julio Jones 24-331, 2 TDs; LB Rolando McClain 66 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INTs. MSU: QB Tyson Lee 112-189-11, 1,271 yards, 4 TDs; RB Anthony Dixon 182-1,001, 9 TDs; WR Chad Bumphis 26-290, 3 TDs; LB Jamar Chaney 73 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INTs.
– Trends: MSU is 1-4 at home this season. … MSU has run the ball on nearly 65 percent of its plays. Its 219.2 rushing yards per game ranks third in the SEC and 12th in the nation. … Dixon has rushed for 231 yards in three games against Alabama, but only had 26 last year.
– Notes: Alabama lost in its last trip to Starkville, a 17-12 decision in 2007. … MSU has forced 19 turnovers, tied for most in the SEC. … Tide senior kicker Leigh Tiffin played his junior year of high school football at Tupelo. … Alabama senior safety Justin Woodall, of Lafayette County, was the Daily Journal’s 2006 Baseball Player of the Year.
– Summing it up: “We’re just taking the mindset like coach Mullen told us, one week at a time. We’re in the playoffs now.” – MSU linebacker Jamar Chaney
– Prediction: Alabama, 19-10.

Read more about college football in Game Day in today’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.

Click here for more on Miss. State sports at Brad Locke’s blog.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal