Jackson State-MSU Pregame: Bulldogs Open Season Minus Three Players

Today’s game: Jackson State (0-0) at MSU (0-0), 6 p.m., Fox Sports Net/ESPN3.com (Bob Rathbun play-by-play, Tim Couch analyst, Elizabeth Moreau sideline), XM 196, Sirius 113.


Here we are, people. The season opener is here, and MSU is expected to take care of business against the Tigers, who hail from the SWAC and Division I-AA. JSU was 9-2 last year and tied for the Eastern Division title, losing out on a trip to the SWAC title game via a tie-breaker.

The Bulldogs, 7-6 last year with a win over Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl, will start 2012 without the services of at least three players. A team spokesman announced that sophomore defensive lineman P.J. Jones (Tupelo), sophomore cornerback Jamerson Love (Aberdeen) and junior receiver Ricco Sanders are suspended indefinitely for unspecified violations of team rules. All other Bulldogs are expected to be dressed out and available.

All three players are backups but have played key roles. Last year, Jones made nine tackles, recovered a fumble and had a pass break-up in 12 games. He’d been expected to compete for a starting job at defensive tackle this fall, but Curtis Virges (West Point) has won that battle for now. Love made 18 tackles, 2.0 tackles-for-loss and a pass break-up in 13 games last year. Sanders had 15 catches for 163 yards (10.9 ypc) and a touchdown in 12 games.

There were no injury updates given. On Monday, we were told that tight end Malcolm Johnson (pectoral injury) was doubtful for at least the next two games, while backup offensive lineman Templeton Hardy (ankle) was doubtful today.

• Remember to follow me on Twitter (@bradlocke) for updates during and after the game. Now, let’s look at MSU’s three keys for victory from today’s GameDay section (which you can find HERE).

1. Wear ’em down. MSU hasn’t had this much depth in years, and by nature will be deeper than Jackson State. Expect Dan Mullen to have heavy rotations at several positions, in particular running back, defensive line and linebacker.

The most important of those positions might be the defensive line, which is especially deep (and large) in the middle with Josh Boyd, Dewayne Cherrington, Devin Jones, Curtis Virges and others. JSU quarterback Dedric McDonald is big and can run, so he won’t be easy to take down, but MSU should be able to hem him in over four quarters.

2. Start fast. No sense in letting the Tigers hang around and start believing they can pull off the upset. The first quarter was MSU’s best last year, as it outscored opponents 110-58.

This will require the offense to be crisp from the first possession. That begins with quarterback Tyler Russell, who has experience but is in his first season as full-time starter; if he can direct the show with authority early on, that should set the tone for MSU.

While JSU has a change at quarterback this year, it’s still a potentially explosive offense. A slow start for MSU and a fast start for Jackson State won’t necessarily equal an upset, but it’ll make things too difficult for Mullen’s tastes, especially if some expected bad weather materializes.

3. Don’t look ahead. A huge game looms for MSU next Saturday, at home against Auburn. The Bulldogs have lost four in a row and 10 of the last 11 versus Auburn. It’s a chance for Mullen to finally beat an SEC Western Division team not named Ole Miss.

It’s a game that could swing MSU’s season in very different directions depending on the result. If this team is as mature as advertised, taking care of current business first shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

It’s also important to make it through today without any significant injuries.

NOTABLE STAT: Mullen is the only SEC coach since 2009 to average at least 50 points in season openers. The scores: 45-7 (Jackson State, 2009), 49-7 (Memphis, 2010), 59-17 (Memphis, 2011). That’s an average of 51.0 points per game.

WEATHER: Gonna be hot, might be wet. The forecast has improved a bit as the week’s gone on and Hurricane Isaac failed to deliver the kind of downpours we’d been promised. My trusty-ish Weather Channel app calls for a 40 percent chance of this evening, with temps in the mid-80s at kickoff and dipping just below 80 by game’s end.