By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State is ranked 12th in the BCS standings and coming off a big win over Tennessee. Next weekend, it visits No. 1 Alabama.
Situated between those two games is this week’s opponent, Middle Tennessee (4-2), of the Sun Belt Conference. It’s a team that lost to McNeese State – an NCAA Football Championship team – to open the season, but has won three road games, including a three-touchdown victory at Georgia Tech.
This final non-conference tilt just might qualify as a “trap game” for MSU (6-0), which is ranked 15th in this week’s Associated Press poll.
“Every game is a trap game,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said Monday. “We have a trap game this week, a trap game last week and it’ll be a trap game this week. Every game is like that. If you don’t bring your focus in college football today, you’re not going to win.”
MTSU could present a danger if the Bulldogs can’t forget last week and try peeking ahead to Alabama. But the Blue Raiders are a man down, because starting tailback Benny Cunningham is out for the year with a knee injury he suffered in last week’s 34-30 win over FIU.
Cunningham had rushed for 600 yards with 11 touchdowns.
The Blue Raiders will now turn to Drayton Calhoun, an LSU transfer, and freshman Jordan Parker.
“To be honest with you, it’s a big hit. Everybody knows that,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. “We’re not going to be able to replace him.”
Tops in turnover margin
The Bulldogs won the turnover battle against Tennessee 3-0, and lead the nation in turnover margin.
State has 18 takeaways – 10 interceptions, eight fumbles – with just three giveaways. That plus-15 margin – or, plus-2.5 per game – is just ahead of Alabama, La. Tech and Rutgers.
Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said he can’t recall having a defense with such a wide margin, although he was part of the 2008 Oklahoma team that was plus-1.64 per game.
Against Tennessee, Johnthan Banks forced and recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter to set up a big touchdown in the fourth quarter. That’s something the Bulldogs practice daily.
“We hunt turnovers and negative plays every day. It’s part of our culture,” Wilson said.
Few flags fly
MSU is one of the least-penalized teams in the country, with only 26 for 235 yards through six games. That’s an average of 4.33 penalties per game, which is tied for 13th in the nation with Central Florida and Penn State.
Last season, State drew an average of 5.46 penalties per game, which ranked 45th.
“When you’re prepared in practice, then you’ll be locked in during a game,” Mullen said. “We need to continue to avoid those silly issues.”