By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Michigan knows exactly what to expect from Mississippi State’s offense. The question is whether the Wolverines can stop it.
In Saturday’s Gator Bowl, the No. 21-ranked Bulldogs (8-4) will likely stick with what’s worked so well this season: running the ball early and often. State averages 215.8 rushing yards per game, and 67.9 percent of its plays have been runs.
The Wolverines (7-5) have digested enough film to where they feel sure of what to expect, and what they expect is a big challenge.
“Third down you can’t really pin your ears back and rush the passer, because you know that they have a real dynamic running game,” defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. “They can run the ball on third-and-6, and they think they can pick it up.”
The Bulldogs have shown that different players can hurt defenses, and you can bet everyone will get a shot against the nation’s 94th-ranked run defense (187.7 yards per game).
Tailbacks Vick Ballard (892 yards, 16 touchdowns) and LaDarius Perkins (526, three TDs) have softened the loss of Anthony Dixon, the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“They’re some of the top backs in the nations from what I’ve seen,” defensive tackle Greg Banks said. “They’re big-play backs, they have speed, they have vision, they have patience as well.”
Then, of course, there is junior quarterback Chris Relf, whose 683 yards rushing is second on the team. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder carried 31 times against Arkansas, so MSU coach Dan Mullen isn’t afraid to batter defenses with him.
“Our key for this game is to make him go outside, make him go the long way,” linebacker Kenny Demens said.
More than scheming, Michigan’s ability to stop MSU’s run game will depend on the progress it’s made. A young unit – three starters are freshmen, three are sophomores – has struggled mightily most of this season.
Players say they see progress, though, and bowl practices have gone well.
“Mistakes are obviously what kill a defense, kill a team,” Van Bergen said, “so if we can make the least mistakes come Saturday, I think we win the game.”
Bumphis getting healthy
– Wide receiver Chad Bumphis is finally out of a sling.
The sophomore receiver from Tupelo said that Wednesday was his first day without it. He suffered a broken collarbone when making a diving catch against Ole Miss on Nov. 27.
Bumphis has been ruled out for the bowl game, but he’s feeling good.
“It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m in no pain,” Bumphis said. “I’ll be back pretty soon, hopefully.”
Quiet New Year’s
– It might be New Year’s Eve, but the Bulldogs are going to keep it low key.
That’s because it’s also Gator Bowl Eve, and coach Dan Mullen isn’t going to let any distractions creep in.
“I’ll do bed check at 9:30,” Mullen said with a smile.
The Bulldogs’ curfew has been tightened up as the week has gone on, and they’re staying at the TPC Sawgrass Marriott, which is located several miles out of town.
If practice is any indication, the players appear to have their minds strictly on the game.
“It’s a Thursday practice, they got into the Thursday routine,” Mullen said. “Getting in that game mindset, we haven’t played for so long, you have to follow that sense of urgency.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.