STARKVILLE – The measuring stick comes out today.
Mississippi State begins Year 2 under Dan Mullen, who infused the program and its fan base with new life last season. An offseason full of hope gives way tonight to whatever reality awaits the Bulldogs, who were 5-7 last year (3-5 SEC) and closed the season with a 41-27 dismantling of rival Ole Miss.
“We’ve been ready to get going, get this season going right now,” Mullen said Wednesday.
Naturally, the Bulldogs expect to be better than last year, even if the schedule is just as daunting. At 6 today, they play host to Memphis and are favored by 21 points. The Tigers were 2-10 last year and have a new coach, former LSU assistant head coach Larry Porter, a Jackson native.
Like Mullen, MSU’s players are also eager to get things going.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” senior linebacker K.J. Wright said, “and I told the boys (Monday) morning in the weightroom, ‘We’ve got to have a good week of practice, because we’ve got to start off strong.’”
MSU is looking to make strides in several areas. While the offense made great progress last year, the defense is expected to do the same this fall.
In 2009, the Bulldogs ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring defense, 10th in total defense and 11th in pass defense. With new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz in the fold, State hopes for a more effective pass rush and more consistent pass coverage.
“We’re going to be a more mature group,” junior strong safety Charles Mitchell said. “A lot of guys came back, and a lot of guys are real excited about this season and our new defense. We’re ready to show everybody what we can do.”
While it’s a steep hill Memphis is trying to climb, one advantage it might have today is the unknown. With Porter bringing in new coaches and new schemes, and with so many offensive skill players lost from last year, the Tigers are tough to scout.
Mullen has had to cobble together film from different places, including Southern Miss and Michigan, where Memphis defensive coordinator Jay Hopson previously coached. So the Bulldogs’ focus this week has largely been on themselves, on doing the necessary things to assure the next step is taken when expected.
“We’ve kind of had to pick and choose and look at different things, get an idea for what we think they’re going to do,” Mullen said, “and really concentrate on fundamentals of our football team and worry about us executing at a higher level more than all the different schemes they’re going to throw at us.”
Today’s game at a glance
– Where: Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville (55,082)
– Kickoff: 6 p.m.
– Television: ESPNU.
– Radio: MSU Network; XM Channel 198; Sirius Channel 217.
– 2009 records: Memphis 2-10, MSU 5-7.
– Series: MSU leads 31-11.
– Last meeting: MSU won 35-27 on Oct. 11, 2003, in Starkville. MSU coach Jackie Sherrill and Memphis coach Tommy West exchanged heated words after the game.
– Coaches – Memphis: Larry Porter (first year); MSU: Dan Mullen (5-7, second year).
– Statistical leaders (2009) – Memphis: WR Marcus Rucker 18-241, 2 TDs; MLB Jamon Hughes 87 tackles, 5.5 TFL; LB Winston Bowens 58 tackles, 3.5 TFL; DE Frank Trotter 36 tackles, 3.5 TFL. MSU: QB Chris Relf 22-41-3, 283 yards, 5 TDs passing, 76-500, 2 TDs rushing; WR Chad Bumphis 32-375, 4 TDs; LB K.J. Wright 82 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks; DE Pernell McPhee 56 tackles, 12 TFL, 5 sacks.
– Trends: MSU has defeated Memphis 10 straight times. The Tigers’ last win in the series was in 1993. … State is 84-62-3 all time against Conference USA schools. … MSU is 5-5 in season openers since 2000.
– Notes: Ex-Bulldogs Jamon Hughes and Delmon Robinson now play for Memphis. … The Tigers lost three big skill players – RB Curtis Steele, WR Duke Calhoun and WR Carlos Singleton. They combined for 2,669 yards, 23 TDs last year. … Memphis ranked 11th in C-USA and 116th in the country in total defense last year (457.5 ypg). … MSU led the SEC in rushing last year (227.6 ypg) but is without RB Anthony Dixon, who’s in the NFL.
– Summing it up: “We’ve been talking about this for a long time, and I told the boys (Monday) morning in the weightroom, ‘We’ve got to have a good week of practice, because we’ve got to start off strong.’” – MSU linebacker K.J. Wright, on the first game
– Prediction: Mississippi State, 38-20.
Read more in GameDay in today’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal