Mississippi State’s defense ready to rebound

Mississippi State’s veteran defense is one of the biggest

reasons the program has emerged as a consistent competitor in the

Southeastern Conference over the past three seasons.

But it’s also been a big contributor to the Bulldogs’

disappointing finish to this regular season, which included losses

in four of five games.

Senior linebacker Cameron Lawrence says he’s glad Mississippi

State (8-4) has one more chance to leave a good impression when it

plays No. 21 Northwestern (9-3) in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.

”We’ve had time to get our bodies back together, get our bumps

and bruises healed up,” Lawrence said. ”Now we’ve got to keep

working on the little things. It was a hard stretch for us – we

played a really tough schedule toward the end of the season – but

now we’ve just got to focus on the details. The sky is the limit

for us.”

Mississippi State was scheduled to arrive in Jacksonville, Fla.,

on Wednesday to begin preparations for the Gator Bowl. It will be

the last game for Lawrence, cornerback Johnthan Banks, safety Corey

Broomfield and defensive tackle Josh Boyd – a quartet of longtime

starters.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Lawrence was a role player in his first

two seasons, but moved into a starting role as a junior and has

responded with a combined 234 tackles over the past two years.

Banks won the Thorpe Award earlier this month – which goes to

the nation’s top cornerback – and the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder will

almost certainly be an early selection in April’s NFL draft. He has

16 career interceptions, using a blend of size and speed rarely

seen at cornerback.

Broomfield and Boyd don’t have the gaudy numbers but have been

consistent the past four seasons, providing the constant production

that Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen craves.

But the past five games haven’t reflected that experience.

Mississippi State won seven straight to start the season –

rising to No. 13 in the nation – but then hit a brutal portion of

the schedule that produced lopsided losses to Alabama, Texas

A&M and LSU. The Bulldogs responded to beat Arkansas, but then

lost 41-24 to rival Mississippi in the Egg Bowl.

In those four losses, the Bulldogs gave up nearly 40 points per

game.

”We’ve always been known for playing hard and giving great

effort out there,” Boyd said. ”But we’ve been forgetting little

things. It’s frustrating because we know we can do better. We’ve

been working really hard to make sure Northwestern gets our `A’

game instead of our `B’ game.”

Northwestern’s offense will provide another difficult challenge

for Mississippi State. The Wildcats are averaging more than 31

points, which ranks third in the Big Ten, and are averaging more

than 230 yards on the ground.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Mullen are two young head

coaches who have developed a friendship over the past several

years, discussing ideas and philosophy as they try to build their

programs. That should lead to plenty of familiarity in the Gator

Bowl.

”They’re a team that probably should have won their conference

and played in the Rose Bowl,” Mullen said. ”Very talented in

every phase of the game – very explosive offense, one of the top

rushing offenses in the country. They run at a high tempo, and they

have stout, physical offensive linemen, some fast playmaking

receivers, and a quarterback and running back who can score every

time they touch the ball.”

Mullen was particularly concerned with Northwestern running back

Venric Mark, who has rushed for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns and

averaged 6.2 yards per carry. He’s also scored two touchdowns as a

punt returner.

”They get him the ball in the open field and he can score from

anywhere,” Mullen said.

Mississippi State has stopped players like Mark before. That’s

one reason the Bulldogs are playing in their third bowl game in

three seasons.

And Boyd is ready to prove the defense can do it one more

time.

”We want to show everybody that we’re still us – that we’re

still a great defense,” Boyd said. ”This is the last college game

of our lives, so we want to go out on top.”

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