By MATTHEW STEVENS
The one word that has been used throughout the Mississippi State lineup to describe playing Alabama is physical.
“I'd have to say it was one of the most physical games because they ran the ball straight downhill," State linebacker K.J. Wright said. "They're a team that's going to come out and get after us up front."
After being asked about all the potential off-the-field distractions including the passing of sophomore defensive end Nick Bell and the never-ending questions surrounding the campus involving the Cam Newton situation, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen had a simple answer to how to get his team focused.
“All I have to do is pop in the tape of last year’s game and that’ll get your attention quickly,” Mullen said.
In that game, a 31-3 loss to the Crimson Tide, at Davis-Wade Stadium, the Bulldogs managed just three points, 203 total yards and converted just two of 13 third down situations.
Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2 in Southeastern Conference) will make the 84-mile trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium tonight to attempt to get the Bulldogs third win in Tuscaloosa since 1955. Kickoff is set for 6:15 p.m. on ESPN2.
“It's a great team," State's second-year head coach said of Alabama. "They're a very, very well coached team and has great talent at every position. We're going to have to play a great football game and follow the plan exactly to win."
Mullen, who has insisted on devoting his time and effort to securing in-state talent instead of branching off to other Southeastern states, said Monday that despite having 13 active players on the Bulldogs roster, he wouldn’t totally consider the Alabama contest a rivalry.
“It’s not close to what the other rivalry (Egg Bowl with Ole Miss) is for us,” Mullen said. “There’s a state line between us and a majority of our team is from Mississippi. We've got a do a good job of balancing the series out more. Rivalry games come when you win.”
In the battle up front, Alabama is 25-1 under head coach Nick Saban when they have a 100-yard rusher and the Crimson Tide have a Heisman Trophy winner (Mark Ingram) and a backup that averages more yards per carry (Trent Richardson) in its backfield.
“One of our major battle cries this week is if we have a bunch of one-on-one tackles, we're going to be sad at the end of the day," MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "You've got to get more than one guy to these ball carriers because you may get them to the ground a time or two, but sooner or later they're great tackle breakers."
Mississippi State strength is obviously also on the ground as in his 21 games as a head coach, Mullen’s team in Starkville has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in all but one contest.
“This is the SEC and they better be excited about a physical type of game,” MSU offensive line coach and running game coordinator John Hevesy said. “We have to commit to that mentality and we have to play with that mentality, because they're going to play that way.”
Months ago during SEC media days, Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said the most difficult week of preparation came in trying to beat Mississippi State. The senior signal caller has thrown a touchdown pass in each game of the 2010 season and is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes.
“He’s like a coach on the field,” Diaz said. “He can get them in the right play and the right protection and at the same time the best pass he has is turning around and handing it off to those two backs.”
Alabama (7-2, 4-2) has been very coy with the injury status of Richardson, who suffered a knee injury in the Crimson Tide’s loss last week at LSU, and is currently listed as a game-time decision for tonight’s game.
"Trent did some running today. He did some work today," Saban said after Wednesday's practice. "If he's not better, I don't know that he'll be ready to play in a game. We'll just have to wait and see on that one."
Mississippi State will wear a patch honoring Nick Bell’s memory starting tonight, junior defensive back Charles Mitchell will wear Bell’s number 36 in the contest and before the game the University of Alabama will have a moment of silence at Bryant-Denny Stadium for Bell. Bell lost his battle to cancer last week in a Birmingham hospital.
“Of course, they'll want to dedicate this game to Nick," Alabama defensive end Marcel Dareus said.
Dareus was close friends with Bell, a Bessemer, Ala., native, and visited Bell in the hospital in the days before he passed.
"I'm dedicating this game to Nick,” Dareus said. “I'm going to dedicate the rest of the season to Nick. He was a real close friend of mine. A great guy all the way around."