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December 29, 2011

Five keys: Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Stadium: LP Field
Kickoff: Friday at 6:40 PM ET
TV/Internet: ESPN and ESPN3.com
Current records:
Wake Forest: 6-6, 5-3 ACC (Lost to Vanderbilt 41-7)
Mississippi State: 6-6, 2-6 SEC (Beat Ole Miss 31-3)
Series history: This is the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
What is on the line? The victorious team will clinch a winning season, which would be the Demon Deacons first since 2008.

Quotes of the week
"I think Mississippi State's a really good team. I think all of their losses have been against Top 25 teams. If you look at all of the teams that they've played were either ranked in the Top 25, or now are ranked in the Top 25, so this is a good Mississippi State football team." - Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe

"They're going to be pretty loud. It's going to be 10,000 cowbells going at it at the same time, especially on third down. It's going to be loud, but we played in Death Valley, Florida State, Virginia Tech's stadium. UNC's stadium was loud, so it won't be anything we're not accustomed to." - Wake Forest wide receiver Chris Givens

"I know they're a tough team. Their record is 6-6. That doesn't show how good they are. It's going to be a tough team. Just like ourselves I'm sure they have two or three losses that they were like, 'Dang we gave this one away,' and that's exactly how we feel with a couple of losses that we have." - Wake Forest free safety Josh Bush

"They're known for having a big, physical defense. It's going to be a fun challenge. We're looking forward to the challenge, and I think everybody really believes that we can compete with these guys. It's exciting. It's a goal that we set for ourselves at the beginning of the season. It's really only the first half of the goal. The other half is go out and win a bowl game, so if we do that that's the main achievement and really time to celebrate then, but it's going to require us to play really hard and execute. It's going to be fun." - Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price

"It's been a while since we've been to one [bowl game]. It's about time we get back on track with that, just looking forward to it." - Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock

"They throw the ball all over the place. It's kind of different from what I've seen from them in the past where they were kind of a run-oriented team. They're kind of a pass-first offense now. They give you a lot of different looks on defense. They're not big defensive players, but they blitz all over the place. They're always moving around constantly, and coming from every direction possible." - Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen

"They're staff used to come and visit with us when I was at Oklahoma, so we have a history together. We know each other. They've got a couple of good running backs they run the zone with, very athletic, very explosive backs, not very big. They're physical. We're talking to guys at Florida State, and they're physical." - Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson

Keys to the game

1) Establish the run
Brandon Pendergrass will shoulder the bulk of the load, while Orville Reynolds will provide a change of pace, as a homerun threat. Josh Harris will also be available.

Wake had its two best individual rushing performances when facing Top 25 competition. Harris rumbled 13 times for 136 yards in a 35-30 win over then No. 23 Florida State, and Pendergrass gashed then No. 9 Clemson with 20 carries for 134 yards and two touchdowns in a narrow 31-28 loss in Death Valley.

"I think our problem has been in the past if we have to go out and wing it every snap we get in trouble," Grobe said. "We've got to be able to run it a little bit. That's going to be our issue I think. Tanner's strength is throwing the football. That's what we've hung our hat on this year, but I think we've got to find a way to scratch out some rushing yards."

The Bulldogs allow 161 yards per game on the ground, while the Deacs gain 118.9 rushing yards a contest.

Standing in Wake Forest's way are stud defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. Blocking those havoc-creating mammoths will go a long way in making this trip to Nashville a successful one for the Demon Deacons.

2) Finish drives
It is what the Deacs failed to do in heartbreaking losses to Notre Dame and Clemson.

Possessions ending in turnovers and missed field goals will be a death-sentence for Wake.

In 43 red-zone opportunities MSU's defense has yielded only 32 scores (19 touchdowns and 13 field goals), which ranks third in the SEC. This should provide even more emphasis for the Demon Deacons to value the football, and take advantage of every chance they get.

3) Price and Givens
Make no mistake the bread and butter of Wake's attack is its aerial arsenal, and the special connection between Tanner Price and Chris Givens.

Price completed 229 of 376 attempts for 2,803 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, while Givens caught 74 of those passes for 1,276 yards and nine touchdowns.

"The thing you notice about their receivers is that they're explosive," Wilson said. "Number two [Givens] and number 81 [Terence Davis], I'm bad with names, but I'm great with numbers and number three [Michael Campanaro] and two are really explosive. They're the guys that take the top off of coverage. They're very dynamic when they get the ball in their hands. Number 81 is more of the possession guy. They love him in the red-zone."

In the blowout-loss to Vanderbilt Price and Givens struggled to get in sync with one another, which eliminated a major dimension of success from Wake Forest's offense. It is important that the quarterback and wide receiver rekindle their lethal connection, which will create opportunities for others to get open.

The Bulldogs rank 23rd nationally against the pass, holding their opposition to an anemic 194.92 yards through the air a game.

"They're a good young team, who plays extremely hard," Givens said. "The defense is talented. They're physical. They have good corners. They can stop the run. We have our work cut out for us."

4) Corralling Ballard
Vick Ballard is one of the few bright spots for a shaky Mississippi State offense. He has rushed for 1,009 yards and eight touchdowns.

"The o-line is pretty big, as with all SEC schools," Whitlock said. "They're running back [Ballard] he's pretty good. He'll find the hole. He'll hit it hard."

Look for Mullen to work Ballard early and often against a lean Wake Forest defensive front. After Nikita Whitlock the well of depth and talent is dry for the interior part of the line.

5) Confuse QBs
Mullen employs a platoon system at quarterback, alternating primarily between Chris Relf and Tyler Russell, both of whom have battled injuries this season. Russell has missed a significant portion of bowl practices, recovering from an injury.

Dylan Favre left the program, leaving the Bulldogs with one healthy quarterback in Relf.

"Chris is pretty tired," Mullen said. "Tyler will be ready to play, so we've got those two. We've just got to try to keep them healthy. We expect him [Russell] to be ready to go by the time we get to the bowl game. The good thing about Tyler is he grits through it."

Relf provides a MSU with a dual-threat, while Russell's play is reminiscent to a pro-style.

Not only the health and well-being of his quarterbacks, but their ability to play well consistently is a concern for Mullen and his staff. Relf has a touchdown to interception ratio of nine to seven, while Russell's is eight to four.

Wake's co-defensive coordinators Tim Billings and Brian Knorr have had the better part of a month to scheme blitz packages and coverages to stymie the Bulldogs. Now it is time to dial them up.

"Defensively they blitz you all over the place, give you a lot of multiple looks out of their 3-4 front," Mullen said. "They have an all-conference caliber nose tackle that's a playmaker, makes a ton of plays. They've got some real good playmakers in the secondary. They move their guys around. They're not a big defense, but they're always blitzing and moving from every direction."


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