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Mississippi State's defense ready to rebound

Mississippi State's defense ready to rebound

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) 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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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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Caps make second blue line addition, acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal

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USA TODAY Sports

Caps make second blue line addition, acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal

The Capitals continued to retool their scuffling blue line on Wednesday, acquiring 26-year-old defenseman Jakub Jerabek from Montreal in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2019.

The move comes a couple of days after GM Brian MacLellan dealt a conditional third-round selection to Chicago for swift skating Michal Kempny.

Both Jerabek and Kempny are left shot, puck-moving defensemen who move well and make crisp outlet passes. Both also hail from the Czech Republic.

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The team sees Jerabek as a No. 5 or 6, I’m told.

On Wednesday, the Caps also officially said goodbye to Taylor Chorney, who was claimed off waivers by Columbus. Chorney will report to the Blue Jackets.

The Caps were off on Wednesday as they made their way Florida for Thursday night’s meeting with the Panthers, so it’s unclear how Coach Barry Trotz intends to deploy his new defensemen.

But it’s probably safe to assume that Kempny will move into a spot within the top four with John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen.

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That figures to leave Brooks Orpik and Jerabek on the third pair, while rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey jockey for position as the next man up.

Kempny is expected to make his Caps’ debut on Thursday night.

Is the Caps’ D corps better? Well, that remains to be seen. But it had become clear to MacLellan and Co. in recent weeks that the status quo was not going to cut it. This month, in fact, the team has allowed 39 goals in 10 games. Only the Rangers (40) have allowed more in the same span.

With the trade deadline looming next Monday, the Caps now have roughly $617,000 in cap space, according to www.capfriendly.com, and are at the roster maximum of 23 players. So they would need to make a move in order to add another body.

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

The Wizards entered the All-Star break having won seven of their previous nine games since John Wall went down with an injury, so a natural question to head coach Scott Brooks looking ahead to their first game back on Thursday was how he and his team can keep that momentum going in the second half.

Brooks immediately pointed to the Wizards' schedule, which gets notably more difficult in the coming weeks. They have a stretch of games over the next month-plus that features the best teams in basketball and Brooks knows that will be a big factor in whether they can sustain what they have going.

"Definitely the schedule gets tougher," Brooks said. "We've got a lot of good teams coming up starting with the first one in Cleveland. It's five games in seven nights against really good teams."

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In the next five weeks, the Wizards will play 15 of 17 games against teams currently holding playoff spots. That includes the Cavaliers, Warriors, Celtics, Spurs (twice), Raptors and Timberwolves. 

That will represent a marked shift for the Wizards, who to this point have the weakest strength of schedule. Though they boast impressive wins over the Celtics, Rockets, Raptors and Timberwolves, they are about to play teams of that caliber more frequently with few nights off to rest. They have four back-to-back sets all in the next three weeks.

The upcoming stretch has been on the Wizards' minds for a while. Several players referenced their tough schedule before the All-Star break, knowing those wins leading up to the time off could prove extra important in hindsight.

The Wizards return to action on Thursday night against the Cavaliers, a team that has already beaten them twice. Both of those games were against the old version of the Cavs before they traded much of their roster at the deadline.

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Gone are Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder and Channing Frye. But they still have that guy LeBron James.

"Shoot, they looked good the other time, right? They beat us twice with the other group," Brooks noted. "LeBron is going to go down as one of the best ever. They are younger and more athletic. They're a good team and they still have an All-Star in [Kevin] Love who hasn't played because he's hurt."

The Cavs haven't lost in three games since the All-Star break and that includes road wins over the Celtics and Thunder. They look rejuvenated and, at least so far, improved from the aging, incongruent roster they had just weeks ago.

The Wizards have also been playing better lately, of course, and this upcoming stretch will be a major test for them. Wall has been out three weeks since he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He is likely to miss another three-to-five weeks. The Wizards will have to get through this without him.

If they can remain competitive and even beat some of these elite teams, they will only gain more confidence in their potential. That's the way Brooks plans to approach the schedule.

"We still want to be a better team when John comes back," Brooks said. "But the schedule definitely gets a lot tougher."

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