"We'll be keeping track on it and we have charts involved in it too. I plan on winning, but it's going to be close with us three." The third contestant being safety Charles Mitchell who this week is even with Smith't total. Should Wright seem somewhat serious on this score, understand that his past two Mississippi State seasons he has come in second; to Dominic Douglas in 2008 and Jamar Chaney in '09. No wonder the senior is intent on finishing first this last time around.
What makes Wright's running total more impressive going into October is he only had one tackle in the opening game. An ankle problem sidelined him most of that evening. He stormed back with ten tackles against Auburn and a dozen more at LSU. A seven-stop night against Georgia seems off that personal pace…but then Wright was having to race Mitchell (ten) and White (7) for which MSU Dog got to the ball carrier first all evening.
This tag-team tackling effort showed just how efficient Coach Manny Diaz' defense is becoming after a month of live action. Sure, practice is good, Wright says. But nothing proves prowess like sticking somebody wearing a different uniform.
"We've really gained comfort as the year goes on," says Wright. "And Coach Diaz told us once this thing gets going people are going to be surprised when they see how dominant this defense can be." Not that they had a chance to really show such dominance in the first few SEC tests. Auburn came with a well-balanced attack and quarterback few have tackled well so far. And at LSU, the Dog defense was literally backed into bad corners all evening by intercepted passes and poor kickoffs. In fact holding those Tigers to just 264 yards in such circumstances was somewhat heroic.
To Wright, though, the true key is just getting collectively confident with Diaz' system and their own understanding. He agrees that the first couple of games State's defense might have been a little tense; now they are more intense.
"At the beginning of the year, our first time actually playing in a game with it, of course we'd be a little hesitant. But we've adjusted our scheme as it goes on. And we just go out there and play football."
They are playing it well now, too. Wright is also a fine example of how Diaz is expanding the playbook. At LSU he often lined up on the line itself as a defensive end-type role; this past week Wright moved back behind the line more while DE Pernell McPhee would either put a hand to the ground or stand up as a rush end.
"With McPhee they're trying to work him around, so we can make plays," Wright said. "He's a great player and doing what the scheme allows him to do. That's just one of the packages we've got, trying to get some speed off the edge and trying to confuse the offense." It certainly worked well against Georgia with more tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Just as planned, Wright says.
"As you can see, sometimes the offensive line will be confused on who to set the protection to. That just goes to Coach Diaz, he has us in position to make a lot of plays and the offenses sometimes struggle with what we do."
CATCHING ON: Something State hopes to do more this year is force turnovers, and coming up with both Georgia fumbles as well as an interception is another confidence builder. Of course Wright is still annoyed with himself for literally letting two turnovers clank off his wrapped hands Saturday. Twice he got position for interceptions and neither stuck. After the game he joked about getting on the jugs machine used for receiver drills this week.
He wasn't joking after all. "Yeah, I'm working on my catching!" he said. Wright in fact is looking for his first career pick and doesn't want to graduate without at least one interception. "I can catch," he insists. "Saturday I just made a few mistakes and dropped the ball."
NO FLAGS ZONE: One area where Mississippi State is not dropping the ball this fall is penalties. The Bulldogs are the league's least-penalized club for another week, netting 3.5 flags per game so far worth 31.3 yards. For the full 2009 season those rates were 5.6 and 49.2, in themselves decent numbers. A better comparison is with this year's opposition which has almost twice as many flags assessed, 26, as the 14 State has drawn.
Of course nine of those were courtesy of Georgia gaffes, and several penalties were absolutely crucial to Mississippi State's success. But it's equally true the MSU Bulldogs are not hurting their own cause too often this season. "Our guys have great attention to detail and the coaches stress discipline," Mullen explained. Including, he added, on particular coach.
"Maybe a lot of that goes to Matt Balis and our off-season. He builds in a lot of mental toughness into our workouts. Our workouts aren't just lifting weights or running, there's a lot of mental toughness. When they're exhausted to challenge them through some complex agility stuff and make sure they're getting the right work, so they can keep that mental focus when they're tired."
The implication being a focused team won't (personal) foul as often, or as is more likely in fourth quarters commit pre-snap violations in alignment or timing or the like. Mullen isn't just giving coach-speak, affirms a real player. "It just goes along with the discipline," says Wright. "As soon as we got together in January we've worked on discipline and doing the little things right, and that's carried over into the football season."
"So," says Mullen, "hopefully we can remain the least penalized team."
DOG DOWN TIME?: No, not really. Though Bulldog players had no Monday practice and thus most did not stop by the fieldhouse, they did have other duties. This did not include meeting media as only Wright from the varsity came for the Monday press conference. WR Chad Bumphis did come to the Bryan Building today, but just long enough to tape a segment for the popular 'Y'all vs. Us' series. Bumphis was talking about his prep alma mater Tupelo as they prepare to play South Panola. He did not have time to talk to college media with a 1:00 tutor session booked.
That is typical for the Bulldogs since, with Mondays normally the non-practice day, their class and other academic-related duty schedules are over-booked for the first day each school week. Even Wright was pushed for Monday time; he brought his lunch to the press conference with him.
ON FURTHER REVIEW: Mississippi State's media relations staff reviewed the opening touchdown against Georgia, and changed the play from a 13-yard rush by TB Vick Ballard to a reception. QB Chris Relf flipped the ball forward on an option sweep, and many noticed at the time the sideline official making the ‘pass' signal; so in case of a drop no fumble could be recovered.
So the revised stats have Relf's passing numbers 9-of-14 for 148 yards and two touchdowns. He also now has three TD tosses against the same interception count.
Ballard's line total took the hit, at least in rushing, as he now has ‘just' five scores on the ground. But he has done it in just 36 runs, too. And the change also gives Ballard his first touchdown reception at State. Ballard in fact has had a hand in six of the 13 total Bulldog touchdowns so far this year.
INJURY UPDATE: Mullen said Monday that DE Fletcher Cox is questionable for this week with a sprained ankle. And, at least one of the injured tight ends remains in question. "Marcus Green's injury is a little bit more severe," Mullen said. "Marcus is still going to be day to day in how he goes and he still has a little bit of swelling. He ran at practice a little bit yesterday and had some swelling today so we just have to see how he feels tomorrow." Green injured his right knee in the Auburn game and has missed the last two SEC contests.
TE Brandon Henderson (left knee) has a better chance of getting back on the field after a one-week absence. "We expect him to play this weekend," Mullen said.
STILL AVAILABLE: Mississippi State reported some 3,200 tickets were available for this game after Alcorn State has returned most of their allotment. State has played to packed houses all three home games so far this year, including the third-largest crowd ever at Davis Wade Stadium that came to the Georgia contest.
Going back to last fall, State has had six-straight sellouts at DWS.