"It was kind of hard but I was a man about it and took it. I felt my body wasn't ready to play last week, the coaches felt that way along with the trainers. So I just sat it out." This should play out better for both Cox and for State's defense as the sophomore is as ready as possible for a contest that will surely have him chasing Cougars all over the field. Cox did not wear any extra protection on the ankle leaving today's practice, and said he feels 100%.
And, up to the challenge Houston's hustling attack presents. "We get tempo in practice from our offense, so that's nothing new to us." Maybe, but there must be some concern when Houston's goal is to keep defenders from subbing over the course of a long, tiring series. If so, it doesn't show with Cox.
"Coach (Chris) Wilson and Coach (Manny) Diaz have the gameplan in. We're still working on it and everybody should be good." That includes Carmon who apparently goes back to rotation status since Cox said he's been running first-team at tackle these two practice days. "Oh, no, he's not mad!" Cox adds of his big junior cohort.
SETTING THE PACE: Five games into his first college season, TB Vick Ballard finds himself not just setting the Mississippi State offensive pace. The junior leads the entire SEC in scoring this week. This is a category normally paced by placekickers or Heisman Trophy types.
But there is Ballard's name first on the list with 54 points. All on touchdowns, too, another sub-category that he leads the league after hauling the ball across goal lines nine times in five games. At the moment Florida's Burton is second with eight, though six of his scores came in a single record-busting day against Kentucky. Ballard's biggest day, this past weekend against Alcorn State, produced three touchdown runs, all on rushes.
Moreover, he has punched the ball into an end zone every game of his still-young college career. Despite that Ballard claims he's just now getting entirely comfortable. "I had to adjust to everything, really. The speed, the plays, the whole attitude. The noise we all play in!" Of course Ballard is responsible for quite a lot of that noise by scoring touchdowns.
Regardless, "We're in week six now, so I think I'm pretty much routine in how everything is going."
Ballard isn't just keeping quality company on the SEC stat sheet these days. Just two more rushing touchdowns will move him into a top-ten season at State, and he is already half-way to the season record of 16 (Jackie Parker 1952). The player who Ballard has been foremost in replacing, Anthony Dixon, topped out at 14 rushing scores in 2007.
That year Dixon scored a rushing touchdown once every 20.5 carries. Parker did so every 7.9 runs. Ballard's early-season rate? He's scored via rushing once every 5.5 runs. Whether or not this torrid pace can hold up over the long, umm, haul it is an exceptional start by any standard.
Yet Mullen insists Ballard is not the ‘designated scorer' on the squad. "His carries are just the rotation," the head coach said.
DOG AND CAT FIGHT: All of State's tailbacks will get their turns this weekend. TB Robert Elliott did see action last October against Houston, with 16 yards on five carries; he's the only Dog runner with experience in this series too, as QB Chris Relf was suspended for the '09 game. He would have had some big chances though as State piled up 330 yards on 51 runs against the Cougars.
Relf will try to make up for that missed '09 turn, and given the Cougars' preference for a 3-4 sort of defensive set the opportunity to attempt more option-type offense seems obvious. The Relf-Ballard combo has been productive out on the edge already, but Ballard says the trick is not forcing what is not there.
"It's just letting plays develop itself, and you learn to see them," he said. "But I think the scheme Coach Mullen has got us in is good."
A traditional part of most option schemes is a tight end able to get out on the block quickly…but also slipping downfield when defensive support opens a slot. Mullen confirmed Monday that TE Marcus Green's two injured knee ligaments will need surgery, ending his junior season. Green is the best route-runner and pass-catcher of the 2010 tight end corps, as well as an ‘option' on shovel pass plays, so his loss will be felt.
At least TE Brandon Henderson returns to action this week, after missing two whole games with a left knee strain. Adding the senior to Kendrick Cook and Thomas Webb does give Mullen more offensive options, in both senses of the word.
"When you're down to two it's hard to do too much two-tight end stuff, because you're an injury away from not being able to do any of it. Now that we're back to three we can get back in that package more." Mullen and receiver coach Mark Hudspeth tried to offset lack of true tight ends the last couple of games by playing more wide receivers, including using the H-ends Chad Bumphis and Brandon Heavens at the same time instead of play by play rotation.
LONG MAY YOU RUN: There have been two kickoff return touchdowns in the SEC this season, and WR Leon Berry has one of them. His 97-yard jaunt against Alcorn State is also longest among the SEC's top ten return men so far this year.
But Berry has also earned a line in the MSU record book, or co-line. Adding his 89-yard runback last year against Georgia Tech, he now has two touchdown returns on his career to tie the program standard. Until Saturday that was the sole possession of Kevin Prentiss, who ran back kickoff touchdowns against Kentucky (1997) and South Carolina (1998).
That big return was a big relief for Berry, who admits he and the return team have struggled in this area. "We started out kind of slow on returns," he said. "Last year we hit a lot of big ones." Big enough that Berry obliterated the total return yards record set only the season before by Derek Pegues with 708. Berry ran back kickoffs for 1,015 in 2009.
Taking one to the house against ASU was a step in the right direction, said Berry. "It was just the timing, everybody just did their jobs and we executed and I hit it and ran. That's how we're supposed to do it."
Berry has also snapped out of another senior slump. He caught nine balls for 91 yards and a 55-yard touchdown against Memphis, then went three games without hauling in a pass. Saturday he was able to make three grabs against ASU for 97 yards and that has eased some concerns.
"I felt pretty good. I've had a couple of games I didn't get the ball. But that's just how offense is. If you hope to get the ball and practice all week, the coaches say if you'll catch it in practice you'll catch it in games."
Berry and comrades have done a lot of catching this week, at least. He reports a renewed emphasis on 7-vs.-7 drills for passing and coverage alike, since both teams expect to throw the ball around a lot Saturday. Grinding the receivers with must-catch work is naturally a fine way to hone the secondary for the challenge they are sure to see at Houston.
What doesn't get as much attention in the upcoming match is a Cougar defense that might have given State a lot of yards a year ago but only allowed two offensive touchdowns; both runs by Dixon. The other Bulldog scores came on an interception return and a field goal. Even allowing that MSU had a pair of scores revoked by penalties, including an obvious blown over-the-line call, that was a solid showing by an underappreciated unit.
This time around? "They pretty much look the same to me," Berry said. "They've got almost the same people, I think they've got the same two corners and they're pretty good." Berry had two catches for 34 yards in the '09 match at Scott Field, so he hopes for even better numbers in the rematch. Thus, he said, the extra intensity in those 7-on-7 sets right now.
"During the week we try to demand the ball a lot. But obviously we've got a good run game too. So if the run is working that opens up the pass, that's how this offense is."
Oh, and yes…Berry recalls how last year's game played out very well. Too well.
"Obviously last year they kept us from getting to a bowl game. We can't allow that to happen this year."