"They're a lot of one-back, straight-down run power at you," Wright says. "They're a real traditional football team, they're not going to come in and try to trick us. That's something we linebackers like a whole lot! We don't like a lot of spread offenses and guys that are trying to trick us. Just line up, you know, and go power against power." For the record, Alabama has shown a little cleverness at times, such as ‘wild' sets or reverse/passes. On the whole though Wright is accurate.
Of course this can also be a case of caution about what one asks for. Because, after all, few programs anywhere can bring it the way Alabama's ground game does. And while the Tide is ‘only' 5th in overall SEC rushing as of this week, coordinator Manny Diaz looks a lot deeper on scouting stat sheets.
"You don't see the 100-yard days, but you still see both backs averaging over six yards per carry," Diaz said. "Their runs have been efficient by the way we monitor being efficient. They might not be putting up the gaudy numbers they have in the past but it's still the best thing they do."
No surprise there, with two of the best backs in the land at Alabama's disposal. Despite taking some hits and hurts along the way, Mark Ingram (92 yards per game) and Trent Richardson (71) have combined for 14 rushing touchdowns. Richardson has a sore knee after the LSU game, and Ingram still isn't 100% of his 2009 Heisman Trophy winning style after his own early-season knee problems. Scouting video still comes across quite impressively to Diaz, as does Alabama's confidence in the basic attack.
"A team that runs the ball great has explosive runs," Diaz said. "Most teams don't run the ball for ten yards every time they hand it off; they get a few, a few, a few, then they bust a long one. Maybe the one thing they haven't done recently is bust the long one, but both guys can obviously can do it. They've done it in the past."
After four years around the league Wright knows a top-drawer runner when he sees one. Or, two. "Richardson has a little bit more power to him, Ingram has a little more speed. But they're both real good running backs. I watched them a little bit through the season and they did the same things they always do. I know Coach Diaz is going to have something good for us. Those guys are going to try to break a lot of tackles so gang-tackling is going to real important. We don't want a lot of one-on-one tackles."
ADDING UP: Not, of course, that Wright would mind being first among the gang doing that tackling. The senior has 226 career stops, most of active Dogs…yet he's only second on this year's tackles chart with 65. This isn't a reflection on Wright's performance because in just the last three games he has had eight, nine, and six tackles.
But it's his cohort and classmate Chris White that keeps getting to the ball first. MSU's middle linebacker has 86 tackles on the season, and has been a monster of late with 14 and 15 stops in the last two games. In fact, he's been double-digit tackles the last four games, and as of this week is second in the entire SEC with 9.6 stops per game. Only Kentucky's Danny Trevathan (11.0) is ahead…and White doesn't mind having a W from that meeting over just some more stats.
Still, it has to be a little baffling for Wright, who has come in second in State tackles twice already. In 2008 it was Dominic Douglas topping the list; and last year Jamar Chaney. Now he seems assured of coming in runner-up as a senior. Frustrating?
"Nah, I'm not worried about that! Me and Chris are both real good players and as long as we keep winning I'm fine with everything that's going on. Yeah, it's all good." Of course Wright has found himself serving a different duty at times this year, lined up as a really outside linebacker or even a straight defensive end in some MSU matchups. It is designed to put more pressure on passers, and has…but at the cost of tackle stats.
"Whatever Coach Diaz has me doing on the defense as long as I'm making tackles that's fine," Wright shrugs. "As long as we get the win."
Actually Wright does have one statistical ambition to chase this senior season. He leads this team in passes deflected with eight, more even than any defensive back. Yet in four years of knocking passes away, Wright has yet to catch one. He has zero interceptions in 43 college games.
"I don't know what it is, I guess I just have bad hands!" Wright says. "But I've got four more games to get an interception!"
TURNING THE SEASON OVER: Fortunately other Dogs are getting interceptions, or recovering fumbles, as Mississippi State's defense has totally turned around their turnover total. In the six-game winning streak the Bulldogs have come up with 14 turnovers, compared to only five in the first three games when MSU was 1-2. Those facts directly relate, of course.
"At the beginning of the season we weren't getting as many turnovers as we wanted to," Wright said. "But it's a slow process, it's something we're picking up now. Coach told us it's a step we had to take in order to be good. Now we're staring to pick that up a whole lot."
Diaz says the defensive focus on turnovers has not changed since September; it's more a case of sticking to a plan and hoping it paid off over time. Now, it has.
"It's just something we hoped if we kept chipping away and chipping away they'd start to come. And just because we've gotten a few doesn't mean we're guaranteed a few this week. But the more you can harass quarterbacks, he holds the ball every play so he has the best chance of turning it over."
The Kentucky win exemplified this patient approach. UK's Mike Hartline was one of the SEC's most efficient passers with only four picks in the first eight games; the Bulldogs intercepted him three times…though linebacker White got a bit ambitious on his pick, trying to lateral the ball as he was tackled and producing State's only fumble in the last four games.
Interestingly, the Dog defense is in the second half of the SEC in total sacks with 19. Diaz doesn't see any problem though; in fact he said today the pass rush has been strong in the winning streak.
"I think we've done a good job. Our D-line continues to improve and the more we get around those quarterbacks the more chance we have of getting them to make mistakes. And we said all along our defensive backs have good ball skills, and they've made some good plays the last couple of weeks."
Diaz also likes how his developing defense has been able to mix things up as everyone gets comfortable and confident within the weekly gameplans. There is no single set or scheme producing those turnovers. "Sometimes it's zone, sometimes man. Sometimes it's a blitz and sometimes it's not. What you have to do a good job is play really good team defense. You really have to cover, you have to rush."
All the more so this week, because even if Alabama is at core a ground-based offense that alone makes play-action all the more effective for Greg McElroy (69.3% completions, 13 touchdowns, 4 interceptions). Diaz has seen a recent tendency by the Tide passer of late to hold on to the ball a little longer, but it has not resulted in turnovers. Still it might give State a sliver more chance to put the pressure on.
And, for DE Pernell McPhee to get that elusive first sack of the season. The senior led State with 5.0 sacks in 2009 but hasn't scored one at all this fall. McPhee does lead the list with nine ‘hurries' and in recent games has come increasingly closer to bagging the passer. For his part Diaz thinks McPhee is playing very well, no matter what the stat sheet reads.
"And he'd have sacks if he had some people who were getting back there with him," the coach said, noting that often McPhee arrives in the backfield solo without a counterpart coming from the other side. "Or, he's caused sacks because his pressure caused the quarterback to get sacked by somebody else. It's sometimes hard to evaluate by the stats, but we're happy with the level he's playing at."
IN HONOR: Coach Dan Mullen confirmed Monday that the Bulldogs will wear a #36 patch the rest of this season, in memory of DE Nick Bell after the sophomore passed away last Tuesday. Also, a State player will exchange his jersey number for a 36 shirt in each of the remaining games.
Mullen would not say who, and Wright was not giving any hints today either. "We already got the guys that are going to wear it during the season, we just got to wait to Saturday and see who is going to do it first. That's just something guys close to him are going to do for him."
BUT WHERE'S HERM?: The SEC finalized their telecast schedule for November 20, and Mississippi State once again is booked for an evening timeslot. The Arkansas game is at 6:00, on ESPN's main network. This week the Bulldogs are on ESPN2 with a 6:15 kickoff at Tuscaloosa.
The Bulldogs have yet to appear as the prime-time CBS game, and the only remaining opportunity is the November 27 Egg Bowl in Oxford. But that is also the LSU at Arkansas date, the only realistic competition for the main slot since Tennessee at Kentucky won't merit selection. Both Florida (Florida State) and South Carolina (Clemson) are on the road and thus under ABC control; while Georgia does host Georgia Tech.
PRACTICE SCHEDULE: The Bulldogs did not practice Monday, keeping to part of the usual game week schedule. But they did have morning and early afternoon weight work sessions, which kept most players from reporting to the press conference. LB Chris White and TB Vick Ballard made brief appearances but kept asking the time, growing increasingly anxious until White blurted at 12:50 "I've got to go!" and raced to the Rouse Weightroom. Proving, once again, the hold Coach Matt Balis has on these Dogs.
State has adjusted the Tuesday and Wednesday practice plans as well to have group meetings afterwards, meaning media interviews will be even later those days than usual.