"Yeah, we always get caught-up in that," admitted outside linebacker Skinner. "I think when they put us both down on the Butkus Award list that kind of set the tempo for the season for me or him."
Then again, given the competitive nature of both Bulldog linebacker, they'd likely have been keeping count anyway. The biggest beneficiary in this ‘game' is the full Mississippi State defense of course. As long as Skinner and middle-man McKinney keep piling up stops the entire unit is getting its job done.
It isn't merely tackles these two contribute either. McKinney has recovered a fumble and returned it 26 yards and had a hand in two quarterback hurries. Skinner can trump that with three hurries and an official sack, as well as an interception. And yes…when the linebackers assemble for each new week's first meeting, the talking starts about Who Won.
"Yeah, we're going to rub it in!" Skinner said. "Being teammates we're going to always help each other to do our best, to help the team. But as far as me and him we stick together and laugh and joke about it all the time."
What is no joking matter now is getting Mississippi State's season re-started right following an open date. The Bulldogs got through the schedule's first half breaking even at 3-3, but a 0-2 SEC record has them in the Western Division cellar alongside Arkansas. This week's Thursday evening visit from Kentucky (1-5, 0-3) offers opportunity to change the trend and take a necessary step towards eventual bowl eligibility.
And, Skinner said, to erase some of the first-half season frustrations.
"I just feel we have to finish. We put up a great fight every game, I just feel like as a team we have to finish overall. Offensive, defense, special teams we just have to finish the game and do what it takes to win."
Tops on today's to-do list for Skinner is restoring squad focus after a second break in four weekends. The short getaway from football was nice and all, but came with some risk due to timing. A fifth-year senior himself, Skinner knows what happens around mid-October regardless of record.
"This is the time of the season your body starts hurting, and it's easy to lose focus and mentally you can't prepare that well. But me being a senior I try to do my best to tell them this is the grinding part of the season. This part is going to get us over the hump, if we can win a bowl game we have to win out and do the best we can."
By the way, that's a sizable speech coming from Skinner in a press room. In the locker room? "I don't speak that much, Benardrick is more vocal than I am but I try to let my performance take care of my leadership."
As the stat sheet shows his play is loud enough. It needs to be if Skinner is to keep pace with McKinney. In fact, the outside guy downplays most positional differences with the middle ‘backer. "Our job is pretty much the same. He has a role more of setting, getting the calls in and everything. But I feel our job is the same, we both have to be in a certain gap each and every play." And while they are counting coup afterwards, the in-game talking is always business.
"Really, we just talk about the plays, what happened, if I made a play we'll talk about that play then if he made a play we'll talk about that. And if we did something wrong we'll talk about that also and try to get everything corrected."
Breakdowns this week can be costly. Despite their record, the Wildcats don't make anything easy for defenses. Especially scouting, with an impromptu rotation of quarterbacks. Injury has four-game starter Jalen Whitlow questionable, though with an open date to recover; so fellow soph Maxwell Smith is listed first this week and has had extra practice snaps. Smith has been given more passing plays thus far completing 55% while Whitlow's accuracy is an impressive 66%, and he's quick to call his own number for rushing gains. Neither has been turnover-prone.
Yet the Bulldog defense has seen this sort of thing before, both this year—Oklahoma State and Troy used two-quarterback plans for examples—and last. Kentucky went with a pair of triggermen in the 2012 game between then-frosh Whitlow and Patrick Towles. Mississippi State coped well enough by allowing only 228 total yards in a 27-14 win.
Watching this Wildcat offense, which is under entirely new management, Skinner has seen an increase in big gainers on the ground and in the air alike. So respect shouldn't be an issue. "And on any given night anything can happen," said Skinner.
"We just prepare for any and everything they're going to try to hit us with. Coach (Geoff) Collins has been putting us in great positions all last week and I think we're going to be ready Thursday night."
By ‘we' Skinner first means ‘he'. Increasingly through this season Bulldog linebackers have assumed responsibility not just to make tackles but coordinate the entire defense. Results have been mixed at times, not just by games but quarter to quarter. The breakdowns are what get remembered more than the potential displayed the rest of the time. Thus Skinner feels a burden to pull the unit together for more consistent execution.
Collins reinforced this during the Bowling Green game, when at halftime he pulled McKinney and Skinner aside to say they had to take charge and the defense win that one. They did and State did, by the narrowest. "I felt Coach was doing his job, he wanted to see his leader of the defense perform," said Skinner. "I'm glad I was able to do that for Coach. That means a lot to me."
Winning means more, as would ending all his varsity seasons in a bowl game…something no four- or five-year Bulldog has ever done. Skinner is sort-of unique on this defense too, with just two fellow seniors starting. That's well and good for the long-term future but does involve more responsibility for the handful of old Dogs here and now.
Skinner doesn't mind. "I look at it as a big, important thing for us, and I take it on my shoulders each and every week to do my best to try to my job."