Tuesday Football Notebook

Mississippi State spent Tuesday working in full-pads as the Bulldogs continue preparations for this weekend's home game with #4-ranked West Virginia. Gametime at Scott Field is 1:30 with no telecast other than pay-per-view in the West Virginia home market. Notes and quotes from Tuesday's practice and press conference:

*THE HALFBACK roster was one-deeper Tuesday with soph Brandon Thornton back in the mix. He has not played since spraining an ankle against Auburn, and while he was cleared for competition last week he did not make the LSU trip. Croom expects Thornton to play this week.

Still the starting halfback will be one of the two freshman, who have both overcome their own September injuries. Arnil Stallworth looks to be nearly full-speed again, two weeks after hurting a knee when rolled on a sideline late-hit at UAB. "A cleat got stuck in the ground and I was going down, another guy hit me," he said. Yet a week later he was back in action at LSU with four carries (four yards net) and three receptions for 29 yards.

It wasn't quite as dramatic a quick-comeback as Dixon pulled off, when he broke a finger in practice and was ruled out for Tulane…and came back to put in a full night's work. Still it affirmed that neither rookie likes sitting out any action. "We're quick to come back," Stallworth said. "We're anxious to get back on the field."

"Stallworth only practiced Thursday of last week, yet he played an outstanding football game," Croom said.

Dixon got his first start at LSU, while Stallworth has started two games. How is it decided which rookie will get first turn in a game? "We just compete in practice," Stallworth said. "It carries over from games to practice and whoever practices better Monday or Tuesday is going to start. That's how they work it out." And even then it really isn't important who lines up for the opening snaps, he adds.

"We just got a rotation, you go in each play or that play. It doesn't matter who starts, we're going to get the same amount of reps. You can start that game, I'll start this game!"

In Tuesday's drills freshman transfer Christian Ducre was in backup-green and working with the scout team. He played on special teams at LSU and UAB but has not carried the ball. Senior Derek Ambrose has not practiced with the varsity in three weeks with a minor injury. He was riding the exercise bike today, in green.

*CROOM SAID that Brian Anderson will be back in the starting lineup, at right guard, after missing the second half with an ankle issue. Anderson did indeed practice with the first unit today, though Anthony Strauder also got a good percentage of snaps with the #1s. Strauder lost his starting LG job to Michael Gates for the UAB game but has played both guard slots in relief since then.

The first line will again be (left to right) J.D. Hamilton, Gates, Royce Blackledge, Anderson, and Craig Jenkins. For second-unit drills it was Michael Brown, Strauder, John McMillan, Anthony Dunning, and Chris Spencer. #2 center Johnny Carpenter was sidelined Tuesday after hurting a knee ligament in a Monday scrimmage.

And in 7-on-7 or 9-on-9 work, Spencer was the center for the second offense against the first defense.

*AS TO other injuries, TE Eric Butler still wears a limited-contact yellow jersey to protect the still-tender toe; and CB/KR Derek Pegues has a heavy wrap on his left hand and wrist after getting stepped on at LSU.

*LAST WEEK the Dog defense was shot to pieces by LSU's superb passing attack. Though as Croom noted, lack of effective coverage contributed because the pass rush was close to getting the job done. And most breakdowns came from the two youngest member of the secondary, CB Derek Pegues and SS Keith Fitzhugh. Older Dogs CB David Heard and FS Jeramie Johnson played much better.

But this week is an entirely different matter because West Virginia makes a living on the ground. "Now we're going to be facing the number-one rushing team in the nation," DE Michael Heard said. "They're going to run the ball, you know they're going to run it so you just gotta stop it."

Statistically, State would seem to have a shot at doing so because the Dogs have held up reasonably well against running attacks so far. "They depend mostly on the run and our defense is pretty good run-stoppers," LB Gabe O'Neal agreed. Still this is not a standard ground scheme the Mountaineers run. They use a spread-type option to take full advantage of great speed at quarterback, running back, and even fullback. So State has to literally defend from sideline-to-sideline this week.

"We'll just try to keep in front of everybody," M.Heard said. "Because if we get behind it'll be a footrace!" A race the Dogs wouldn't be favored in, too. Yet staying in position against the option is a great challenge for an aggressive defense. Yielding to temptation to attack the ballcarrier can lead to vacating gaps that the option was meant to find. This is being hammered into MSU heads all week: hold your gap at all costs.

"You really have to play assignment football," said M.Heard. "Because if you don't, it's going to turn into six real quick."

"I believe they'll try to spread us out just like other teams," O'Neal said. "But if we can stop the run I believe we can hang in with them." There is some reason for optimism here because State has seen an option-offense already, at Alabama-Birmingham. O'Neal says the basic schemes are just about the same, though WVU does have "a couple more plays." But at least this sort of thing is not entirely new.

"The UAB game helps us a lot," O'Neal said. "So we just have to step up and take advantage of the extra week of practice. They're going to try to outrun us but we've got a lot of speed. We'll be alright."

*AFTER FIVE games Michael Heard has three sacks to his credit. That's best on the ball club, but still not what the senior expects of himself. Especially after he bagged the quarterback twice in the season-opener. Since then his only sack has been against UAB.

"I started out hot this year," Heard said. "I wouldn't say I'm just cold, I'm in the right spot. I'm just not making enough plays. It's little things technique-wise, like not running my feet through a tackle. Hopefully I'll get everything changed."

Heard also intends to avoid a repeat of his over-reactions at LSU. Foiled repeatedly from getting to the passer and preventing caught-balls from going airborne, Heard let his temper get the better of him twice. "I got a couple of personal fouls which showed the frustration," he said.

Heard's 7.5 career sacks are also tops on this roster.

*WITH SENIOR DT Deljuan Robinson (knee) out for this week and maybe the next, Antonio Johnson has moved into the starting lineup alongside NG Andrew Powell. They are backed by DT Quinton Wesley and NT Kyle Love.

Croom would love to have Robinson in the lineup this week, and not just because he has been a key to State's steady efforts controlling most ground games. "It makes the task more difficult because Deljuan brings a lot of experience and a lot of discipline in knowing our schemes and what exactly is to take place. We are very fortunate that we were using a three-man rotation inside anyway. Even though we lost Deljuan we are still starting two very good football players."

*THIS WEEK finds State playing a third top-ten-ranked team in five weekends, with West Virginia rated fourth in both polls. The Bulldogs have lost to Auburn (now #2) and LSU (#9) already. And in two weeks they will be meeting Georgia (#10) in Athens.

Facing a parade of ranked foes could take an emotional toll on struggling State, but the Bulldogs don't see it that way. "I'm looking forward to the challenge this week," LB Gabe O'Neal said. "I mean, coming off the big loss you have no better opportunity than this.

"We've learned that it doesn't matter the outcome. Just continue to fight and know if you do things will get better sooner or later. Just show teams you're not intimidated, you're going to come to play no matter what."

Yet if the Mountaineers are in the same poll-league as the SEC Tigers State has already faced, this is an entirely different sort of proposition to Croom. "We are a lot more familiar with them (Auburn and LSU) and we are a lot less familiar with this team and some of the schemes that they run.

"But at the same time they have not played us before and some of the things that we do they are not as familiar with." But, he added, "They did have an open week, so that does help them to some degree."

*SATURDAY'S GAME will see some old Dog runners back on the sideline as current Atlanta Falcons Jerious Norwood and Justin Griffith and 1952 State star Joe Fortunato will be at Scott Field serving as honorary game captains.

‘J-Rock' is a hot commodity now, having just scored his first NFL touchdown on a 78-yard burst Sunday against Arizona that has already become a highlight-reel staple. The speed showed on that run proved what many said, that Norwood would be a better pro back than even his all-SEC efforts in college. "He's got to be around a 4.25-forty now," Croom said. Which naturally causes all to wonder how things would have turned out if Norwood hard redshirted as a 2002 MSU freshman. "I can't imagine what it would be like behind this offensive line," Croom mused.

And yes, Croom said, there will be the inevitable Saturday temptation to pull out the currently-inactive #12 jersey and, well… "If you see somebody down there in a new uniform, it'll be him."

Gene's Page Top Stories