But the practice roster has been further thinned by illness. Mississippi State head trainer Paul Mock said a virus has gone through the team and staff. The players sidelined today included FB Jeremy Jones, DT Jessie Bowman, S Keith Fitzhugh, DT Quentin Wesley, CB Anthony Johnson. "Then I have a myriad of others, including coaches, who are sick," Mock said. Head coach Sylvester Croom is among that number.
At this point none of the injured or ill players--or staff--are ruled out for this weekend's game.
*It's a fair guess that for many MSU fans their first non-celebratory thought after Saturday's win at Auburn involved how the Bulldogs must not, can not, negate that success by letting down their guard and getting upset by Gardner-Webb at home. Which is not unthinkable since Mississippi State does have a history of taking lower-Division and little-known guests walk off Scott Field with a stunning upset. Exhibit A for todays' Dogs of course is 2004's shocking loss to Maine, by a 9-7 score. That game, a hastily-arranged matchup to fill the void left when another opponent broke their contract to come to campus, still ranks among the lowest points in recent program history, certainly the equal of 2001's Homecoming defeat by Troy State; or to Northeast Louisiana in 1995. As raw as the memory is to fans, there are a handful of Bulldogs still around who were there on the field.
And they aren't too proud to use it as extra motivation this week. "Yeah, it's kind of like the example," senior DE Titus Brown said. "That we're trying to get everybody to know these guys are going to come in and play all-out football. Because they really don't have anything to lose. We have all to lose. It's a great stepping-stone for their program to play a SEC team." Not that this State team intends to be anyone's stepping-stone. To that end, Brown said there should be the same intensity all this week as if preparing for a conference contest.
"We have to go out and play the same type of football that we played against Auburn going against this Gardner-Webb team."
Brown remembers how Maine came to town not at all intimidated and played the bigger Bulldogs as physically as any SEC squad would have. "They beat us up," he said, though mostly because State players—not the coaches—were taking the game too lightly. That was also reflected by lax attention to ball-protection. After scoring a first-quarter touchdown, State made four more ventures into the Black Bear red zone and the last three times turned it over with an interception and two fumbles…one by Jerious Norwood when he was about to score. In the end the Dogs got what they deserved at the time.
"It was kind of heartbreaking, because I knew we were going to go out there and win," Brown said. "I was like aww, Maine, that's a win, I'd never heard of Maine before. We tried to come back and play hard at the end and it was too late." The '07 Bulldogs don't plan to wait until the end to play hard.
However, asked if he'd used that game as a motivational reminder, Croom said it got mixed results. "Because when I was talking about it, most of the players said Coach, we weren't around then, we don't remember that game." So Croom is leaving it to the handful of '04 veterans to take care of that detail.
*He's put back-to-back games of over 100 yards together for the first time in college. Sure, HB Anthony Dixon would love to go for the three-peat this week. But if the game plays out where such efforts aren't needed, or if other backs are getting the job done, soph Dixon says he won't mind others getting the carries this week.
"I won't be insulted because I'm not the coach, they make the calls. At the same time I want us to win." Of course State has won largely behind Dixon's ground-pounding at both Tulane and Auburn. And with the passing game in question while two inexperienced quarterbacks battle to replace Mike Henig, it's not hard to figure Mississippi State will build their gameplan around proven quantities like Dixon and Christian Ducre.
"We're going to come with the power game like we did last game and do what we do best," Dixon said. "Me and the other running backs feel like we give the team the best chance of winning, and our offensive line loves to run-block. So that's where we feel we're strongest at."
For his part Dixon is getting stronger with maturity. He already has as many 100-yard games this month as he had all his freshman season, despite not breaking any truly long runs. Well, a couple of those jaunts at Tulane would have been much farther had he not crossed the goal line. Regardless, Dixon wants to show folk that the sort of long-gainers he had last fall against Alabama and Arkansas are coming.
"I'm getting there. I hate that I haven't broke one yet but I feel I'm just one run away from it. I'm still trying to run between the tackles and do what Coach wants as far as punishing and wearing them down. But I want that big run, bad!"
*Speaking of the quarterback situation, there is a Dog on the game-roster who has some experience there. Dixon. He took those two direct snaps in last year's Egg Bowl and scored on one of them. So, A.D., have you mentioned to Coach Woody McCorvey that you remain available if needed?
"Coach knows that! He knows I can do anything he tells me to do, I'm down for that. I haven't volunteered yet but that might be an idea for today since you said something about it, I might get on him about it and see what he says. He knows I can do it!"
And hey, the big-back playing ‘quarterback' seems to be all the rage in the SEC these days. A ‘Wild Dog' scheme might suit Dixon's talents; it certainly would fit his temperament after he played some quarterback at Terry High School. But, could he pass if necessary?
"I can throw the ball a long ways, at least 65 yards!" he proclaims. "Ain't nothing new to me. If they can run under it, that's as far as I can complete it!"
CONNECTIONS: Bulldog defensive secondary coach Charlie Harbison is an alumnus of Gardner-Webb. Not only that, the Shelby, N.C. native grew up right around the G-W campus. But the first-year State aide is doing a good job keeping all feelings for his alma mater and his current job un-mixed.
"It was an honor to go play there," he said today. "Number-two, it's just another team. In my profession yes, it's the school I played at, and yes, it's just another team. That's how I look at it."
Harbison was a two-sport star for the Runnin' Bulldogs, in football and track, and twice came back to Gardner-Webb to coach. He still has active ties to his alma mater. "(Head coach) Steve Patton is an old friend of mine." The two worked together in 1993 on the Charlotte Rage staff in the Arena League. "I know the AD, guys in the administration, the president. It's a good school, a good academic school, a school I have a lot of respect for. And it's an honor for us to play them."
Then adding, "Also, it's just another team to prepare for. I'm going to play them like I play anybody else."
State defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows G-W too, having been head coach there in 1983. Johnson and Patton were on The Citadel Staff at one time.