And CB/ST Tay Bowser, who had a knee-scope procedure after the South Carolina game, is still doubtful for this game. The only other players held out of drills were WR Anthony Summers with a groin strain, and HB Robert Elliott who is still hampered by a weeks-old ankle sprain. Elliott dressed for the UAB game but was not going to play then nor the rest of this rookie season.
SACK ATTACK? Tennessee leads the SEC in passing productivity, both yardage (273) and completion rate (67.2%). Certainly having a veteran triggerman like Eric Ainge tossing to a variety of targets, and a top-flight offensive line protecting the passer, are obvious factors. Tennessee has allowed just two sacks in five games, best in the league.
There's an under-appreciate reason for such a stat, though. "They do that because they run the football," Croom said. "Any time you can run the ball it makes it extremely difficult to get to the quarterback." Tennessee's ground game wasn't outstanding at first but has clearly improved to the point defenses have no choice but think that way on first down often as not. Which, in fact, is how Mississippi State approaches games too.
"A lot of their offense is very similar to what we do," said Croom, adding—with a smile—that UT coordinator David Cutcliffe must have been studying what State's staff tries to do and incorporating it. Seriously, though, the Bulldogs are naturally going to attack with HB Anthony Dixon first and try setting up such passing as an unpredictable quarterback situation allows. The Vols have more proven players to work with here of course and Ainge has been able to operate with little fear, so far.
"He's been hard to get to a lot because of their running game," Croom said. "You're anchored in the run and all of a sudden he takes a 3- or 5-step drop and the ball's out. That's why he's not sacked. The key is you have to stop the running game." The Bulldogs rank 42nd nationally and fourth in the SEC against the run through six games, and are tied for third with 11 sacks. That total will have to jump markedly this weekend if State is to stay with Tennessee, though, which means stopping the run first.
"If we're in predictable coverage situations and hold them long enough, Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal will get there. Our ends, unless they double-team both of them, if we can cover and give them enough time they'll hit the passer."
WHAT CAN BROWN DO? DE Titus Brown is State's sack-leader with six of the team's 11, which also ranks him second in the SEC behind Jeremy Jarmon of Kentucky. The Wildcat has an extra half-sack to account for the lead. A lead Brown lost when he did not get a sack in the UAB game. For that matter, he didn't get a tackle of any sort for the first time he can recall. "It was kind of tough, they really game-planned on me," Brown said.
"But it enabled other guys to make plays. Avery had a couple of hits and tackles, we had a couple of interceptions. I wasn't that productive on the field. If it takes two or three to block me it means other guys are open and they can step up and make plays, which I'm happy to see."
Well, fine…but couldn't the home stat crew have been careful to do their all-star nominee a favor or two when tabulating tackles? Wasn't Brown tempted to ask for, umm, further review? "Nah, they do a good job taking care of me!" he said, adding that he doesn't have to keep track of where he stands on the SEC sack-chart. "Joe (Galbraith) will tell me you're number-two or –one in the SEC, stuff like that."
Besides, to Brown there's something coming out of Bulldog games that means about as much as getting the stats. It is how he draws doubled-attention from blockers. "That says that they respect you a lot. if you have to take two or three to block one person it says a lot about a player. I don't mind because it's going to open up doors for other guys to make plays, like Avery and Kyle Love and guys like that."
TAKING THEIR TURNS: Speaking of defensive statistics, at the halfway-point of the season MLB Jamar Chaney has returned to the top of the tackle chart. The junior now has 42 stops for the year, split evenly between solos and assists. He was third going into the UAB game behind SLB Gabe O'Neal and WLB Dominic Douglas, but passed both on one day.
Douglas now has 40 total tackles and O'Neal 36. Obviously Douglas is in danger of losing ground in this tight race with his hurting foot. But Chaney isn't taking anything for granted. "It's good to have competition," he said.
"We don't talk about it too much but you'll say something now and then. Like, ‘you better enjoy it this week because I'm going to be back on top next week!' We all have fun with it. But it's all about winning the game."
And about getting the job done, which Croom says Chaney has on the ground. Against the pass is another matter. "He's still working on his coverage, he made some errors the other day that he's got to be better at." Such as biting on a play-action and letting the middle receiver go right downfield for a third-down conversion. Still on the whole Croom likes how Chaney and cohorts are performing.
"No question you have to have a solid linebacker inside there and he's done a good job. All three of our linebackers have played well this year. I think that's why we're having some degree of success. All three of them can run and they tackle extremely well."
DOWN-AND-DISTANCED: Mississippi State is solidly mid-SEC-pack when it comes to most of the obvious defensive statistics, such as yardage, rushing, passing, etc. Even ranking 8th in scoring isn't so bad because that is also 48th in the nation, and obviously inflated by the 45 points allowed in the season-opener.
But one area has been an increasing problem the past three weekends. Starting with the Gardner-Webb game, opponents have been able to find or create openings in downfield coverage. And most of all on third downs, where the Dogs this week are 10th in the league allowing over 41% conversions. By contrast the three top spots in the SEC this week are 30% or lower. If State lets Tennessee keep converting on third-and-longs and moving the chains, it will be a long day for the Dogs.
"Our defense has to do an outstanding job of making plays in third-down situations and getting off the field," Croom said. Which means making the sorts of plays in pass coverage that have been missed too often the last three weeks. While attention naturally turns first to man-coverage on the corners, the real weak links have been linebackers and safeties first finding and then staying with their men.
"Coach Croom and Coach Johnson have really been getting on us about our pass drops," MLB Jamar Chaney said. "I know we don't get deep enough and stuff like that, so it's a challenge for us to go out and get better. Everybody says we play good as a defense, but we make a lot of mistakes that keep us down. We could be way better than we are right now."
Tennessee will be particularly challenging in this regard. Much like South Carolina did, the Vols make liberal use of their backs and tight ends by releasing them from protection to get out in patterns. Croom said Tennessee will mix single and double tights with various combinations of other wideouts, which means a lot of intense film study this week.
"Every personnel grouping has tendencies, and defenses are called based on those tendencies," he said. Of course the same is true for UT and other State opponents. South Carolina certainly picked up on some of those second-half passes Gardner-Webb made work and put them to use against the Dogs. "That's what teams do, watch the games and try to do the same things," Chaney said. "All we can do is go to practice and try to get better. If we do what we're supposed to do then we're going to get pressure on the quarterback with Titus and Avery. Titus Brown is probably one of the best pass rushers in the SEC. So we can get pressure as long as we do our job in the back."