It's come by putting several defensive regulars on the kickoff-cover team with even a few starters sprinkled in. And while some fans argue that youngsters like K.J. Wright should have been redshirted, he and fellow frosh Zack Smith are exactly the athletes Croom wanted to use to shore up the weak links without putting top receivers and backs in kicking plays.
Last Saturday, visiting UAB started series after MSU kickoffs on their 27, 13, 19, 23, 26…and 49 yard lines. There was a reason for that exception at the end. "We broke down and had a lot of guys in who don't normally play, we were trying to give them a chance to get into the ball game," Croom admitted. This meant letting walk-ons like Emmanuel Gatling, Mark Brown, and Mark Lynn get on the field for their first times as rewards for practice performance and endurance. And the Blazers took advantage, showing just how much difference the regular KO team makes. Fortunately State could afford that one letdown.
"Our coverage units have done well," Croom said, before adding "Our kicking has been inconsistent." For one example, MSU is among the three league teams without a touchback yet (with Georgia and Ole Miss). Still, the opposition isn't getting the same sort of field position off State kickoffs as in 2006 and that's progress.
BETTER FOOTING: It's a similar story with the other kicking play, maybe slightly better with State ranking 7th SEC in net (kick-minus-return) punting. Of course it helped the average that South Carolina had two returns for tentative touchdowns brought back on penalties. Yet nothing has been put on the scoreboard yet. No, blocks don't count against coverage or kicker either.
Blake McAdams has certainly turned his junior season and hopefully career around with a strong October, averaging 42 yards against UAB after a 46-yard average at South Carolina. "I've done a lot better the last couple of week. I think I've finally got in a rhythm."
McAdams was stuck in a wrong rhythm at first, averaging 36 and 37 yards the first two games. Then he loosed a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter at Auburn that got the right bounce for what became a 71-yard net and a true turning-point in State's win. Since then McAdams hasn't just punted better in games but also in practices.
"I think I'm getting more consistent every week. Everything in life is based on confidence, just staying on top of what you're doing and being on top of your game builds confidence. The last couple of weeks I've been able to do that."
The 40.8 season average ranks 7th in the league and is over two yards better than his rate for last season. Yet even this doesn't tell the complete story; nine of his punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line and just one has gotten into the end zone for touchback. Besides, McAdams notes, the offense is moving the ball better this year, too.
"It's not all about average every week. Sometimes you're playing position. Like Gardner-Webb, I think every punt just about was from the 50-yard-line-in. Tulane we had a couple. It's about helping your team out and doing whatever job you're asked to do." And, getting help from the cover team to down those balls, often inside the ten-yard line. McAdams is quick to share that credit.
"They're doing a great job. We work on it once a week on ‘hang 10s' where we try to get it inside the ten-yard line. I think that's really helped us. And we've got five or six guys playing gunners right now, going in and out. They're all doing a really good job and I appreciate it."
Not that McAdams is entirely satisfied. He's still prone to loose a sideline-slice or two, though not nearly as often as in his puzzling soph season. And McAdams also admits he still over-analyzes things too often. "I guess I'm my own worst enemy sometimes because I'm pretty hard on myself," he said.
"I always punted but I played defense, offense, was always on the field. One of the biggest things coming to college was just getting used to being a punter, just having one down to be perfect. That's been the biggest thing, getting used to that and not being so hard on myself."
AERIAL AIMS: He is proud of a Big Orange background, saw his first college football game as a babe in Knoxville, and claims to be the biggest fan of Payton Manning around. That won't keep Wesley Carroll from being all-Bulldog business this week. "It puts a little extra incentive on it," he said. "I'm glad we're not in Neyland Stadium, yet. But I'm real anxious to play them."
Anxious, but not obsessed, even if the family background is tinted entirely orange. Carroll sees everything now in Maroon terms, whether it's taking another step closer to a winning season or putting some balance in the Bulldog offense. Of course practically speaking the two go together, and quarterback Carroll is first to agree that Mississippi State must, must make more happen in the passing game this week. To that end he and wideout Lance Long stayed late after a practice this week.
"We're getting in some extra work. We've put a couple of extra things in this week and we want to make we're getting them right." Now before anyone worries Carroll is giving away secrets, it's an obvious fact the Bulldogs have got to at least threaten to throw if halfbacks Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre are to have a decent chance of advancing via the ground-route. Put another way, just tossing a dozen short throws as in the UAB game (nine complete for under 100 yards) won't be enough this time around.
So, "We've got a couple of tweaks in the passing game that should open up the offensive scheme a little more than it has been," Carroll said. But, he added, "We'll definitely get a fair share of running because we're going to run it at ‘em until they stop it, no team has proven to be able to really stop it for the last couple of weeks."
Which is how State has overcome an opening-night blowout to win four of five contests and get two-thirds of the way to bowl eligibility with a half-a-season left to play. Yet asked if the team is thinking in those terms or taking it the proverbial one-at-a-time, the first-year collegian responds like a practiced veteran. "I'm going to give the politically correct answer: we're worried about win #5!" he grinned. "We're not looking for anything after Tennessee."
Oh, but perhaps they have been judging by Carroll's follow-up comment. "Give us a 2-2 record in the SEC, 5-2 overall, one game closer to a bowl, you can't set it up any better than that compared to the last couple of seasons. This is the best chance we've had as far as being bowl eligible." Which means the Bulldogs are adding some emphasis to weekend #7 after all.
"It's a SEC game and we need a 2-2 record in the SEC," said Carroll. "It's a huge game, put five wins up on the season already, you couldn't ask for a better start. We need to keep the momentum going, the second half of the season is most critical for us."
INJURY UPDATE: DT LaMarcus Williams was running with the third set of tackles Wednesday. The freshman will return to action this weekend after being sidelined a game by plantar fasciitis. The rotation of left and right tackles was Kyle Love and Jessie Bowman as starters; followed by Cortez McCraney and Quinton Wesley; and Rodney Prince and Williams.
CB Chris Nance (hamstring) was also practicing in purple today and should be able to play. LB Dominic Douglas was scheduled to return to practice Thursday after spraining his right foot in the UAB game. But today he was still in a red cross and wearing a protective boot. "We'll see what he can do tomorrow and then make a decision on him," Croom said. "The trainer is optimistic."
QB Josh Riddell will have surgery for his torn knee ligament Thursday morning in Columbus.