The chance springs from the 5-4 record that has the Bulldogs within one victory of bowl eligibility and at least a break-even season, with three games to reach those goals…or better. It's the best November situation at Mississippi State since the 2000 season, but success is far from assured. This is behind Croom's hard-nosed approach to the team's long-awaited open date-week. The rest is welcome, but not any signs of premature pride. So after Tuesday's lax efforts the players were run hard.
"We're going to rum them again tomorrow," Croom said. "They're going to get back to work tomorrow, we'll put the pads on and be out there until I get tired of watching. We're going to hit, we're going to do fundamentals, it's going to be just like spring practice. And anybody not willing to work doesn't need to come out there." The same holds for a Thursday morning practice before classes. "Then we're going to run them until their tongues drag Friday morning."
Which effectively answered the obvious question of an open-date, about how much time is spent on said fundamentals and how much on the next opponent. "No, we're going to work on us this week and get ready for Alabama next week," Croom said.
WEEKEND PLANS: Once recovered from the Friday morning running the players are free for the weekend. Royce Blackledge will be hunting deer (it's bow season) around the Jones/Wayne counties border. Wesley Carroll will be back home in Florida resting body and mind by just getting away from football. Not so Titus Brown. "I'm going to attend the LSU-Alabama game, matter of fact" he reported. "Go home and get a little scouting there myself and see what's what."
It's an easy enough trip for the Tuscaloosa native of course, who despite obvious interest in Mississippi State's next opponent will really be on the Alabama campus just to enjoy himself during the open date. Walking back into Bryant-Denny Stadium will also revive good memories of Brown's last game there, when the Bulldogs knocked off the Crimson Tide. Not that he intends on rubbing anything in with the locals, of course. This is just for funsies.
"I'll probably roam around, looking at everything," Brown said. And asked who he will be pulling for in the Tiger-Tide tiff, this Dog turned diplomat. "I just hope it will be a good, interesting game!"
GET A GRIP: One Bulldog certainly needed to get back on the job, and win his way back into the good graces of the staff. After a series of fumbles at Kentucky, halfback Anthony Dixon is second on the depth chart again. Never mind his SEC-leading twelve rushing touchdowns this season, including one at Lexington. Failure to protect the football is a serious sin to this staff, and Dixon knows he has to earn forgiveness.
He's optimistic, of course. "It's probably been better than I thought it was going to be," he said of the days since Lexington. "I haven't had that much trouble, and I'm feeling good because we won." Besides, he had 75 rushing yards and a touchdown reception, and is already 19th in career rushing at State. If not for those dang fumbles the last two weekends…
"I'd like to believe it's bad luck," Dixon says, then "But I tell everybody I don't believe in luck so I can't use that excuse around here!" No, there are more fundamental reasons for losing the handle. Dixon admits to carrying the ball too low on one Saturday fumble, and at West Virginia he just lost it changing hands and turning the upper body at the same time. "Just a freak accident, that's what I told Coach Croom." And his last fumble at UK came when stood up after a short gain and a Wildcat tearing the ball loose after the whistle should have blown. "I was fighting for yards. I guess it was just bad timing."
Which Dixon knew would not satisfy Croom…yet he ran right to the coach anyway leaving the field. "I knew I wasn't going to avoid him. I was getting ready to take a whole bunch of stuff, might as well get ready to listen! He asked why couldn't I hold onto the ball, I said I don't know!"
Croom knows. "He's not carrying the ball the way he's been taught," the coach said today after practice…a session where Dixon didn't redeem himself as hoped. "If he doesn't pick it up tomorrow he won't be playing against Alabama," Croom said. "He's an outstanding football play who does not pay attention to details." A harsh comment, yet fair within the context of what both coach and player know Dixon is capable of when he does take care of the finer points.
Besides, Mississippi State has options. Sitting Dixon the last quarter-and-a-half let Christian Ducre put in a career day with 119 yards and the game-clinching touchdown on a 34-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. Credit Dixon for praising his classmate. "It was good having Christian come up in there. I was OK, but glad we had somebody come in there and get the job done." Of course, Dixon would prefer to get the first and most carries again, which means proving to the staff he can be counted on as before.
"I'm not going to stop doing what I do," he said. "I just have to hold on to the ball better. I just have to fix some of the bad."
INJURY UPDATE: Only two regulars were held out of practice Tuesday. #2 right offensive guard Michael Gates has an inflammation condition called cellulites in the right leg; he watched practice with a stocking on the limb. And backup center Johnny Carpenter has an ankle sprain.