‘Here' being a 5-4 record, 2-3 SEC, with three conference games to play in November. And what Mississippi State also doesn't want to lose is the opportunity to end the season at break-even or better, and to make the program's first post-season appearance since 2000. So the Bulldog staff has spent two days trying to keep something of an edge on the squad while at the same time giving them just enough down-time to recharge for the stretch run. After a lackluster Tuesday showing, the Bulldogs responded with a Wednesday workout meeting approval.
Now they have one more practice, an short Thursday session starting at 6:00am; and a Friday morning run before the players head out for their weekend. Most of their coaches are already on the road tonight, with at least five starting a three-day round of recruiting visits. "We'll have a few coaches here in the morning that will be recruiting in the proximity of campus," Croom said. "Most of them will be gone."
SO FAR, SO GOOD: QB Wesley Carroll has low-key plans for his free weekend. He's headed home to Ft. Lauderdale to rest body and mind alike for the November stretch-run. "Just maybe get away from football for a little bit which I will think will be good." The rookie will be taking an award back to Florida with him, too, having been named the SEC's Freshman of the Week for his efficient afternoon at Kentucky. "It's good to be recognized for something," Carroll said.
"But it just puts the bar up higher. I put it up higher for myself. I expect better things now, I'm not going to sit on that and say well look what I got. I've got to push for better things." Spoken like a veteran SEC play-maker already…which after nine games and five starts Carroll practically is now.
Yet, how can the kid be better than perfect? As in, his career-opening string of passes thrown without an interception. Not one of the 137 passes this freshman has tossed has ended up in the wrong team's hands, which gives Carroll not just the MSU season record (it was 96) but the career record (122 by Wayne Madkin, 2000-01) in his first college campaign. Carroll hasn't broken that record, he's smashed it.
"I've always said the best stat for a quarterback is a win; I'd probably say the second-best stat is not throwing any interceptions, giving your team a chance to make wins and not giving their offense any momentum. Or their defense for that matter. Not giving up the ball is one of the biggest things we're emphasizing. And I do take a lot of pride in taking care of the ball. As a quarterback I don't want to let my team down."
In case anyone thinks Carroll is getting cocky about his pick-less streak, forget it. Asked when he last threw an interception, he responded instantly "At practice last week. If I throw an interception at practice I'm never happy about that. And week-by-week the number of interceptions at practice have gone down." This is where his streak and his efficiency comes from, the good habits learned in drills of not simply chunking a ball up for grabs and being ready to go to a check-down ASAP. Though, "It's easier said than done."
So then, Wes, can you recall your last true interception? Absolutely. "State championship game," Carroll recites, going back to the third quarter as his St. Thomas Aquinas club played Lakeland High. "A screen pass that kind of got away from me and went behind the intended receiver. It just happened to fall in a linebacker's hand, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. I can remember it pretty vividly." And he still seems irked by the turnover as much as losing the title game in double-overtime.
Practice, planning, execution, and yes even good old-fashioned luck factor into preventing picks, Carroll agrees. But mostly "It all comes from not forcing anything that doesn't need to be forced. Sometimes punting isn't all that bad."
GETTING HIS KICKS IN: Speaking of which, P Blake McAdams bounced back nicely from a tough afternoon in Morgantown by averaging over 41 yards on his six punts against Kentucky. This has to be put in some perspective though, as going into the fourth quarter he was getting almost 54 yards per punt. Then kicks of 30 and 23 yards hurt the day's overall average.
Yet even that was a story-in-a-story as the shorter kick still left the Wildcats starting on their 26-yard line, where the previous had been fair-caught on the 14. In all three of McAdams' boots were downed inside the 20-yard line, giving him 14 such kicks this season against a single touch-back all year.
"I guess just more practice, more work, and just more consistency has come," the junior said. Not complete consistency, he'll freely agree, as McAdams is still prone to pop one something off the wrong part of the right foot that goes for the sidelines, not downfield. "It seems like I have one a week, I'm working as hard as I can to get rid of those. And sometimes I do get a little roll out of it, I guess luck goes into it."
No, he's not shy about accepting luck, whether it's a return man letting the ball hit and take the right Bulldog bounce as happened on that game-changing 73-yarder at Auburn. McAdams had a 55-yard roller at Kentucky; even in that bad outing at West Virginia he loosed a 48-yarder, something that would not have happened in 2006 when the punter was struggling. "I guess my bad weeks (this year) have been better than my best weeks last year!" he joked.
Oddly, though, McAdams can't point to any technical aspect that has taken him from a 38.2-yard sophomore average to the current 40.4 rate (it's 41.7 in the last six games). "I haven't changed a thing. I think I've finally got in a groove as the season's gone along. Maybe since that punt at Auburn." As for the new knack of downing kicks inside the 20-stripe, that's nothing but lots of practice on either lifting it high or simply pooching towards a pylon, a mark of the better field positions he gets to kick from this season. "We work on it quite a bit. You have your long punts and pooch punts, two different styles of punting to work on every day. We work on a lot of different techniques for each."
IN THE BAG: It was a frustrating three weeks for the Dog defense as they were held without a single sack in the UAB, Tennessee, and West Virginia games. They came back, hard, at Kentucky though to bag Andre Woodson three official times and harass him on plenty more plays. DE Titus Brown, more frustrated than most in the sack-less stretch, had one bagging, giving him 7.0 for this senior year. "The key to that game was to get Woodson to move around, you do that it throws the timing off and we did that Saturday," Brown said.
Brown now ranks 7th in MSU career sacks with 17.5. He might have had more Saturday if cohort Avery ‘Caveman' Hannibal hadn't gotten to Woodson first. Make that, twice, with the other two sacks of Woodson. This tandem is having to work harder than ever to get at quarterbacks, Brown said. "You have to look at it, we have to great defensive ends in Cave and myself. So they do a lot of game-planning against us so it's tough to go out and get sacks like you want to every week."
By the same token, 2007 has seen Bulldog blocking come into its own. Through nine games State quarterbacks have been sacked 14 times. Compare than to the 29 official sacks of 2006, or the awful 36 baggings in '05.
"We take a lot of pride in that," starting RT J.D. Hamilton said. "That was our goal this year. We credit Coach (J.B.) Grimes, for the fundamentals and the techniques we take into the game. That's all it is. It's very rewarding, it showed up at the end of the game Saturday and we loved that."
This line is confident in having proven itself of SEC caliber here in 2007. That's not leading to over-confidence, though, because better than most units on the team the blocking knows how much there is left to get done to achieve their season objectives of a winning season and bowl berth. It's in reach, C Royce Blackledge said. "We've won five ball games so far, we've got three left and all three are definitely winnable. They can all be beat if we go out and play four quarters of football, so that's what we're looking forward to." Especially a fifth-year senior like Blackledge who wants to cap his college career with post-season play in a turning-point year for the program.
"We have to take it one week at a time and not jump ahead of ourselves and look at a bowl game when we're not eligible yet. We have to get that next win, then it will make it a lot easier."
INJURY UPDATE: The two second-unit offensive linemen held out of practice Tuesday were still sidelined today in red-cross shirts. OG Mike Gates (inflammation left leg) and OC Johnny Carpenter (ankle) have yet to work out this week and might not make Thursday's morning session. Their places on the #2 line are being held by John McMillan and Chris Spencer, respectively.
While he did not practice either, CB Tay Bowser was back outside watching drills today. The backup corner and special teams regular has missed two weeks with a knee sprain.