Dixon certainly doesn't mean to lose the handle. "That's not part of my game, that's not who I am," the sophomore said, saying he's just slipped into some bad habits lately such as not holding the ball high-and-tight in traffic. And despite the temptation to keep chugging in a pile-up, Dixon says he has to be smart there, too.
"I mean, know I can't fight four or five people, when they get me I've got to go on and get down. That's where my fumbles came, when I was fighting. And I've got to get the ball up a little higher."
As Croom says, when Dixon is rolling he is a "big-time player." He's already making big marks in the MSU record book, ranking 19th in career rushing (1,498 yards) after less than two seasons and tied for 6th for running touchdowns with 21. The program record is just 27 and is obviously within reach this month…if Dixon gets the carries and hangs on to the pigskin.
Having to re-prove himself weekly doesn't seem to bother Dixon much, and he's the first to cheer cohort Christian Ducre's gains on the ground. He also gives full credit to the guys clearing gaps for him to run through, too. "The big boys, I hang with them a lot and know them like the back of my hand," he said of Bulldog blockers. "That's just being the best of buddies because we're always together off the field. We just feed off each other."
ON THE LINE: Old college lineman Croom appreciates more than anyone how improved blocking is the foundation of State's offensive improvement in 2007, along with the stability Wesley Carroll has brought under-center. "Once Wes established himself as a quarterback we could win with, the consistency of the offensive line has been a key factor," the coach said.
That doesn't mean the front-five and their backups are given any slack here at crunch-time of the season. Croom was somewhat harsh in evaluating the line's first practice after the open date. ‘Rusty' was one way to put it. More technically, "Pad level, steps, landmarks, hand placement," the coach said, "We've got to get all those things the way it was during the Kentucky game." Which was the key comment, reflecting the fact that this offensive line has shown it's capability to control a SEC field and Croom wants them to keep it up. And, keep it together; for the first time in Croom's tenure State has been able to start the same fivesome every game…so far.
"It's a very positive point. It wouldn't surprise me at all if you looked at the better teams in the conference, and in the country, I'll just about bet they're starting the same group of people they started in the opening week. Particularly at quarterback and in the offensive line. You start having injuries at those spots you're going to have problems."
Naturally the starting five has had some nicks and bruises along the way but remained intact. Now the only reason a starter leaves the field is for a backup to take his turns in rotation, particularly at right tackle and right guard. Even at left guard there is an increased rotation of starter Anthony Strauder and redshirt J. C. Brignone.
"We're playing real comfortable with each other right now," C Royce Blackledge said. "I mean, I know the guys that are playing beside me and know what I'm going to get out of them. And everybody is playing well now. We're blessed to be injury-free and that's a big key because it seems in the past somebody has always gotten hurt. But we do have guys, backups who can play. We're able to rotate guys and get guys rest and we're comfortable with that."
PAST AND PRESENT: There are obvious reasons for this renaissance in Bulldog blocking; simple maturing of veterans and infinitely-improved depth. In that sense, 2007 could almost have been projected as the year State's offensive line would come into its own. But there has to be a ‘breakthrough' somewhere along the way, and in retrospect that is easy to select.
"Last year the Alabama game was a big turning point for the whole program," Blackledge said. "I felt it was a game where everybody came together and really started playing well." And yes, "We celebrated for a while after that."
Winning two weeks ago at Kentucky was a pivot-point for this season, setting the Bulldogs up to earn bowl eligibility with just one more win. And the staff has knocked any post-Lexington celebrating out of the State system. Blackledge says it's a tricky balancing act this week, staying obsessed with the weekend's business without pondering the post-season.
"It's tough right now because it's like six is the magic number and we're trying to get that. We've got three games left and they're all going to be tough ball games. But we feel like we can win."
Following-up on a note last week, Jones County boy Blackledge was hoping to ‘score' a deer over the open date. He never got to loose an arrow, unfortunately, as the day was a bit warm for good hunting. "I went Saturday morning and didn't do any good. I didn't see anything. So I planted rye grass all day Saturday, getting ready for gun season."
CH-CH-CH-CHANEY: An ankle injury at West Virginia has hobbled MLB Jamar Chaney for a couple of weeks. "I got ‘cut' on a low cut block," Chaney explained. "It was my fault because I didn't get out of the way of a dude like I was supposed to and he got me real good." Enough so Chaney missed his first start of '07 at Kentucky, though he did play in relief. The ankle seems fine after the week-off.
"Yesterday at practice I didn't think it bothered me one time, and I wasn't thinking about it. So I feel I'm probably 100% now." He needs to be, not just for the MSU gameplan but to keep Jamon Hughes in his (backup) place. Hughes had a game-best nine tackles at Kentucky as the new middle-starter. Hughes handled their temporary changes in status well.
"You want to do anything to help your team, but anything I could do on the sideline to help. All I want to do is win. Mississippi State hasn't been to a bowl game in a while and that's our goal, to get to the best one we can possibly get to."
The sprain didn't just cost Chaney a start; he lost his team-lead in tackles, too. All season it's been the same three Dogs jockeying for top spot on the tackle chart, the three starting linebackers. As of this week WLB Dominic Douglas leads with 57 total tackles (30 solos, 27 assists) while Chaney and SLB Gabe O'Neal are tied for second at 54 each. O'Neal, by the way, is first in ‘solo' hits at 35 while Douglas has the most tackles-for-losses of the trio.
So Chaney goes into November with some ground to make up on his partners, who definitely keep track of the weekly standings. "That's something we talk about every now and then. The main focus is winning the game but you talk about it once in a while. Gabe let me know he got in front of me, I told him I'm back healthy now so you better come with your A-game Saturday! We all have fun with it and just get ready for the next opponent."
INJURY UPDATE: OG Mike Gates (leg inflammation) did not return to practice Wednesday, though he was not wearing a boot on the infected right leg today either. He still had a stocking on the leg to prevent further harm, and the training staff said Gates could return to work Thursday if cleared to do so by doctors.
No other regulars were held out today. OG J.C. Brignone was upgraded to full status after missing two days of work with back pain from his weekend auto accident.
Starting S Derek Pegues had to leave practice early with a return of the back spasms that have bothered him off-and-on this season.