Last week Croom and staff sought the best balance of emphasizing the game itself along with the need to earn bowl eligibility. That milestone reached, the challenge is to keep the Bulldogs from relaxing, intentionally or not. "One more win, OK, we can celebrate a little bit more," Croom says. "We've got ourselves in position to do something but we haven't done anything yet." Actually Mississippi State has done something worth celebrating, doubling the best win total of any season since 2000…not coincidentally the last time a Bulldog team went bowling. The three SEC wins are also the most this decade, as is the three road victories. Each fresh success produces another round of ‘best since' notes for these Dogs.
Still Croom doesn't want the team to think and act as if they've peaked already. He's guardedly optimistic this team won't fall into that trap, certainly not of thinking six wins has their post-season ticket punched. "If this had happened last year or the first weeks of this season I would have been extremely worried," the coach said. Not so much now, after watching this squad bounce back after major road wins at Auburn and Kentucky to get the job done with other victories. The ‘newness' of success hasn't gone to their heads, at least not yet.
Besides, Croom said Monday, "After about 15 plays of nine-on-seven (drills) I'm not worried about it. We'll knock them right back down. We'll do enough hitting today to get our feet back on the ground." Or, the implication was, to put some butts on the turf. Tuesday the contact work continued despite the Dogs being in shoulder pads and helmet only.
"The attitude is good," Croom said. "A lot of it has to do with where you want to go. The goal is to get into a bowl game, we're not in one yet so we haven't done anything yet."
HB Anthony Dixon is thinking on the same track about keeping the attention on the task at hand. "It's hard but not real hard because our coaches are keeping us focused. I mean, a bunch of us have never been to a bowl and of course last year we sat at home and watched everybody else playing and were like man, we want to be there. Now that we're so close it's hard not to think about it. But our coaches are keeping us focused. So we're ready."
TRY, TRY AGAIN: Something else Mississippi State has yet to do: win a football game played in the state of Arkansas. Not that there've been a lot of opportunities, just seven since 1992 when the SEC expanded. But the Bulldogs have only one tie to show for their ventures across that border, and a 1-3 overall mark in War Memorial Stadium.
Still there are at least some reasons for optimism about this trip. From an intangible standpoint there's the ‘sooner or later' outlook that someday State is going to get it done. More practically is the fact that this particular Bulldog team has earned an honest quota of confidence playing away from home.
"We've played well on the road so that's a plus for us," Croom said. "I'm not as worried about the location, that hasn't bothered this team. It's been a long time since we won at Auburn, we hadn't won (there) until we went to Alabama last year. We've been through that so it's not a major concern. It's the game itself."
CONVERSION FACTORS: Arkansas justifiably gets most attention for the high-profile running offense. Yet in game preparations Mississippi State is at least as focused on how to attack a Razorback defense that is capable of giving the Dogs fits.
C Royce Blackledge said Arkansas compares favorably with Alabama's defense in both personnel and base scheme. "But I think they stunt a little bit more. I don't think there's just one guy to watch out for, they've got a good front and the linebackers are good as well." The matchups are made even more challenging for Bulldog blocking because Arkansas' frequent moves and shifts demand complete discipline in terms of assignments.
"We just have to keep studying the film, put more time into it this week so we can try to read when they're going to do that," said Blackledge. "And probably put in a little more ‘slide' protection than normal. But everybody just has to concentrate on what they've got to do this week, and get it done."
If there's more emphasis among Bulldog linemen about ‘getting it done' this week, it's because they know the best and maybe only way to win this game. As Croom put it, "We've got to win the kicking game, that's the first thing. And of course we've got to play very good defense. But in order to play good defense we have to take the ball on offense and keep it and score. That will allow our defense a lot better chance, because sooner or later if you keep giving McFadden and Jones chances they're going to come out of it."
Blackledge agrees. State's offense must reprise their approach to the Kentucky and Alabama games, of moving the chains and consuming minutes. And the best way to do so? "We have to continue running the football and try to eat the clock up" the center said. And the key there is something the Dogs are finally getting good at, of converting third-down situations whether by run or pass. For the last two years State has struggled on 3rd-and-anything, but here in 2007 the offense is, as they say, getting it done.
"Third downs are big for our offense and our team," said Blackledge. "Because we know when we get in a position where it's third-and-short or even third-and-long that we've got the ability to make it. It relieves a lot of stress on a lot of people."
IN THE MIX: It's been a stellar senior year for starting defensive ends Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal, who lead the squad in sacking and harassing opposing quarterbacks. But another name is working more and more into the rotation. Tim Bailey has emerged as a reliable pass-rusher and improved run-stopper.
"I just gave more attention to details, trying to do the small things," the junior said. "As long as I do my job that will escalate into making more plays." Bailey is nominally the backup to Brown, but in the last two games he's worked both ends of the line and mostly alternating with Hannibal.
Except, when he has lined up as…a tackle? Yes, against Alabama the Bulldog defense came with a unusual arrangement putting the 240-pound end on the nose, to get more quickness up-front in pass-rush situations.
"We put a different package in," Bailey said. "They had me over the center and at first I was kind of shaky about it. But I got a feel for it and getting a good jump off the ball and I made some big plays." Due in no small part to his previous stints as a linebacker, the position he was recruited at out of high school. That experience was very useful against Alabama, he agreed. "Especially with the scrambling and taking the correct angles to get to the quarterback. It paid off."
Certainly it's paying off having line-type players to match in situations ranging from power-running games like Tennessee to all-out passing with draw-runs mixed in like Kentucky and Alabama. State has tried to get by all year with four- and three-man fronts and as few blitzes as possible; the last two wins have shown the progress from line-to-secondary in understanding all roles.
"We have been mixing up our coverages and different fronts, giving the opponents a different look and messing up their schemes," Bailey said. "The main things we have to do is fill our gaps and be disciplined." Especially against Arkansas' impressive McFadden, who has the moves of West Virginia's backs and the power of Volunteer runners.
INJURY UPDATE: No regulars in the Bulldog lineup were held out of Wednesday's practice. Only FB Eric Hoskins was even in a limited-jersey, after taking a ‘stinger' in Tuesday drills. CB Tay Bowser was back to full-strength for the first time in a month.