"We should be at full-strength," Coach Sylvester Croom said.
BONUS BABY: There's much riding on this weekend's game for these Bulldogs and the program. But success Friday would also make for a more profitable holiday for Croom, according to athletic director Larry Templeton. "In his contract he has an incentive clause on seven wins, and he has an incentive clause on the payoff of the bowl." That being the bowl State for-certain would play in with seven victories, though the current six might still do the trick.
Croom would still receive the regular month's salary along with the bonus(es) for meeting these benchmarks, funded through the MSU Foundation. And the size of that bowl-bonus? "It depends on what bowl we go to," Templeton said.
Templeton declined to discuss the outlook for any extension of Croom's current contract based on the improvements shown this season and prospects for post-season play, deferring such questions to MSU president Dr. Robert Foglesong. Croom has had two raises awarded since signing his contract in 2005.
LONG HAULER: HB Anthony Dixon goes into the 12th game of his sophomore season with 954 rushing yards. That puts him one good quarter, or one really good run, from becoming the seventh Bulldog back to rush for 1,000 yards in a year. It would be the ninth such season at State.
Dixon says he's more focused on getting a victory this week than breaking 1,000 for the year. Though, "It's Ole Miss week, I hope I could rush for 1,000 in one game against them! I'm just ready to run and they're going to get all my effort." A typical 2007-season game would have gotten Dixon to the millennia-mark last Saturday but after gaining 31 yards in the first quarter against Arkansas he was held to just nine more the rest of the day. Initially because the Razorbacks stacked the front against him, and then when the offense went to passing in a single-back set.
This week Dixon hopes it's back to Bulldog-business as usual. "Because last game was a little frustrating for me." And for teammates who are just as interested in the 1,000 mark as is the man toting the pigskin behind their blocking. "Because my O-line and fullbacks, they want me to get it. Everybody is on the same page that we need to get 1,000. Its a lot of fun when everybody is trying to get it."
Oddly enough, last year it was Rebel tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis going for 1,000 yards in the Egg Bowl. He fell a yard short on game-day, but did get that extra three feet added later. Dixon out-gained Green-Ellis 125 yards to 37 at Oxford. Green-Ellis has safely surpassed the mark this year already at 1,020; now Dixon wants to join his counterpart and three other SEC backs (Darren McFadden of Arkansas 1,591; Knowshon Moreno of Georgia 1,228; Felix Jones of Arkansas 1,032) over 1,000. Tennessee's Adrian Foster is at 989.
"It's a competition with all the backs in the SEC," Dixon said. "At the same time I'll be glad to out-rush (Green-Ellis), I'm just that kind of competitor."
ANOTHER CHANCE?: His second Egg Bowl reminds Dixon of something else he wants to do again. Last year at Oxford, in the second quarter, the halfback lined up at quarterback twice, mostly because QB Omarr Conner was hampered by a groin tear all day. While Dixon has been on one gadget play this year—a halfback/throwback at South Carolina that failed—he hasn't given up on playing play-maker again before '07 is out.
"I've been talking about it!" he laughed. "But Coach and them just let me talk sometimes, I'll be asking to do a whole bunch of stuff. He knows I love to make plays for the team and I'll tell him just let me do something, anything. All week in practice I'll be throwing just wild stuff at them!"
REMEMBER ME? It's a special week for WR Tony Burks, who has more reason than most to appreciate the Mississippi State-Ole Miss rivalry. Back in 2004 when he was the top-ranked receiver in Mississippi and one of the nation's elite prospects, Burks cast his lot with the Rebel program. After a two-year detour and splendid career at Mississippi Gulf Coast Comm. College, though, Burks was successfully courted by Croom and Mississippi State.
Now he'll play his preliminary college choice for a second and last time. "I feel it's pretty big for me, knowing that I did sign out of high school going there," Burks said. "But last year I don't felt like I played up to my best game there." In Oxford he was limited to a pair of catches and 25 yards, though that also reflected State's crippled quarterback situation of the day.
Burks has set the bar higher for this rematch. "I've prepared and I feel I have a lot more knowledge about how the rivalry goes between us and Ole Miss. I feel I have to play that much harder, because they played us the hardest last season." Now that the Bulldog air game has shown they can produce big plays, yards, and scores, it should be that much harder defending State's offense in '07.
"I feel last week just showcased what we're capable of, running and pass-wise," Burks said. "If we can get everything clicking we'll be pretty dynamic. We're still in the process of making it all click on offense." It's been a slow process in some ways for Burks; after netting 850 yards on 35 catches as a junior, he's managed 418 yards on 30 receptions this year. But Burks isn't complaining, not even if his '06 feats have opened routes for teammates to thrive. Such as Jamayel Smith's 208-yard afternoon at Arkansas.
And no, Burks doesn't tell Smith he ought to ‘credit' some of that yardage to him. "I guess it was just his time and I'm real proud of him because I know how hard he works in practice. I was happy to see one of the receivers have a big game like that!"
KEEP IT SIMPLE, MAKE IT WORK: As a first-year player QB Wesley Carroll has the chance for a ‘career' day every game in 2007. But it won't be easy to top his passing output in the Arkansas game, of 421 yards (third-most in MSU history) and four touchdowns (tied for 2nd-best). And yes, he said, after throwing 51 passes he felt the need to ice down the arm.
"I think we did a lot of things real well," Carroll said. "We executed some plays that really are just going to open up our offense even more and get us going into the next game. We hit a lot of different receivers and backs and tight ends, and I think that's important. Especially going into this last game. We're progressing still."
Carroll's, and for that matter State's entire outlook on this '07 offense is perfectly summarized in those three words. ‘We' because the quarterback sees himself as just one part in the…'progressing' because the package ‘still' has room to grow. Besides, he says, "Now that we've shown this on film and people have seen it, its just going to make us that much harder to prepare for."
Naturally fans ask why State ‘waited' this long to show the sort of passing prowess seen in game-eleven. That misses the point to Carroll. "A lot of the big plays were just basic plays, they're stuff we do in practice," he pointed out. "The 80-yard throw to Jamayel Smith was just a simple check, on how the corner was playing and his technique. All we had to do was catch the ball and he's gone.
"I mean it's just little stuff like that, on Tony Burks' pass, on Jason Husband's pass, those were simple reads and simple passes and not anything spectacular." In fact, Carroll added, "We don't try to do fancy stuff." Instead State does the stuff in games only after the offense has proven it can be executed in practice, against a Dog defense prepared for the play. Only then does it go into a game-plan.
Nor should fans and foes get the idea that Mississippi State is about to become an aerial circus. Carroll is the first to proclaim the advantages of a run-first, throw-when-necessary scheme. "That's our best friend, being able to run the ball. I'd rather run it all game and control the line of scrimmage and control the clock. I don't care if I have to hand the ball off twenty times in a row, as long as we're moving the chains and scoring that's all that matters."
WIN NOW, WIN LATER: It's an article of absolute faith among fans of both teams that November victory in the Egg Bowl automatically translates into triumph come February and football signing day. There's some truth in this, Croom agrees…but not specifically during the same school year. In the past, Croom thinks, a number of prospects would be ‘on the fence' until State or Ole Miss won the head-to-head meeting and then decide where to cast their lot.
"But I don't think right now that how it turns out is going to sway guys one way or the other," he said. "Because most of the guys are already committed." Before any fanatics vault to a false conclusion that Croom thinks the Egg Bowl has no impact on recruiting, they need to hear the rest of his story. "I think it's probably more significant for the next year's class than for this year," he added.
"It's always important for the future of recruiting but not as much for this class I think as for the next ones coming."