Bulldogs Begin Preparations For Liberty Bowl

Derek Pegues agrees there won't be a whole lot of down-time between the semesters this particular year. But neither is this or any other Bulldog complaining about a hurried holidays schedule. "It's well-worth it," said the Mississippi State safety. "We want to go to a bowl and continue to play so we're all for it."

And since Mississippi State will play one more game this 2007 season, the Dogs were back to practicing Wednesday as preparations began for their December 29 matchup with Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl (3:30, ESPN). With fall semester final exams concluded, Coach Sylvester Croom had the Bulldogs—or a listed 107 of them—on the practice field at 10:15 this morning for two-and-a-half hours.

Wednesday's work was done in full-gear, just as will the next three days. There wasn't much in the way of actual to-the-ground tackling, at least not for the first- and second-teams. Still Croom wanted to begin bowl practicing with a fair measure of intensity. "This week is more about us getting the fundamentals and timing back and our minds and bodies back in the business of football," the coach explained, comparing this to the first pads practices of spring camp.

"We've been off for so long we all have to get back used to it in a way. You miss one day and you're going to be out of synch. We've been off almost two-and-a-half weeks so we're way out of synch."

This wasn't a critique of Bulldog conditioning, which Croom thought was acceptable since State players have lifted and run as often as practical around their end-of-semester demands. "But we're not anywhere near football game-playing shape," he added. Still the Bulldogs themselves acknowledged that even just a couple of weeks away from season intensity has taken some of their November edge.

"Everybody felt pretty good, we're just definitely rusty on a lot of stuff like you would expect," quarterback Wesley Carroll reported. "Nothing we can't fix, I'm not worried about anything. Everybody has kind of been on their own little vacation, emotionally, physically, and mentally. And It was good for us, we needed it, but now we've got to get back in the mode of getting better."

Or in a trio of cases, of getting well as three starters were restricted today to varying degrees. DE Titus Brown's right knee was cleaned-up over the break and while he only has to wear a sleeve on the joint he was only allowed to watch work to his annoyance. Tim Bailey moved up to first-unit at left end in Brown's place. LB Gabe O'Neal (right shoulder separation) was also in limited-purple but still working with the #1 defense in most unit drills. In team-on-team work his place was taken by Anthony Littlejohn. And TE Jason Husband is being limited after straining a knee ligament in the Egg Bowl. All will play in the bowl game.

CB Anthony Johnson will not after breaking the left fibula in the Egg Bowl. He came out to practice on crutches and the leg in a cast, which will stay on at least three more weeks before re-hab can begin in hopes of having the starting corner able to do at least some spring practicing. In the interim Marcus Washington took Johnson's corner, opposite Jasper O'Quinn.

Otherwise, Croom said, "We just have to get our minds and bodies back in the normal routine. It's like starting all over again, it's amazing how the timing and everything totally disappears."

"I felt the effort was there, but we were real rusty," Pegues said. "We've going to have to come out the next couple of days and try to get better." Rust showed in several technical areas, whether it was the timing between throwers and catchers or footwork by defenders against both run and pass. So, "Mainly we're going back to our basic things," linebacker Gabe O'Neal said.

Because the emphasis this week is on getting back to Bulldog basics there will be minimal attention to actual game preparation. Everything run on both sides of the ball today was out of State's base offense and defense (there were a few early placekicks but no punting or kickoff drills this day). Croom said some of the formations and schemes for UCF will certainly come out of these bases.

"But we haven't zeroed in with the scouting report, it's too early for that for the players to look at a lot of details about central Florida." All that can come once the Bulldogs have worked their way back into game-shape and mindset.

The other aspect of bowl practicing that Mississippi State is taking full advantage of is giving reserves and redshirts more snaps than they can get during the season. Many more, judging by the 15 minutes devoted to these players today while the varsity ran. And ran, and ran some more. Even a couple of regulars who played a good bit in 2007, such as LaMarcus Williams and Jimmie Holmes, participated in the extra segment of 11-on-11 work; but mostly it was for the backups, two of whom stood out to Croom.

"It's giving us a chance to get some extra work for the young guys who haven't played," he said. "I thought the most impressive thing out there today was Robert Elliot, to me. The improvement he's made in the course of the year is phenomenal. He's hitting the holes better, he's running harder and stronger, he went through today's work and didn't put the ball on the ground a single time. You can see the confidence. And Marcus Green at tight end, that's going to prove to be an outstanding move for us.

"This is a time for us to get ready for the bowl game, to have some fun but also to get some work done and really help us make some moves to improve our football team."

The improvement resumes Thursday and runs through December 19, when the Bulldogs get a short holiday break before reporting to Memphis on December 23. Again, not much down-time for the Dogs in 2007…but this is exactly what they've worked for all year.

"We're excited about going to a bowl and everything," Pegues said. "We ain't used to working this time of the year! So we got a little tired, real fast. But it's just getting back in the groove. Coach probably had a feeling we'd be rusty today, but we'll be alright. And we'll be ready to play."

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