"Ahhh, it's going to be a lot of fun!" the senior smiled, even more broadly than usual for him. If, that is, enough ducats can be procured before noon kickoff in Atlanta. Because the tally of family and friends has added up fast for Fitzhugh. "I'm just trying to see what I can have by the time ticket sheets have to be turned in Thursday." And as for the ‘Fitzhugh Section' well, "I don't know where it is yet, but I'll be looking for it!"
Mississippian and CB Jasper O'Quinn has been amused by how the native Georgians on the Bulldog roster have acted this particular game-week. "It's just a homecoming for them and I know they're hyped-up," he said. "They're telling us what to expect, it's Atlanta, a lot different from Mississippi! I know it's going to be a real live environment so we have to stay focused and get the job done."
"I think our players have looked forward to this game for quite some time," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "We have a lot of players from Atlanta." Or the immediate area, like Fitzhugh. Which is why the head coach has kept his senior safety from a particular privilege through the first three games.
"I know he has been wondering why he hasn't been a captain yet," Croom said. "I have been holding him off for this game. He's done a great job for us this fall and he will be our defensive captain."
Fitzhugh appreciates the honor and timing. And of course being able to play for the home folk adds incentive to game-week. But he agrees it all has to stay in perspective. "I'm going to be excited. But it's just like another game, I probably won't even recognize until after the game everybody is there. We're just going to treat it like any other game, go out and play hard."
And the focus is such that State's travel schedule is to leave campus by noon and be in the hotel, Friday traffic permitting, by 6:00ET for dinner and the usual unit and team meetings. There won't be any excursions on the town, in other words.
"It's no time for play, we're going there to win and not be distracted," O'Quinn said.
BOSS DOGS: Joining defensive captain Fitzhugh this week will be OC J. C. Brignone for the offense and SLB K.J. Wright for special teams. It is the first time for the latter two to represent their squads at the coin toss. "All three have played great for us all fall," Croom said. "They have all showed a great amount of leadership and I think they will do a great job as far as getting our team ready for this ball game."
DAILY UPDATE: As the rest of the team practiced, HB Anthony Dixon had the exercise bike running at full-speed. The junior is sidelined by a groin strain suffered a week ago. Dixon played on it but was not effective against a speedy Auburn defense able to get where he was going first.
Croom still lists Dixon's status for Georgia Tech as day by day. "He didn't play today, we'll see if he can play tomorrow." But whether or not the starting halfback is available won't impact State's ground-game plans for Saturday, Croom said.
"It doesn't really change anything, we'll play the rest of them. We've got Ducre, Elliot, Bonner, and Stallworth, we'll rotate all those guys in there and see what happens."
THEM BONES: While fans have devoted every hour since Saturday night bemoaning the offense, Mississippi State coaches have understandably been more concerned with preparing for Georgia Tech's triple-option offense. For good reason. "I played in the wishbone," reminds former Alabama center Croom. "I know how hard it is to defend. Even when I was coaching defense at Alabama and we practiced against it every day it was tough. Whenever we played Mississippi State and Emory Bellard was here we always worked on it in training camp separately."
That was of course because Bellard, in 1980, altered the very wishbone he himself had invented as Texas offensive coordinator in the late 1960s into the ‘wingbone' which had a wingback incorporated into the classic triple-option. Croom can use those memories because Techs' wishbone is yet another evolution of the original scheme devised by Bellard. In fact, it more closely resembles the ‘inverted' wishbone with the halfbacks (A backs in Tech's vernacular) in front of the single B back. Only, instead of lining up behind the guards the A men are all the way out behind and beyond the tackles.
But the attack begins with the men in the middle, the quarter- and B-backs who will come right through the middle…just like in the old wishbone where the fullback-lead was the first item of defensive focus. A few Dog linemen have at least seen that sort of system. "Lawrence County used to run it," said DT Jessie Bowman, who played at Brookhaven High. "We did well against it, we won against them every year." In college the closest thing to a wishbone he's faced was last year against West Virginia's ‘spread' run-option when quarterback Pat White would come right through center.
"You just have to be disciplined, do what the coaches tell you do to," Bowman said. "The tackle has to be disciplined because you have one job, and that's to take the dive. Every play, you have to take the dive. And when you see the ball, make sure you get the fullback down. You stay in your position, if you're in A or B gap you just buckle down."
Moving out, what does the defensive end have to worry about? Tim Bailey too must keep first eye on the fullback if he rides towards tackle and keep him from squirting through that gap. What is toughest for a d-end or outside linebacker of course is the urge to attack the ball upon sight…which is exactly what the quarterback wants to lure them into.
"That's what the coach emphasizes in practice," said Bailey. "Do your job, don't worry about everybody else's job. The play you don't do your job is the play they're going to expose our defense and get a big gain. This is a whole different offense and the only time we'll see it all year. So we really have to have a conscious effort to be focused and do our assignment, every play."
EYE ON THE SKY: And if the play reaches the triple-stage, it's up to the cornerbacks and safeties to shed blockers and seal the pitch-man. And, O'Quinn agrees, not get sucked in too far forward by the quarterback before he lets the ball loose. "They have a great scheme with the option. We'll have to play disciplined, sound football, each man has to do his 1/11th on each play. You can't get over-aggressive and try to do something that's not your job."
At the same time, O'Quinn and State's secondary can't pretend this is 1972 and a wishbone gameplan is devoid of passing plays. "They'll throw the ball," said the corner after watching the scouting tape. "They set up the run and that's when they try to hit you over the top. So we have to play sound, disciplined football." And again, do the assigned job and trust teammates, especially if Tech puts the ball in the air. O'Quinn is confident about Fitzhugh, Derek Pegues, and De'Mon Glanton being there in support. "I know somebody behind me has my back, so it's a blessing to play with guys like that.
STAND AND BE RECOGNIZED: Even though the Bulldogs lost to Auburn, one came out of the game with an increased reputation around the league. Bowman was named the SEC's Defensive Lineman of the Week after notching eight total tackles, 3.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage including a sack. Bowman notched twice as many tackles in that game as in the previous two contest combined.
But it was his pursuit of the Tiger quarterback that opened eyes as Bowman put on pressure sufficient to bust-up plays even when he didn't get any tackle-credit. "That's one of the things I needed to work on, is my pass-rush move," he said. "I'm very much aware I needed to work on that. But when the stakes get higher you do whatever you can do to get to the quarterback."
"The intensity and effort came out," said Croom. "And he practiced that way all last week, he was running to the football, really taking a lot of pride. He almost had another sack but Cortez McCraney beat him to it, Jessie flushed him out and pushed him back and just as he was about to grab him Cortez got him."
INTER-SERVICE STUFF: It's not really a ‘rivalry' since Tech Coach Paul Johnson is no longer at the U.S. Naval Academy. Still State's Bailey, a National Guardsman who has done one tour in Iraq and will go back active upon leaving State, can't help showing a bit of the ground-pounder's pride in facing a fellow once associated with the sea-going folk.
"Well, the Army goes in and the Marines, and the Navy is just sitting on the ship!" Bailey said.