Which might be simpler said than done of course. After all, it took three-and-a-half seasons for Mississippi State to make these basic things work. "A lot of it is everybody buying into the little things," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "Not beating yourself with penalties and turnovers." Which the '07 Dogs did well down the stretch. 2008 to-date has been another matter, though, coach and players acknowledge.
"There's no question we got away from that, in the off-season and spring practice," said Croom. "That's what I meant in the off-season about us (not) handling success very well. I knew our talent level had improved, and we had some key guys who could give us some offensive explosion." But while this team is indeed faster and has more potential explosiveness than '07, they also have lost that intangible edge in don't-lose-it focus. Maybe it was inevitable; perhaps it is still fixable.
"We've got to get back doing that," MLB Dominic Douglas said. "I believe from being a senior we've kind of slacked-off on those things. We're getting more penalties, on the defensive side not picking up the run like we're supposed to, not carrying out our assignments like we're supposed to. We've got to get back to the drawing board and execute this weekend."
"What's tough is anytime somebody is trying to make a play, you may force something you shouldn't," Carroll noted. "If you get down or behind and feel you need to make a play, that's when you get in trouble and make mistakes and miss assignments. Last year we didn't force anything, we took what the defense gave us and didn't turn the ball over. We need to start playing like that so we can win these games." And as Carroll also pointed out, there are plenty of 2007 veterans who recall how they did win, thus it's only a matter of renewal rather than learning something new.
"So we're very similar to where we were last year," said Croom. "And the key to success now is playing more like Vanderbilt." Which needs to start with beating the Commodores at their own, and State's old, game. "After that, get on another one-game roll. We're not looking beyond that," Croom stressed. "One play this play, one game this game; nobody thinking or talking about anything else. Vanderbilt is it."
TOSS AND CATCH: He claims not to keep up with his weekly numbers…but WR Brandon McRae does know one stat-fact. That he is well-ahead of the pace Bulldog receivers have set in recent seasons. "I know the last couple of years the top receivers, their receptions would be like 31. And we're going into sixth game and I'm already right there! It's been a blessing to do that."
For the official record, McRae has caught 28 balls in five games, good for two touchdowns and 263 yards. Compare that to the 33 receptions by Jamayel Smith (510 yards, 3 scores) that led the list for all 2007; or the 35 grabs by Tony Burks (850 yards, 5 TDs) in 2006. McRae is far ahead of this current-curve with over half a season left to go, and receive. In fact at this pace he should be the most productive State wideout since Justin Jenkins pulled in 62 balls in 2003; the most catches by a Bulldog since Eric Moulds had 62 too in 1995. The record is 74 by David Smith in 1970.
And still, "I don't check, people tell me," McRae insists. "I don't really care too much about the stats, I just want to win." Maybe he isn't watching his numbers too closely…but opposing defenders definitely keep an eye on #6. The penalty of his five-game success is increasingly close coverage. Maybe too close. "They're doing a lot more holding and stuff, the refs ain't calling it!" McRae says. "I can feel they're focused on me. But I still feel they can't hold me, though."
Considering that in his first State fall McRae had all of two catches, this has been a real breakout season for the junior who began his college career at Morehead State. McRae even earned the starting nod in the 2007 opener, but barely made a ripple the rest of the season. Still Croom isn't surprised at this year's results.
"I knew the potential was there, and he is getting better. The reason is he is practicing at game speed every day, he's done that since we started and is making plays. Right now I would have to say he is our biggest playmaker." It helps further that McRae can play both the X and Z receiver spots without missing a beat. Or a route. "And make no bones about it, we try to get him the football," Croom said. "I think he'll have an even bigger second half of the season."
Y.A.C.-Y.A.C.: There was one significant difference in McRae's last game, though. While he did catch four balls at LSU, Tiger defenders were on him as soon as the ball arrived and McRae netted just 14 yards; over half of that on a single eight-yard grab. It was quite a fall-off from previous games where he averaged nine, ten and more yards each time he got his hands on the ball.
"I'll tell him to run farther after the catch!" Croom quipped. Seriously, though, "I'm not worried about Brandon's averages as much as I am concerned about getting him in the end zone to help us win games."
"I guess whenever the ball comes to me I'll try to make a guy miss and just get upfield and do what I can," McRae said, adding that more deep patterns might be forthcoming as the gameplan develops.
And, as the catcher gets more accustomed to the new thrower and vice-versa. Croom pointed out that the open date allowed McRae, and the other rotation receivers, more practice time with QB Tyson Lee. McRae has already caught his fair share of Lee's throws this year, but it's still an adventure to hear him talk.
"Tyson, you can't tell when the ball is coming to you. Because sometimes he'll look one way and throw the ball another way. He's just creative, that's what I like. He's a playmaker. With Wes I can just feel when the ball is coming to me; with Tyson I just don't really know!"
INJURY UPDATE: Croom welcomed the off-date to take care of some health issues, as a handful of players would not have been able to go much or at all this past weekend. The open date did much to help defensive tackles Jessie Bowman and LaMarcus Williams with sore backs. Both were practicing Tuesday, albeit in limited-purple to make sure they did not do any hitting.
TE Marcus Green, who has missed the last three games with a pelvis problem, remains a question for the Vanderbilt game. "He's got a little bit of work but he's not full-speed quite yet," said Croom. Green was not in the tight end rotation Tuesday. WR Delmon Robinson is still limited after a shoulder injury at LSU, though he was running unit-practice routes as well as fielding punts today.
And S Zach Smith is still being protected after taking a hard lick last week in practice and suffering a concussion. His status for Saturday is to be determined.