"We didn't talk about the record, but we talked about other things about the running back position," reports Dixon. "He wished me luck." Of course Dixon is usually able to make his own luck and is clearly doing the best ground-pounding of his Bulldog career this final season. And his 50-yard touchdown tote against Houston, where Dixon dragged two tacklers the last dozen or so yards and got a final shove over the goal by TE Marcus Green and QB Tyson Lee, was proclaimed ESPN's top-play in college football for the weekend.
Dixon was already the school's career leader in rushes and touchdowns coming into the season. Now he just keeps pushing those standards farther from future reach with 35 scores by rushing, 39 total, and 760 carries. Those 39 touchdowns tie Dixon for 12th on the SEC's all-time list, while he's 13th in rushing scores in league history. Not that the man himself reads the record books or stat sheets much, nor needs to with media relations director Joe Galbraith to keep track. "And a couple of my family members, they usually keep me updated and tell me what's going on. That's how it happens most of the time."
There is a natural connection between Norwood and Dixon and not just from their Bulldog days. Both hail from the outskirts of Jackson and earned their prep reps first for feats at Brandon and Terry high schools. In fact, Dixon says, "I used to watch him because I've always been a Mississippi State fan. I even went to one of his high school games, I kept hearing about him and how good he was so I went to Brandon one night. And he was all the talk, you know!
"He's been a good friend to me, somebody I've learned from, and I've put a little bit of his game into my game and just tried to become what I've become." So then, Boobie: based only on college ball who would you rate as the better Bulldog back?
"Uhhhh, man!" he pauses, before turning on the trademark grin. "I'm going to definitely go with me, you know?! Because I can't second-guess myself about it! But Jerious and me are friends, he's cool, so I guess I could do that!"
Coach Dan Mullen is pretty cool with his big Dog too, though the initial experiences resulted in the other sort of cool-ness. In fact their first private conversation was about Dixon's grades and other early unfavorable impressions the new coach had of State's best ballplayer. "But ever since that it has been nothing but positives," Mullen said. "The great thing about Anthony is he's bought-in and has a desire to do the right thing, he might not always do the right thing but in his heart wants to. That's the type of player you want to develop and the type of player you want to build a football program around."
Then again Bulldogs like Boobie Dixon or J-Rock Norwood come around once a MSU-generation or so. Still it can't be more fitting that one is writing his name alongside the others all up and down the record book. "It feels great, because he's a great player," Dixon said. "It's a dream come true, this was definitely one of my goals when I set out to come here. I wanted to be the best at what I do if not up there among the best. It's a dream come true through a lot of hard work."
STILL GETTING A GRIP: Speaking of hard work, the Bulldog backfield is doing some extra drilling again on a most annoying area. Turnovers as a whole are a problem for State this season but the series of fumbled exchanges in the past three weeks has really become an issue. Most have been during or after standard lead-handoffs where the quarterback either held on too long or pulled back too late, or the back clamped down too early or late, or all the above. And of the nine run-game fumbles of any sort in the past three games, seven have ended up in the wrong team's possession.
That has taken the edge off otherwise-impressive production by State's offense. "We've had some good positives, it's just the turnovers," said Dixon today. "If we can stop turning the ball over I feel we're one of the best teams in the country. I've definitely been saying we can play with anybody for like the last two years. We just showing more of that this year, we've just got to stop turning the ball over and get over that Hump and I feel we're going to take off."
What frustrates most is that this is such a basic part of the game, so familiar to all involved throughout their football careers…and yet the Bulldogs struggle to exchange the pigskin cleanly. And there is no fancy fix for it either, says Dixon. "Just practice it more. Because practice makes perfect, you know. So just practice more on the handoff, getting it down-pat the way Coach wants us to run it, getting the ‘mesh' right. Just practicing it more because that's the only thing that's going to get it better."
QB Tyson Lee said this was a leading topic in Sunday's opening practices for Middle Tennessee. "That's what has hurt us the past few games, is the details. Yesterday we were able to go through a few drills and really work on it and hopefully avoid that the rest of the season."
SAME THEME, CHANGED PARTS? Perhaps the circumstances leading to his doing all the quarterback duty Saturday weren't ideal; nor has it been specifically explained yet why Chris Relf was suspended. Still Lee was not complaining about going the distance against Houston. "I enjoyed it. Playing a lot of snaps is good and this was the first one I got to play every snap. I liked it. Going into this week, I don't know what Coach will do as far as one quarterback, two quarterback. But I did enjoy last week, we'll have to wait-and-see this week."
That might mean all week, because Mullen is not tipping his hand much about quarterback plans for Middle Tennessee. He did offer today that the two-quarterback approach remains in effect. "We'll do the same with Tyson and Chris," Mullen said. "That is not going to change for us. Obviously Chris missing last week's game just puts him a little behind, but he still has the ability to catch up."
The suspension of Relf, announced prior to the Houston game, was for violation of unidentified team policy and, at the time, applied just for that game with nothing said about future contests. This seems the same as of now, based on Mullen's carefully-limited comments. "We're going to see," he said when asked if Relf was now available. "We haven't decided any of that stuff. We have to see where it goes after practice." And Relf is indeed practicing as usual, reports starter Lee.
"He's getting the reps, as far as what Coach wants to do this week in the system I'm not sure what he wants to do." Naturally Lee, who has thrown for 610 yards in the last three games, and completed 50 of 91 throws with a pair of touchdowns. And, six interceptions, which has offset much of the production.
Mullen said Sunday had Lee been forced out of the Houston game either walk-on Daniel Stegall or true freshman Tyler Russell were the backups, to be played by situations rather than in any order. "It's a different deal. You have to look at the strengths they would bring to the field." This naturally increases interest that rookie Russell could still give up his redshirt here at mid-season. Mullen is not ready to pull that trigger just yet, though neither will he rule the chance out. The fact remains this staff, this season, would rather not field a quarterback who would limit some play-calling choices.
"You're not looking at putting Tyler in to run the ball, that's not his strong point," Mullen said. "His strong point is standing in the pocket, making a lot of reads, checking a lot of protections." Besides, the coach added, he is not interested in giving a talented young quarterback like Russell just a limited number of snaps in rotation. "At the midpoint of the season, if we were to play Tyler Russell it would be because he's going to play, we expect him to be the starter for the rest of the season. Because he needs to go through the whole thing. He's not a package quarterback."
For his part Stegall isn't a typical college quarterback either, if only because he spent four years in professional baseball before coming to school and State. Just turned 22 years old, the Arkansas native is getting back into the flow of this sport according to Lee.
"I think he's done a really good job, coming in late but really putting in the time outside of practice," said the senior starter. "We come up here at night and watch films, he'll call and ask me things. And the way he's been dedicated and put in time I think he's progressed and is ready to go." Since practices have been closed since Stegall became a potential factor, evaluations have to come from an expert source like Lee about what the walk-on brings to the gameplan. Is he a runner, a thrower, what? "I think a little bit of both. I think he can throw the ball but I think he can tuck it and run it when need be as well."
PRIME TIME: Mississippi State was notified that next week's home game with Florida will kick at 6:30, to air on either ESPN or ESPN2. This will be State's first appearance of the season on one of the network's primary outlets, though the Dogs have been shown by ESPNU three times.
Bulldog teams are a combined 16-31 in games shown on either ESPN or 2, but have only once played a Florida team on either of these outlets. That was in 1992, when State had its first-ever appearance in a Thursday night contest for the network, and won 30-6. State is 4-6 against Florida in televised games from 1977-2005.
INJURY UPDATE: Mullen reports that DT Charles Burns is again doubtful, having missed the Houston game with a knee injury suffered after he started the Georgia Tech game. FS Zach Smith missed the Houston game with a concussion. "He's day-to-day up until the game," said Mullen, noting that in the aftermath of Florida QB Tim Tebow's own concussion "that's an injury that has got as much attention as you could get nationally the last two weeks."
S Wade Bonner, who missed the Tech game with a knee problem, started at nickel safety for Houston. He's back on the injury list today but with an infected cut in an elbow that had him hospitalized. "They're doing tests to make sure it's out of his system," Mullen said. Bonner is supposed to be available when practices resume Tuesday.