When State won at Tuscaloosa in 2006, the freshman recorded his very first collegiate 100-yard output with 121 on 25 totes. A year later in Starkville the going was tougher but Dixon still mustered 84 yards with the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter as State again won. But last November the Tide D got a handle on Dixon, holding him to 26 yards on just 11 rushes as the Dog offense had to abandon the ground game.
Now comes an Alabama unit allowing just 68 rushing yards per-game and only four rushing touchdowns in nine games. Compare that to Dixon's 125.1 rush-rate and nine scores this season, and all know where to watch first in this rematch. "It's definitely going to be a tough, physical game," Dixon agrees.
"It's one of them woodshed games; they know it and we know it. They know about the last three, four years it's been knockout, they knocked us out last year so they're up. So we're trying to defend our turf, protect our house, and make it happen."
The natural side-plot to the weekend is Dixon matching paces with the only SEC back ahead of his name on the league rushing chart. Sophomore Mark Ingram is dashing and slashing for 127.6 yards each game and has a 6.6 gain per-carry compared to Dixon's 5.5, though he's one behind in touchdowns. Woodshed game? Call it a throwback matchup to the days when runners ruled the league and the last back standing was the winner. It's easy for veteran SEC folk to imagine Dixon taking the toss out of a power-I and bashing off-tackle, or Ingram racing around the corner on a wishbone pitch play.
"It's going to be fun, it's what we dream about," says Dixon of the chance to compare steps and skills with his Tide counterpart. "All props to him, both of us are making dreams come true so it's going to be a showcase Saturday to show what they talk about. So I'm excited and pumped-up and ready to go."
Even if it means going into the teeth of a Tide defensive line that features almost half-a-ton of beef in just the three interior positions. With all that bulk one still stands out and even Dixon isn't silly enough to think he can go through the gap filled—and how—by 350-pound Terrence Cody. "Whatever side he's going to go to, he's going to go! So whatever side he goes I've got to counter off that. Unless you put three on him and we're not going to do that."
Dixon is rested and ready for the stretch run of his Mississippi State career, and the opportunity to not only keep pushing his program records out of future reach but to move on up SEC charts. He is currently 11th in rushing yards with 3,604, needing 227 yards to climb into the top-ten. He's already tied for 10th in SEC touchdowns rushing (39) and eight in total touchdowns (43). With twenty carries he will move into the SEC top-five.
That latter mark should be easy enough to reach; the rest depends on how well Dixon and offense perform together in the remaining three schedule games. And naturally it would be even easier to set further records with an extra contest in December. Dixon has good memories of his previous post-season trip when he scored the only touchdown in State's 10-3 win over Central Florida in the 2007 Liberty Bowl. He would certainly enjoy another such experience as well as taking his senior squad bowling. That, as well as Alabama's chase for a national title, just keeps piling on the importance to this meeting.
"That's what we're all looking forward to," said Dixon. "I know they're going to be up for it with what they're trying to do with their season over there. And we're definitely going to be up for it with the things we're trying to do with our season over here."
Nothing silly about that. As for the temporary script on his scalp, well… "I get to put the helmet over it, just having fun and making my senior year go by easier." And who knows? Should State succeed in winning that bowl bid, surely a locker-room barber would gladly put some fitting fresh script on that scalp. Just an idea.
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN: It would be easy enough to focus on Alabama's biggest lineman simply based on sheer size. But as the Bulldogs know too well from last November, nose tackle Cody has skills to go with the size. Thus his, umm, outsized place in both scouting and scheming for the week.
State got first-hand(s) look at him last fall in Tuscaloosa of course. But J.C. Brignone actually saw Cody prior to that. "I got to watch him a little bit when he played juco ball," said State's junior center who hails from Pass Christian; not far from the Gulf Coast CC campus where Cody spent two seasons before signing with Alabama. So Brignone was not surprised by anything the mountainous Tide nose tackle did a year ago.
"I got to go against him a few times. He's a big boy, a big stout guy. He likes to stand there and just hold three or four people in there, that's what he's good at." Of course in the previous meeting Brignone was not exactly lined-up on the Alabama nose-man or vice-versa. That was the game where State's usual center temporarily moved over to his rookie position of left guard as the Dogs shuffled the line. Redshirt D.J. Looney, a product of the Birmingham area ironically, usually got to butt helmets with Cody as a result.
Despite having seen the big boy before from a safer distance, "You know, I was really surprised at how big he was when I first walked on the field being all of 6-5 and 350-plus," said Brignone. "So he has that presence. But this is SEC ball. Everybody is big, everybody is strong, or everybody is fast. You either get the really big guys or the really fast guys so you have to pick what you're going to do and come out and play."
Nothing much worked for State's offense in that 32-7 loss, but the ground game was completely stifled with just 35 net yards on 22 runs. Yet this new 2009 coaching staff is not throwing out their normal gameplan just because Alabama is as good and maybe even better in stuffing the run this year. As Brignone said, "My thing is we like to knock people off the ball. So it's going to be a big battle, and I think a fun one with me and him."
A funny sort of fun perhaps. Still Brignone's larger point holds: while always looking for what a defense might give at any single point in a game, the Mississippi State offense cannot abandon the core identity out of intimidation. Besides, there is more than enough supporting speed behind that line that trickery isn't a high-percentage call either. So even if Alabama does as expected (Brignone notes the basic Tide scheme is about the same as Kentucky's, with a stacked front and solo coverage on the ends), the Bulldogs will stay true to their own selves.
"This is the SEC. LSU's defensive line is always good, Kentucky's defensive line is always good, Florida's defensive line is always good. Everybody is always good. Alabama is especially good this year also, but you have to choke it up and run the ball. Because you can't get away from what you're doing good. I think we've been rushing for good amounts, against Kentucky Dixon ran for 250 and we rushed for 350 total. So we're going to keep doing what we do instead of trying to play what they can't do. It's kind of difficult for us, I have an extra guy but it's an extra guy we have to block or Boobie has to run over."
And it had to be asked: would Brignone really mind if once again he temporarily changed jobs so he could come at big Cody from a guard's angle at least? "No, this is my game this year," he smiles. "I had to play guard last year but this is my year!"
NOTE: This report will be updated following Tuesday's afternoon practice comments from Coach Dan Mullen.
KICK AND COVER: It's been five weeks since PK Sean Brauchle was sidelined by a leg strain. The junior transfer was soon cleared to practice, and has dressed for the last two games but not gotten back on the field. In his place Derek DePasquale has taken over both field goal and kickoff duties.
Tuesday Mullen said Brauchle, who was 6-of-9 on field goals, is tentative for the Alabama game. "I won't say he's 100%, but we're hoping he'll be 100% for the game. So we're still cautious with him this week. We might mix it up, Sean for kickoffs and Derek for field goals. We haven't made our final decision."
DePasquale has filled in capably on field goals making 7-of-8, with a long effort of 43 yards. But his average kickoff has covered 57.2 yards compared to 63.9 for Brauchle. That's given recent opponents some extra room to work with and made coverage tougher for the Bulldogs, who now are just 8th in that SEC category. Neither Brauchle nor DePasquale has scored a touchback this season, with State the only SEC team that hasn't forced an opponent to take a knee in an end zone.
Mullen isn't looking for big improvements in how far the ball is kicked though. "We've got to do a better job of sticking in our lanes and just containing, limiting the return yards that we give up."
The head coach could well say the same about punting. After pacing the SEC in the first month this season State has fallen all the way to last in the league standings at 32.3 yards net-punting, which involves both the kick's distance and return allowed. That's an obvious worry since Alabama is 3rd in average SEC punt returns. And State folk remember all too well how return man Javier Arenas completely turned last year's game in Tuscaloosa around with his 46-yard runback before halftime to set one score; and his own 80-yard touchdown return in the third quarter.
INJURY UPDATE: OG Tobias Smith has been practicing with a wraparound brace on the right ankle that has kept him out of the last three games. Mullen hopes to have the redshirt freshman ready to go in rotation at right guard again this week. RB Christian Ducre wears a full-length sleeve on the right leg as he comes back from a bone bruise in the Kentucky game. He is expected to play as usual this week. Backup OG Templeton Hardy is still coming back from dislocating his left elbow in a practice and is doubtful, though he has not played since the season opener.