"We're just taking the mindset like Coach Mullen told us, one week at a time," Chaney said. "Last week at Kentucky we considered that as a playoff game, if we lose we're pretty much done. This week is a must-win game."
Then again, for these annual rivals and next-door neighbors any Tide-Dog clash automatically counts as a must-win. Especially those who chose to cross the state line, from either direction, to play for the other school. Florida product Chaney doesn't fit into that category, but by this senior-point in his college career he is as much a Mississippian as any native. Besides, the last two times he played the Crimson Tide he was able to leave the field a winner, in 2006 and '07. "I'm trying to get this one, too!" he said. Chaney was helpless to assist last year in Tuscaloosa while a broken ankle.
Even if all those above aspects were missing, this would be a meaningful game for the MSU middle linebacker. Because Bulldog and Tide tilts are his favorite way to play football. "They're a physical team, they're going to keep doing what they do; run the ball, play extra fast. They want to pass it just when they want to pass it, so you've got to run and be physical. If you ain't physical then this isn't the kind of game you want to play in.
"It suits my mentality. That's what I like to play against, I-formation running downhill. That's what I've played against since I've been here."
Ahhh, but by missing last season Chaney has yet to play, much less hit, Tide ball-hauler Mark Ingram. The SEC's leading rusher, by a 2.5-yard margin over MSU's own Anthony Dixon, has run all the way into Heisman Trophy candidacy with a brilliant sophomore season. He had to share the load and the ball last November with Glen Coffee and thus had ‘only' 78 yards with a touchdown. Here in '09 though Ingram is the undisputed pacesetter for Alabama's offense and as talented a back as Chaney has ever seen. Much less chased.
What makes Ingram special, Chaney said, is "His vision, he always finds the hole. He's got great size and power and has good moves, he knows how to make them miss." And there isn't much more an embarrassing outcome for a veteran middle-‘backer than to miss his man. But then Chaney is coming off the most productive tackling game of his State career when he got in on 15 stops at Kentucky…and that game saw him covering from sideline to sideline to intercept Wildcat runners.
The Bulldogs won that ‘first round' in Chaney's playoff system; now a much more talented and successful foe comes to campus as the next obstacle to State's post-season ambitions. Chaney said the Dogs would be bringing their best game anyway just for the shot at an ancient rival and top-ranked opponent; the playoff aspect just makes it that more intense.
"That's the mindset you've got to have. Everybody wants to go to a bowl game, we don't want to be sitting there watching everybody else play. So we've got to win these games to make sure we're going to get one." Chaney expects every Dog to do their part, and he's also calling on the fan base to pitch in as they did for the slugfest with Florida. Oh, and while the SEC is busy monitoring comments about officiating these days, maybe Chaney's request that State fans bring ‘em and ring ‘em this week will get overlooked. How much does the senior want a stadium filled with cowbell ringers this week?
"If it was up to me I'd make sure they passed them out to everybody coming in the stadium!"
PLAYING BIG: No, he doesn't weigh 350 pounds. For that matter he's still undersized by even routine SEC defensive line standards. Yet there Devin Jones is, mixing it up in the very middle of things with all of his 260 pounds and every other tool available. "Playing inside, Coach Turner throws me in there because he knows my ability to do it."
Jones indeed can do it, which has earned the redshirt freshman increased playing time as the season progresses. He's part of the youth movement on the interior defensive line, with true frosh Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd having been promoted to starting jobs the last two weeks with veteran Kyle Love and—when he's healthy—Charles Burns as the backups. But when line coach David Turner wants to sub-in a tackle to put over the nose in an odd-front, Jones usually comes to mind.
"He tells me I get better every week," said Jones. It's nothing that really shows on the stat sheet as the frosh has mustered six primary tackles and five assists in his season so far. But statistics aren't the goal for a nose man, especially a rotation player sent in for specific matchup purposes. And this is where young Jones thrives.
"I love it. I like to stay low and confuse the offensive line a little bit, get past them and get to the quarterback." Not necessarily sack the passer, as much fun as that would be; but flush and force something unplanned and risky by breaking down protection.
"Coach tells me you want to make it as confused as possible to them, but simple to me," Jones explained. "See, it's giving a little head or shoulder fake every now and then, then speed-rush. It's kind of complicated but when you get weeks of practice and practice and practice it's simple."
Simple for him to say, that is. Execution is more challenging and particularly for a fellow who'd seem to fit better at one end of the line. Which, of course, is where Jones checked-in as a rookie. Most of spring, and then again in August, he was practiced as a true D-end in the four-man scheme Turner and coordinator Carl Torbush favor. And nobody doubts that were he slotted there Jones could be a top-notch end.
Yet a few times in both camps when State's defense lined up in an odd front to prepare the offense for such looks, Jones was put over the ball. And made plays belying his bulk, or lack thereof. So the defensive staff has no concerns placing the kid on the nose in real games, and Jones said he never was worried either. "Oh, I had no doubt, no doubt at all. I knew listening to Coach Turner teaching me techniques and everything I'd be fine."
He'll be even finer as he fills out the frame with more muscle. "Yeah, I probably need about 15 more pounds to be a defensive nose tackle. Coach Balis does an awesome job in putting weight on and improving my strength." In fact Jones is clearly a stronger, and stronger-minded, player now after sitting out that first season. Not that he enjoyed it at the time, mind.
"I'd like to say I could have played last year, but I'm glad I redshirted. It taught me a lot of things technique wise, footwork wise. So I'm actually grateful I did." Besides, sitting one season allowed a new coordinator to bring in a revised system, while keeping line coach Turner who'd been developing this kid to compete in a couple of slots. Now the future is bright for Jones and the Dog defense as a whole with so many underclassmen contributing, battling for snaps in the rotation, and even racing teammates to the ball since there are only so many tackle-stats to go around in a game. Jones has accepted that moving inside actually limits chances to make highlight plays the way ends can.
"Yeah, but it's about the team anyway. As long as we get three-and-outs and get off the field I'm happy with that." And he's happy to have an increasing role with this defense despite youth and size…or again, lack thereof. "But I hear I do it well, so I'm striving to get better. And to put more weight on. Probably not 350!"