From The Dawghouse

Finally, the 2010 Bulldog season is officially underway. What's that you say? Why, yes, I indeed was at those first two games. Wrote a lot about both. Left the press box well t'other side of midnight each time. So technically yes, we're two dates deep in already. But it's not reeeeally a Mississippi State season until the Annual Quarterback Controversy kicks off.

And that, friends and neighbors, is where we find our Mississippi State selves this week as the Bulldogs prepare for their first off-campus excursion of 2010. For my mostest favorite road biennial road trip of the cycle, too. Yeah, I understand a sizable segment of State folk have little nice to say about Baton Rouge environs in general and Tiger Stadium in particular. But me, as a sucker for the sorts of things which make college sports special, just finds such visits a delight no matter how the game turns out.

I've also witnessed a few scattered State successes on the premises, such as the night John Bond scored his fourth touchdown, and fourth win over LSU, and sent all but a few thousand giddy Dog fans left in one corner out to soak their sorrows early.

Besides, in all those years shooting from SEC sidelines, I actually felt safer before an EllEssYew audience than at most other league venues. I mean, any containers thrown at me from Tiger Stadium grandstands were assuredly empty. The only times fear found me there, other than the legendary and not-now-missed press box elevator, was an ‘80s evening when, caught up enjoying the atmosphere, I didn't realize Mike the Tiger's cage had rolled up close behind me. I turned to stare directly into a pair of very unblinking eyes sending unmistakable signals that, without the bars between us, we would be playing our respective roles in evening snacktime.

Speaking of role playing, and back to the leading topic of the Dog day… It's taken just two games to get Bulldog fans busy taking sides on the favored fall furor. Well, yes, there were a few ripples of rumblings after the opening-night rout of Memphis when still-young Tyler Russell tied the program record for touchdown passes. It meant in some minds he'd moved into an equal position with the still-developing Chris Relf. Note, I said ‘some' minds.

Dan Mullen's is not one of those. Or not in the same way we fans would think, fortunately. Just because the head coach has Relf & Russell working tag-team does not mean they are definitively equal. Equivalent, maybe. But anyone looking for definitive trends at the start of LSU week was going to be disappointed by today's teleconference.

"We don't really have a gameplan for each of them, we just let them go play," Mullen said. "One or the other, they just run the offense."

How's that for an unalloyed answer, eh? It gets better. "We have to see how it goes with a week of practice," Mullen responded to queries about a script for Saturday. "I don't know if we'll have a set plan, but we might."

What we ought not over-read into today's talk is that Mullen is trying to keep LSU guessing. He's just reasonably candid about Mississippi State's own situation. There are two quarterbacks. Both are going to play. Both will get to play more, or less, as plays are made. Or, not. See, if we accept that the coach is not trying to be overly subtle, neither is this being too simple. The Bulldog baseline is Mullen is still evaluating exactly what we have to work with in 2010, whether series by series, game by game, month by month.

I think the really telling, so to speak, comment came today when asked if perhaps the more veteran quarterback would be more comfortable walking into the Tigers den. "If we had a distinct veteran," Mullen said, rather bluntly. "This is the first year of them playing a lot of football. I don't put Chris in that category."

Now that last bit is something we media and fans should save for future reference. He was not criticizing Chris. Mullen was offering insight as to how he sets his standards. How high, I should say. If a fourth-fall junior who got a fair share of snaps last fall and won an Egg Bowl off the bench is not a ‘veteran' then wow, what does it require to be considered such by this coach?

Or, consider his critique of the receivers for their Thursday results. Absolutely true, there were several blatant drops, and by Dogs who have caught clutch passes before. Yet a couple of those designated drops were on throws not exactly on-target, too. I think it says much, very much about what Mullen's demands on the Dogs are to go make a play rather than expect the play to come to them. Safe to say those demands will only increase, too…as will demands on staff to go recruit more good young receivers for future play-making.

But back to the passers. Runners, too, though we have yet to see Russell really test his footwork beyond the pocket. Do give the frosh credit for not taking a sack Thursday despite erratic, to be kind, protection. I don't seem to recall just a flood of pressure though on that batted ball that produced Russell's first collegiate interception, though. And related to that, Mullen correctly noted the difference in the final score came from Auburn scoring ten off MSU turnovers compared to State converting one Tiger giveaway (the dropped punt) into seven. Relf has already been sacked four times in two games, kind of a contradiction since once would think the younger quarterback would wait longer to try to deliver a planned pass than the older hand. Or is it that Relf is figuring on footwork to evade, later? Only a coach could say for sure.

For the record this old Dog doesn't hew to ancient wisdom that a team playing two quarterbacks has no #1. Nor does Mullen it seems. This coach is comfortable with…well, what would we call it? Rotating? Alternating? Situating?

All the above. "Both of them will play," is Mullen's succinct Sunday summary of his quarterback plans for this week and presumably all others. If there is any controversy it isn't in this coach's mind.

Here's another aspect. Think back last year, or for that matter just about any preceding year we care to recall. When Mississippi State was debating the relative merits of what quarterback woulda-coulda-shoulda play/played in any game, the differentiation almost always came down to the respective contenders' weak points. What one or the other could not do.

With Relf and Russell we see signs—not proof perhaps, but signs—that State will be alternating the triggermen by their strengths. By what one or the other can do. Maybe it's even finer, by what the candidates can do better. Alright, that might come across as a difference that makes no difference in some minds. Try this.

We know Relf can run, in fact I'm still convinced he's the best running back on this roster. Defenses know it too and have to plan accordingly. His passing seems somewhat improved on the whole though I'll agree he left a couple of those ‘drops' a little high Thursday. No wonder Mullen wants more tall targets roaming downfield. Anyway, Relf is the two-way threat here.

But when was the last time State had a tall passer with pocket presence able to evaluate the entire field and deliver a catchable ball? OK, Russell still leave his shots a little low for comfort, much less for a SEC secondary. He'll adjust because he can. Just like Relf is developing as a passer, because he can. Oh, and for those who figure State is telegraphing the series plans by who is under center, or more likely in the gun, Mullen disagrees. Play calling is essentially the same according to the coach, though obviously each quarterback is responsible for reading however the defense adapts to their fresh presence.

All that said…a successful team does like to have a lead Dog. And Mullen might seem to have contradicted himself today when explaining that, while running a two-QB system at Florida, the breakdown was 90% for Chris Leak and "five, ten plays a game" in a package for Tim Tebow. Yet the message isn't really mixed; Tebow was a freshman and Leak a three-year starter, so the comparison does not apply to State's 2010 situation.

Because, in Mullen's mind both Relf and Russell are rather rookie-ish still. That means the respective packages have a heckuva lot of overlap, and if Russell is not likely to be asked to run the exact same option-sweeps as Relf did the other night (which looked pretty darned promising, hey?) he'll still be expected to know how to draw the defender and time the pitch some, too. Much the same as Relf is required to show the sort of pocket poise that seems more natural to his younger cohort, even if his whole history urges the junior to take off for a corner.

None of what the coach says, much less what is written here, will soothe State souls eagerly controverting over quarterbacking this week. Nor should it. Disputing Dog triggermen is as much our right as a rite of every fall and by golly we've got a good one going in 2010. Emphasis on the ‘good.' And hey, if a true #1 emerges this month for any reasons other than more historical ones of injury or inability, so much the better. Because it means there is a better Bulldog from two competent candidates.


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