If Dan Mullen is instructing his offensive Dogs to take the ball to the end zone, it's working well. This touchdown trend began with a eight-play, 75-yard drive against Memphis; then a 63-yard, 12-play series against Auburn; and now most recently the longest surge so far as State went 81 yards in 13 plays at LSU.
Elliott doesn't downplay technical adjustments made at intermission, understand. This isn't just a halftime pep rally Mullen puts on. Yet the second-year coach's combination of reminding the offense that they must do better because they are better than shown seems to be pushing the right Bulldog buttons this September.
"It's more motivation than coming out there, telling us everybody do their job," Elliott said. "And when we do our job, we see what we can do. We can go out there and execute and drive 80 yards."
Now the obvious challenge is having the offense ready to go right from the start, and every other time they take possession. There is only one shot at halftime talking, after all.
For Elliott, last Saturday was something of a return to the scene of the crime. It was at Tiger Stadium two years ago that he ran into a pileup at the goal line and stayed on the turf with two torn knee ligaments. His recovery required longer than normal and Elliott was not really full-speed or fully confident in his 2009 appearances.
But he said there was not a bit of anxiety about getting back on LSU's turf this time. "I mean, it felt real great to be back there out on that field. It was real exciting."
At the same time the night wasn't as productive as Elliott or the offense hoped. The fourth-fall junior had nine carries for 39 net yards, the latter figure most among State's trio of tailbacks. Vick Ballard was 11-for-28 yards, and State's lone touchdown; while LaDarius Perkins had 24 yards on 10 totes. The most effective runners turned out to be the quarterbacks as Chris Relf had 46 net yards and Tyler Russell 16 more.
And if 152 team rushing yards seemed a modest evening's production, it was still nearly four times what LSU's defense was allowing per the previous two games. Thus even in defeat the Dog runners found some encouragement that they are running, so to speak, in the right direction.
"Any little thing that we accomplish or achieved in the game we try to build our confidence off of," Elliott said. Elliott added that the runners are also finding both confidence and comfort in the way Mullen and staff are spreading out the work. After three games the carries count stands at starter Elliott 24, Ballard 23, and Perkins 21. How's that for balance? Elliott seems content with this approach, too.
"We like it because every time we go out there we're fresh, and we can give our all, give 100%. We don't have to hold back because we know that if we get tired another guy can come in and do the same stuff that we can do. So it's a great rotation and we like it."
However, his coach would like to see something else from his tailbacks. Mullen likes the effort these guys give on playing and practice field; he appreciates that they accept shared carries; but he also seems somewhat concerned that there isn't any strong personality coming to the forefront here. A leader, in short. Elliott has gotten this word, too.
"We need somebody to step up out of the bunch and be a leader and take control of the offensive team," he said. Great, but would that not seem to fall on the ranking veteran of the unit. To wit, him? "Well, you know I'm not really a rah-rah guy. I like to lead by example on the field. But if that's what I need to do then that's what I'm going to step up and do."
Starting with this week's practices. In particular, Elliott said the offense is still coming up short due to two things the coach has harped on the last two games: lack of collective communication and consistency. The offensive line has felt the most heat on those topics, but the backfield shares responsibility as well. Elliott and cohorts have been pointedly reminded in post-game reviews of what potential the offense has…and why it is not showing after two SEC contests.
"It's just going to take all of us to get on the same page. It's one guy every play, if we wanted to point a finger we can every play," Elliott said, including himself. "So we've all got to get on the same page and be in one accord."
KICKING IDEAS AROUND: We noted initially State's success with the opening possession of each second half to-date. This of course means the Bulldogs are getting first turn with the ball. In the Memphis and LSU games, State won the toss and deferred; against Auburn the Tigers won and wanted the ball. Some observers were curious why State allowed LSU to catch the game-opening kickoff given their return prowess, and indeed the Tigers ran it back to their 42-yard line.
And that was actually poorer field position than usual for LSU, which averaged starting on their 48 for the evening. State, by contrast, typically began on their 18-yard line. Bulldog turnovers, specifically five intercepted passes, were the primary factor in tilting the field LSU's way. But State contributed to the Tiger cause on both kickoffs as well. After scoring to open the new half, PK Sean Brauchle's kickoff landed out of bounds giving LSU another short field to start the take-charge drive.
That kickoff stuck in Mullen's craw still. "We were trying to pop it up," he explained; a wise idea given how the first long kickoff had come back so far. "The ball should land on their 25-yard line, on the numbers. We practiced it during the week, all during preseason camp." None of that work showed when it counted.
"That's not performing when your number is called," Mullen said.
The head coach isn't just faulting kickoffs; coverage and returns have not been exactly sterling so far either with opponents averaging 26.1 yards per chance. That compares to the 19.6 yard rate for the Bulldogs, a really surprising statistic given how WR Leon Berry and WR Chad Bumphis brought back kicks last fall. Mullen does stress that poor kickoffs, in both distance and air-time, is putting coverage teams at a disadvantage to begin.
Still he demands better in all aspects. So, "We're going to try some different guys here and there, give some different guys opportunities." He showed one such move late at LSU when CB Maurice Langston took Bumphis' place in kickoff return and ran his only chance back 29 yards. Both Brauchle (62.7 yard average) and Derek DePasquale (57.0) have kicked off this year.
Most aggravating to Mullen is in practices and pregame the kickers look just fine, along with the return and cover clubs. "And then we don't perform during a game. So we'll try to some different guys. We're not going to make wholesale changes, we're just going to give some other guys some opportunities to play."
PRACTICE SCHEDULE: The Bulldogs had Monday off, having practiced Sunday while memories of the LSU experience were fresh. State returns to work this afternoon, with Mullen and selected players available post-practice. Available updates will be added to this report.