As for Koenning's eight-play benchmark, he does have a point so to speak. State has managed 16 possessions with the ball hiked eight times and almost half of them—seven—have failed to add to MSU's score. For that matter four of the seven failures ended with turnovers, another on downs, and yet another on a missed field goal. So the cliché does hold true too often.
Yet it is still worth cheering how this offense has been able to hold the ball so long, so often; move it so far; and if not score at least keep it away from the opponent. Keep this up and the touchdowns should increase…in theory anyway.
"Usually you can go about seven to eight plays where everybody hits on all cylinders, and then something is going to happen," Koenning says. "And we talk to our kids, especially our quarterbacks, about how to manage those situations."
It is also worth noting that State had just one 90-range drive all 2009, of 94 yards on 11 snaps against Arkansas; with three others in the 80s. So progress is being made on this front, Coach Dan Mullen acknowledges. "It's maybe two things. One, you've got to hit some big plays. You're not going to go 90 yards without hitting a couple of big plays. We're starting to make some bigger plays.
"And maybe more consistency, especially in the offensive line. When the offensive line matures and plays consistently; as well as our quarterbacks understanding the offense and playing consistent and managing those situation, it allows you to put together some longer drives."
Presumably without self-destructing, that is. If Koenning brought up that eight-play principle he also says his unit is developing to a point it can get there and go beyond without necessarily having to hit it big all the time. "The big part about being successful is there are going to be some good plays and some bad plays. The key to the outcome of the drive is how did you take care of your team? It's so much easier to call plays on 3rd-and-5 than 3rd-and-15.
"I think its more familiarity with our system. The kids understand the system, what is going on, they understand the checks and what we're looking at. Any time you have that, any continuity you can create offensively each year you're going to get better and better and better because they understand more and more and more."
SHUFFLING THE DECK: Speaking of more and more and more, the offensive staff is going wild these days. As in replacing the regular quarterback with another athlete to make something happen somehow. In his first year Mullen practiced ‘wild' sets with Anthony Dixon taking the direct snap to run or throw. Dixon did the same in goal line work during the 2006 Egg Bowl, some will also recall, but there were few chances to test it in Mullen's opening season.
Against Alcorn State though the head coach and coordinator chose to show the world how WR Chad Bumphis can handle himself as a third quarterback option. Not that he ran any options per se but that is obviously a possibility since Bumphis did play some high school quarterback. Plus his experience in returning punts show the sophomore has a knack for improvising with the ball.
"Coach wanted that done, and we said that would be real easy for us, we could get that adapted into our offense real easy," Koenning said.
Mullen gave his third quarterback a passing grade, not that Bumphis did any of that either but assuredly hopes to, soon. For now, "He did some good things, made some plays," Mullen said. "We're going to do what we need to do to get the ball in his hands. Week to week whatever way we can get the ball in playmakers' hands as best is possible we're going to do that."
Fans cheered the sight of Bumphis, and for a few other turns TB LaDarius Perkins, lined up as wild Dogs; but also wonder why State would show that a week before playing a much more challenging opponent than Alcorn State? The coaching staff itself sees this from an entirely professional perspective though. In fact, Koenning said, things just got a little tougher for the Houston defensive staff in game preparation.
"It allows us a lot of flexibility. We can play him, Chris, Tyler back there. But it also gives us another avenue not to change personnel groupings and put another guy in the backfield able to run the ball." That, in fact, is the key to Koenning. With Bumphis able to swap spots with starter Relf, the Bulldogs have changed the approach without having to shuttle anyone on-and-off the field.
"Defensive coordinators will call a lot of their gameplan based on your personnel groupings," said Koenning. "So if we can keep the same personnel groupings and use multiple formations it has the tendency to confuse them a little bit. Along with tempo."
Something the Cougars have not seen, this year anyway, is Bumphis throwing a pass. There is video of Perkins attempting a toss on a reverse against Georgia that, charitably, did not go as planned. Bumphis did make a couple of heaves as a freshman and openly lobbies for chances to show his arm again this season. "Sure, we'd all like to throw some passes!" Koenning smiles. "We'll monitor that as it goes on and how it progresses."
Not only Bumphis, but others. Mullen said somewhat cryptically in his post-ASU conference that other Dogs have been working in the wild position. He did not offer any names, and neither would the coordinator today. "Sure, we have other guys," Koenning said, but "I'm going to leave that to the head coach, I'm not going to ruin that one!"
"We don't care who makes the plays as long as he makes the play! You'll look on the field and see different guys in different positions and they're having the opportunity to play. When you get your opportunity you need to be successful in order to get the ball."
TAKING THEIR TURNS: Of course the very best ‘wild' Dog on the offensive roster is already taking direct snaps as starting quarterback. Relf is second on the squad in rushing with 199 net yards, though he would be a whole lot closer to leader TB Vick Ballard (284 yards) if not for ground lost to sacks or fumbles. Relf only had three official runs Saturday, far below his norm, and MSU was just fine with that since the starter will get plenty more chances for contact in weeks ahead.
Make no mistake, though. Even if Relf is devoting this junior season to being a more poised pocket passer, defenses still have to allow for his proven legwork. "I think his running helps his passing," Mullen said. "We're a run and play-action team and that's what Chris does well. So his running has opened up the passing attack for him. And he's a guy that just shows if you really work hard the improvements you can make."
Koenning said today the same script used in the first half against Memphis applied to ASU; two series for Relf, two for Russell, then Relf, then however he and Mullen figured the game required. Moreover, both regular quarterbacks knew this days in advance.
"We tell them exactly what our plans are," Koenning said. "We'll evaluate practice and see how well they retain the gameplan and how well they do at practice. Then we tell them how we're going to split it up, usually about Thursday." Though, he added, such staff decisions might take a little longer this week. Houston's defense is under new management with first-year coordinator Brian Stewart. "He has a large NFL background, and statistically they've gotten better from last year so they've shown improvement there. The kids are running around a bunch and have done a nice job."
Houston also operates out of a 3-4 base, which fortunately State got to see a week ago from Georgia. For that matter Koenning noted that the other Bulldogs were also run by a first-year coordinator hired out of the NFL. Meanwhile Mullen comes from a complete college background and while Koenning did a 1997 stint with the Miami Dolphins he's spent the rest of his 30 seasons on campuses.
After the Georgia game, Mullen made a self-deprecating quip taking responsibility for the talkback/throwback Perkins pass that was intercepted and said he would keep his play-calling mouth shut henceforth. Wellllll, maybe, Koenning reports. "He's been very modest!" the coordinator said.
Still this is a true team approach to selecting plays, with the understanding somebody has to be the ‘quarterback' and make a final call. That's Koenning's role, though he does downplay it to an extent. "If I've done a good job as a coordinator I can give you a sheet of plays and you can call them. As a staff we try to prepare our kids for everything they can see.
"We just script up what we'd like to see. We go through what we're seeing upstairs and what we're seeing downstairs and how we would adapt to the next series and what plays are we looking to call. The issue about play calling, and I laugh about this all the time, they're good plays if they work and they're bad plays if they don't work! There is no miracle to calling a play. The issue is executing. If we execute and communicate on the field we have a chance to be successful."
INJURY REPORT: Mullen confirmed Monday that TE Marcus Green is not only out again this week but now is done for the rest of the schedule with a right knee injury. "Marcus is going to have surgery this week. He has a MCL and a partial ACL. We tried to see if he could play with a brace and they just didn't think it would be stable enough." Beyond this special case, Mullen said, "Everybody else we expect to play for us." That includes TE Brandon Henderson who was held out of the ASU game to allow the left knee an extra week's recovery. DT Fletcher Cox (ankle sprain) could have played also and didn't; he should this week.