Brignone, Line Dogs Pushing For Strong Finish

Millie Lane Brignone was becoming bored. Understandable, since Daddy was busy talking with a bunch of dull old sports writers. Now, had they been ringing cowbells, that would have earned the young lady's attention. "She loves cowbells," said proud pop J.C. Brignone. "She's got her own, it's her favorite toy."

Yes, if the youngest member of the Brignone family had her way, cowbells would not just be admitted to Bulldog games; they'd be required equipment. It would certainly be hard-hearted SEC soul who told the 11-month-old daughter of Mississippi State's center to ring responsibly. In fact, J.C. says, it's getting harder to deny M.L. access anyway.

"Now that she's started going to games she likes the big ones better! She's not strong enough to shake one yet and gets kind of frustrated! But she loves the whole situation."

So does the entire Brignone family, even as J.C. and Blair prepare for something Millie Lane can't yet appreciate: Senior Night. For that matter J.C. is not overly obsessed with the homefield finale himself. Not yet anyway, because the senior center has much more pressing matters on his mind than winning his last home field game.

His priority is winning the next 2010 game.

"It's another SEC game. It's a game we need to get our name back and come off the ball."

The ‘name' Brignone means is the reputation Bulldog offense had been building the previous two months for playing physical, aggressive, ground-pounding football. Winning football, too, as a six-week streak showed. Football that showed just how far the MSU offensive line had come in a couple of intense seasons under Dan Mullen's overall direction. The boss might have earned a reputation for wide-open spread schemes, but since coming to town Mullen has taken an old-school approach to offense.

And until the other evening in Tuscaloosa it was working very well. For that matter Brignone says it still worked against Alabama…just not consistently or uniformly. "We saw it Sunday on paper," he said. "We had twenty-something plays where four guys did what they were supposed to do but one guy that didn't do their job. That was the story when we played Auburn and LSU. That was one thing we thought we had squared away."

Dropping those names is no accident since of course those are the foes State fell to in September. From then up to last Saturday night Bulldog blocking was on an impressive roll, made more so by injuries and lineup shuffles. Yet as frustrating as having the win streak snapped in large part, to Brignone anyway, because of blocking breakdowns, that fact also offers encouragement for the rest of November.

Because breakdowns can be fixed. The proof is on the 7-3 record.

"Alabama is a good team, but just like Auburn and LSU we beat ourselves," Bringone said. "We haven't done it in a while and people see when we won six games straight we don't give up yards with penalties or fumble the ball or throw interceptions. When we play Mississippi State football we're really good, but when we do dumb things like that we can be the bottom of the totem pole."

Thus this week's practice plans for Arkansas include working as much to correct lapses in technique and concentration, not make major overhauls of what had been working just fine before. Brignone says the fixes aren't only up to coaches, though. "It all comes with preparation. You have pick yourself and pick your guys up to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.

"It comes with leadership on my part and Derek (Sherrod)'s part. I talked to Derek about that after the game, we just need to take everything to the next level like we did when we started against Georgia. Just because we lose one doesn't mean we have to keep losing."

Not losing to the high-flying Razorbacks will take some considerable doing though. And while Brignone can't line up on the defensive side of the ball, he figures his half of the lineup can lend a considerable hand.

"I think with a team like Arkansas you want to keep the ball away from them, take ten minutes to score. And I don't care if we win 7-0 as long as we take up sixty minutes of the game!" An exaggeration, yes, but the theory is sound enough. "With a high power offense like they have we have to say let's take the ball down the field and if we have to throw, throw; if we have to run, run. Do whatever we have to do to keep the ball out of their hands."

Easier said than done of course. And taking such a ‘defensive' approach to offense obviously means a fine balancing of aggression and efficiency. Yet this was what the Bulldogs did well during their success streak; making good gains on first and second downs to set up convertible third down, moving the chains and running the clock. Oh, and scoring just enough along the long way.

The formula had some promising series-starts at Alabama; the MSU offense only had one three-and-punt through three quarters, and for the whole night the Dogs were 9-of-18 converting third downs. The downsides were A) only one drive went the distance and that after the outcome was settled; and B) Alabama scored three touchdowns on three long plays.

Arkansas, it hardly needs noting, makes a living on big plays and fast strikes. Yet Brignone says State cannot be scared out of playing its patient game now. And when—not if--the Razorbacks score, well…

"The only way to start coming back is score at once, start the comeback. We don't stop fighting, we just have to get that power to say hey, let's put it in the end zone. Just like against Georgia, we had 93 yards to go but we know if we put it in the end zone that's ball game." Which the Dogs did in beginning the winning.

So, does Brignone expect to pound the ground and move the ball this weekend? Sure, since that's what the Dogs did last year. "My wife and I just got done watching film," he said. Yes, J.C. and Blair really do watch game tapes, and the 300-pound center admits he is more worried about the wife's exacting critiques of his on-field execution than anything Coach John Hevesy can say on Sunday. Anyway…

"We put in the film from last year's game because they play the same defense. We just see how physical we were last year. And I miss that. It wouldn't make me mad if Coach Mullen said hey, we're going to run the ball the whole game and let's just get our physical name back and come out and play smash-mouth football. Because that's what we do. We hit people in the mouth. We run power and we run zone and all that. We have to get back that physical nature and swagger we had, that nobody can stop us. Because when all five of us get going I don't believe anybody can stop us."

For that matter Brignone foresees a future when nobody will be stopping his successors on the front line. He arrived in 2007 and played reserve duty on the last State front-five that won SEC respect, and has been part of the painful rebuilding process. It's a job Brignone believes is nearing completion.

"I want to leave this line knowing this was the best offensive line in history, because I know it can be. We definitely have the players and in a couple of years Mississippi State is probably going to have the best offensive line, and be known for o-line, because of the guys we have in here."

Yet given this appreciation of program history, it seems a bit odd Brignone isn't showing signs of sentiment about the home-field finale. "Senior Night, it's just another game," he shrugs, then grins. "The only difference is my wife and my child will be on the field and I'll get to see them before the game."

Hear them, too, even if Millie Lane's mini-cowbell is just a small part of the bigger grandstand noise this Saturday evening. Now this is how the Brignone family respects the bell. "At least she got to experience a little bit of it," says J.C. "And she'll be able to come walk to me when I come out Saturday night."

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