All of which Mississippi State's triggermen did, or at least tried to, over the course of a two-hour session on the practice fields. Make that two-plus-hours for half the squad. While the Bulldog defense swarmed drinks carts to celebrate, the offense—coaches included—ran some penalty gassers. It was the price of coming up short on the scoresheet kept, and calculated only he knew how, by Coach Matt Balis.
Though much like most of Mullen's scrimmages, events were scripted sufficiently to make this one also come down to a single play. To settle things the ball was placed on the one-yard line, the first offensive and defensive teams positioned, and…boom. TB Vick Ballard disappeared into a pileup around left guard and after much contradictory gesturing by players the officiating crew ruled he'd been stopped.
"We were down five," said CB Corey Broomfield. "They tried to just run it through the A-gap and we didn't allow it to happen. We stopped them, we got the big victory, and we're drinking Gatorade!"
QB Chris Relf, who made that handoff to Ballard, was a little more philosophical about the afternoon in general and the offense in particular. "I think I could have played a whole lot better. I think we gave good effort, (but) I think we've got a lot of learning to do. Just get in our playbooks and come out here and execute plays."
Relf will be a bit relieved to read what his coach had to say based on immediate impressions. Mullen came away from the scrimmage content with much of what he'd seen at field-level.
"There were some good performances, and then there were some really bad performances," he said."
For that matter there were instances of both by the same units or personnel. Take quarterbacking for an obvious instance. Despite the defense getting a green light to go after the red jerseys the head coach thought his varsity quarterbacks had their moments.
"I thought Chris and Tyler and Dylan threw the ball pretty well today," Mullen said. No statistics were kept for this situation-type scrimmage so there were no numbers to back up the instant evaluation. Still the sizable crowd of sideline observers, not to mention folk draped over the top rows of the tennis and softball stadium stands watching football, likely saw the same things. Given a bit of time the triggermen did throw catchable balls to the correct targets.
Put another way, and in marked contrast to many a Mississippi State scrimmage of past years, the passing game was worth watching. Such as one of the early series, begun by Relf and after one first down with Dylan Favre subbed-in. The redshirt frosh rolled right and found WR Arceto Clark on the right sideline for a long gainer inside the ten-yard line. Four downs later he bought time enough for WR Jameon Lewis to slide open for a touchdown.
Prior to that Tyler Russell accounted for the first finished drive, calling his own number on fourth down and running it in from eight yards out. Though, as at this early point the defense wasn't really hunting QB heads yet, the ball was spotted on the one-yard line for Ballard to bull through.
Favre was involved in another long play, this a touchdown though via handoff. On first down at the 35 TB LaDarius Perkins took a routine exchange and began with a straight squirt through center, then juked rightward and was gone for a 65-yard jaunt.
Favre had other impressive conversions, such as a 4th-down hookup with WR Michael Carr and towards the end a bullet that WR Chad Bumphis went up amongst triple-coverage to catch in the end zone. The biggest cheer might have been on a reverse run where Farve and Perkins rolled right, then WR Brandon Heavens took the pitch the other way around and in for a 15-yard touchdown. Russell had a 12-yard scoring strike to WR Chris Smith, then scored himself despite being dragged from behind from a yard out. Ballard had two other tough-run touchdowns, including off a Relf option pitch.
Not that the defense didn't make their own big plays. A swing-catch by Perkins went awry as he had the ball knocked free from behind with second CB Damein Anderson—onfield at that point as part of the nickel coverage package—caught it in air for a return. Ballard also was stripped after a catch-and-run in red zone work. True frosh QB Dak Prescott was picked off by a numberless cornerback. Broomfield had one of the day's best hits, blitzing and sticking Relf to force a fumble that he scooped himself and returned for touchdown.
And when Favre tried to keep around right end in goal line he was hammered by DE Trevor Stigers, leaving him on all-fours for a few moments. By then the red jerseys had become not a protection but a target, though Mullen did claim "We blew (the whistle) a little quick on them, it wasn't totally live." Then again he was smiling as he said this, admitting the obvious fact that this scrimmage was more like real game play for everyone…including quarterbacks.
"They weren't live until the last series at the end there really. In the mindset you've got to be able to play that way. I think they were probably three-quarters live! We had a couple of them and we had time to get them reps." That being the younger passers usually, though to his credit Relf did take both his turns and his hits without complaint.
"Coach made us live," Relf said. "And we came out here and executed."
Or maybe the aggressive approach from the defense had something to do seeing with Favre and Prescott both playing on, of all things, one of the punt-rush teams; a sure no-hits-barred situation. Three separate units both punted and returned in an extended period mid-practice and the hitting was real here, too. As return man Lewis found out when he unwisely chose to field one on a hop after first coverage had run by. No sooner had he tucked it in than LB Christian Holmes flatted him.
But the only damage seen was to a defender. After a completion to WR Chris Smith, LB Chris Hughes led with the head and stayed down for a few minutes while scrimmaging moved the other direction. He was able to walk it off but did not return. "He was alright, just got his bell rung a little," Mullen said. TB Nick Griffin was held out after landing badly on his left knee in a Friday passing drill. TE Marcus Green did not scrimmage purely as a precaution, too.
What they missed was an encouragingly-intense Saturday session. Some of this had to be due to players still being somewhat fresh from their two-week break around spring vacation. For that matter the spread-out nature of this spring so far has contributed to energetic work all around. Execution, now, that was another matter to Mullen. And while those offensive turnovers drew his ire, so did a series of defensive penalties. Particularly pass interferences.
"Those are the plays you can't give up, especially as more experienced guys. In watching it they were in position and just got a little bit lazy and didn't finish the play off, resulting in penalties. But we'll get that stuff worked out." Besides, Mullen said, there was more pressure on coverage this scrimmage than in most previous such sessions due to better quarterbacking.
"So as that is going it makes the whole pass game, the receivers look better. The receivers are executing, getting a little bit older, a little bit more experienced."
The other notable aspect of this scrimmage was how it tended towards stretches of one side dominating, then a contrasting span where the other group set the tone. It did make things more interesting than the usual such practice, admittedly. Mullen also will use it in some follow-up instructions next week.
"In spring ball there's going to be inconsistency at times because you're not on a specific gameplan. Part of that is learning how to deal with momentums of games, you know. The offense did some great things, then got really sloppy. The defense jumped way up on points in the scrimmage, and the offense comes back and scores on four, five straight possessions in the red zone. It's just that back-and-forth of learning how to finish if you're up big."
Now the coaching staff has a big pile of video to evaluate over their weekend before the Bulldogs get back to work next Tuesday. Mullen already knows what he'll be seeking on the screen tonight.
"I look for effort, you know. I look for effort. I know our coaches are going to look for technique work and assignment work. But to me I want to see guys that really run to the football and play hard on all three phases."
The coming week will be the busiest of this spring at State, with four working days scheduled including one more scrimmage. A more serious scrimmage, too, Mullen said. This first one was applied to things the coaches needed to review.
The next one will be competition, pure and simple.
"We got a lot of situations," said Mullen. "We got third-down scrimmage in and back-to-the-wall scrimmage in, a drive-in scrimmage, and in the red-zone stuff. So next week's scrimmage is going to be much more just all game situation all day, play it where the ball lies not kind of controlled where we place it."
The only changed noted to the spring depth chart Saturday was on the offensive lines. Templeton Hardy worked most at first right guard, passing redshirt Damien Robinson; while Joey Trapp switched from third left tackle to second left guard.