A four-way tie, admittedly, as another trio of league stars also scored three times. But something about Ballard's performance on opening evening stuck out to conference staff as they named him the first SEC Offensive Player of the Week for this season. Not that anyone from Birmingham needed notify the winner. Or even anyone in State's publicity office.
"It was about thirty people told me on twitter. Probably more than that!" Ballard smiled. It helped that with the Monday holiday he could have the phone on in the morning, instead of hearing it between classes. Thing is, as big a game as he had Ballard was surprised at the news anyway. "I kinda was, because I never had an award this big."
True enough. Despite having three other three-TD days as a junior, along with smashing the Mississippi State marks for both rushing and total touchdowns, Ballard missed POTW recognition in 2010. Any oversight was corrected this first chance of '11. Still the man himself isn't getting all carried away.
"It's an honor. Like I've been saying all day, the honor goes to the other ten people on the field because I couldn't do that by myself."
Perhaps not. But once teammates have opened up opportunity it takes a special player to take such consistent advantage of it. Nowhere more does Ballard's knack for seizing opportunity show better than a rate of touchdowns-per-touch bordering on ridiculous. There might be many 3-in-10 nights, true, but as lead back last year he did average a touchdown every 9.8 rushes. And that was far and away best in all the SEC.
Speaking of which, he debuts as the league's leading rusher this first week as well. "It is crazy!" Ballard admits. But should one wonder if the back is keeping track, no. Not even at Memphis as he went for the record running output in the half-game he played. "I really didn't notice it. I don't ever notice my stats, but after the game when Joe (Galbraith) told me I was pretty surprised. It just shows how good our offensive line is."
Or the whole Bulldog offense for that matter. With his first-game work done so early, as well as emphatically, Ballard got play observer more than usual. Good viewing for sure, he says.
"We had a couple of big pass plays and a couple of big running plays. Just the fact we had both of them opened the whole offense up." Needless to say Ballard doesn't mind at all spreading the ball around even at the cost to his own stats. Or honors. Speaking of which, the POTW was good for a morning's news and that's about all.
"It's nice, but I'm looking forward to next week. Because we still have eleven games left." None more important than this one, though, because as Coach Dan Mullen says the Auburn trip is pivotal to the entire season's goals. The 2010 Tigers were one of the few foes that kept Ballard under control, along with State's at-the-time approach of splitting carries up among three backs. He had five rushes for 13 total yards in the loss, though did score a touchdown.
Put another way, Ballard expects and entirely different team of Tigers this week than last.
"I know it's going to be a lot harder, it's going to be a four-quarter game. And it's going to be physical. They were real physical up front. They lost Nick Fairley but I think they have some good backups last year that were physical, too."
SOMETHING MISSING: Charles Mitchell doesn't know what staff member charts missed tackles off game tapes. He does know who delivers the verdict. "Coach Mullen gives us that stat every week." And like a lot of digits coming out of the Memphis game this one was also up there. Too much so to suit the coach and senior safety.
"We missed 29 tackles as a whole defense," Mitchell reported. "We can always improve on that and when we do the defense will be whole lot better."
Change the ‘can' to ‘must' and the idea is more accurate. Missing a tackle or two, or even 29, was not fatal to anything but pride last week. Failing on just half as many at Auburn would be devastating. Unlike his fellow team captain, Mitchell did observe these Tigers on the tube Saturday. What he saw was something different, at least in personnel and scheme…and something very familiar from last year.
"I watched some of it, most of it. At first I was thinking Auburn was soft, but as the game went on they kept fighting. You got to respect that, a team that is going to fight you to the fourth quarter." Which Mitchell knows is an Auburn habit, since they made a specialty of final-period heroics en route to their national championship.
"It's definitely a mentality to be able to come back. Not just one time, numerous times come back and finish games. That's the thing we try to do here as well, finish off games."
Now as to what has changed for '11, yeah, there is a certain #2 not in the backfield any more. Needless to say Mitchell saw all sorts of offensive changes on his screen. "Oh, definitely, they were totally different. I don't know if they even got over 100 yards rushing. Without Cam it tones it down, you don't have to focus on the quarterback running too much. That will help us out a lot." At least that is the hope.
Related to this, the Dog defense definitely doesn't care to ever again miss the sort of opportunity they had in last year's game. Most painfully, when cornerback Corey Broomfield had a Newton pass on his paws and nothing but clear sailing ahead for a go-ahead touchdown. The throw, admittedly a rocket, went off Broomfield's hands and Auburn survived their first big test on the title run.
Mitchell agrees with his corner-cohort's comments that had the pick been held the Tigers would not have been holding the crystal in January. "That play definitely sticks with a lot of us. We feel that play could have sealed it for us and who knows what could have happened the rest of the year. But they worked hard and came out on top."
Now Mitchell certainly hopes to get a lot of the opening game MA's addressed today and tomorrow. In fact, the captain got started on a few fixes during the game itself with his fellow defensive backs. Especially the backups and reserves who got on the field for mop-up duties.
"I got a little coaching done. We gave up a couple of touchdowns and I brought those guys to the sideline and told them what they did wrong, you know. Like you say, just coached them up and getting them ready for next week or whenever else they get a chance to get back on the field."
Because this and every other SEC week, a missed assignment costs double or triple. By the way, what is a decent score for Mullen to report? "Zero!" Mitchell grinned. Seriously, "We want to be in single digits, if there are missed tackles."
WESTWARD HO: To his credit, it was Mullen who brought up the topic weeks ago. Of how despite getting the Bulldog program turned around last SEC season, State still has yet to scratch in Western Division play. Well, other than consecutive Egg Bowl victories, but then this coach takes those almost for granted.
No, it is the other eight losses in Division play Mullen himself has called attention to before. Reminded today, though, the coach kept context that he isn't stressing this stat in this game's preparations specifically. "Not really now. Our thing is we have to win the game to win the SEC West. Our goal is always to win the West, I don't use that (2-8 record) as much incentive to me and the team; it's how can this year's team beat Auburn this week."
Generally the prospects for getting that first Division win on the road would seem slimmer. Not when looking at Mullen's record though. Of his seven SEC wins in two seasons, four have been away from home (Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Florida, and of course Ole Miss). Last year's squad also won at Houston, and at Memphis last week Mullen got yet another road success. In fact, eight of his 15 victories at State have been on the road.
So why is the program so potent away from friendly confines? Obviously hosting a series of former, current, and pending BCS champs and other league winners the first two years had something to do with the home record to-date. Still these Dogs are thriving on the road unlike many, maybe any of the predecessors.
"I really don't know," shrugged Mitchell. "We try to go into each game the same, a lot of energy, a lot of passion. I really don't know what the difference is." Though, the senior added, "We're very comfortable on the road. A lot of distractions are gone, it's just the travel team, we're away from the fans. I think that does play a role in it."