"That would be 60% of our O-line not practicing!" Smith joked. Not that health up-front is a laughing matter at Mississippi State this or any week. Coach Dan Mullen said Carmon is day-to-day; while Saulsberry is likely to play as well. So is reserve Ben Beckwith who wasn't even noticed Saturday among the injured.
Smith has gotten used to wearing this extra protection over the course of his oft-delayed Bulldog career. Serious injuries to both ankles the first two years set him back, and even last season Smith had to settle for alternate duty. State wanted him on the field, sure, but also had to limit stress on those fragile joints much as practical. Happily the rotation worked and Smith got in a full season uninjured.
But Saturday at Auburn was the real test, which Smith passed. In a big way, by playing a complete game. "I did, a hundred snaps," he said proudly, counting penalty plays not on the official 97 total. "I think I graded out 86%."
In the process Smith and cohorts led the offense to a 531-yard effort including 198 rushing. The Bulldogs not only lead the SEC in rushing after two games but are sixth in the NCAA standings. In total offense they are first SEC, fifth nationally. Sounds OK to Smith, but…
"I just wish it was leading the SEC West. Rushing is good but if we don't win all that really doesn't matter." True, but by the same token such ground-pounding prowess ought to bode well for the rest of the season. It also speaks well for a revamped front line. "It's just blocking inside and out," Smith said. "The receivers did a good job of blocking and the O-line did a good job. So it's a collective work."
Nowhere more so than on State's developing option-attack, which racked up regular gains all afternoon at Auburn. Downfield blocking by wideouts was indeed good on such plays…but credit was due Smith as well as he and fellow guard Gabe Jackson got out on the edge and cleared lanes. One might think such option-sweeps would be the last thing an interior lineman wants, what with all the distance to cover.
Smith doesn't think so. "I mean, we run so much in the summer it doesn't even faze me any more!"
The junior wasn't fazed either lining up with a couple of redshirt frosh forced into unexpected SEC action. In fact, he thought Dillon Day handled the center spot quite capably under the circumstances, and that Blaine Clausell settled in well at left tackle over the last two quarters.
"I wasn't really surprised, because I know what kind of player he is," Smith said. "Dillon is a smart player, he helps me out sometimes. So any time he's in it's just like Quentin is in, there's really not nothing to change. With Blaine, it's not really a drop-off between them because it's always been a battle since day-one. James just happened to beat him out or whatever.
"Coach is pretty smart. He practices us together, he mixes up the O-line and all that. So when they came in it wasn't really a change in what was going on." Day and Clausell had to gain confidents from one fourth-quarter scoring drive, and the final series that came up inches short of the end zone.
On Smith's 100th play, too. No wonder he welcomed the boot more than usual this Monday, though "It's every day since camp," he said. Besides, "Well football, after the first day you're never going to be healthy! It's always going to be something wrong."
Carmon and Saulsberry would likely have had Sunday off anyway. "You're 24 hours from the game so we rested a lot of guys," said Mullen. "You have a whole different preparation in a short week."
PLAY MAKER? One of those Saturday subs had a bizarre initiation in SEC play. No sooner had Blaine Clausell taken Carmon's spot at left tackle than State called a misdirection pass play, with QB Chris Relf rolling right before throwing back left. Throwing towards an eligible receiver behind two blockers, that is.
Except Relf stopped, turned, and threw the ball right to Clausell, who'd taken up a protection position between passer and intended target.
"I tried to run where I was supposed to, and it just kind of fell there," Clausell said. "That's probably one of the most shocking things that's ever happened to me!" Oh, but more surprising stuff was in store.
"When I saw the ball coming the adrenalin just kicked in, and I kind of blacked out. I kind of looked down for a second and thought about it, I said I got to do something! So I just ran it! I mean, it was the most unexpected thing to happen to me."
Clausell didn't run far of course; nor would it have mattered since a flag flew for illegal touching by the ineligible receiver. Adding to the oddness was Auburn declining any penalty since it was 3rd-and-11 anyway. So, the offensive lineman now has an official catch. For zero yards, true, but a real college reception. On his SEC game debut, at that.
"Nobody really said anything, everybody was just laughing about my first play, catch a pass. It's every lineman's dream to get the ball, I got mine on my first play!"
"Yeah, we've been on him pretty good about that," Smith said. "He's got good hands. His moves aren't as good as mine, though!" Smith, remember, recovered a fumble for 12 official rushing yards last year. So while the kid has a catch to his credit, "He ain't ready for me when it comes to running the ball. He thinks he's ready!" For the record, Clausell said once in high school he picked up a fumble and ran it for all of two yards.
Clausell needs to be ready for possible starting status Thursday, too, as Carmon appears iffy at best. "I felt I did pretty well for a first game, but there's always room for improvement and that's what I'm working on this week, to improve in case my number is called again." Clausell said he graded in the mid-70s overall. He didn't notice Auburn adapting their defense for a freshman tackle, but review has shown enough stuff to work on in preparation for LSU.
Still the confidence gained on those two fourth-quarter drives has to help. Besides, it can't get any more stressful than the first SEC experience. Or, stranger.
"That's probably the most nervous I've ever been in my life. But after that first play, I was alright, first play is over with, it's time to play now."
STATIC: Saturday's game was interrupted in the second half by technical issues. Specifically, a breakdown in the communications links between sideline and coaching box.
"Our headsets exploded," Mullen said today. "It wasn't like they shut off, it was I guess like an amplified microphone in the middle of the stands with a screeching noise behind it." Painfully, too, as Mullen said it literally hurt. He checked to confirm that the defensive staff was having the same issues. "The whole things were shot."
This meant informing the officiating crew of the problem. "I handed it to the referee and said here, do you want to listen? He said no, I'm good!" The Auburn staff wasn't too good at first, since rules required they also give up the headsets. That later led to a misunderstanding between sides, because line coach John Hevesy kept his headset around the neck just in case things cleared up. In fact State was instructed to do so by the officials.
Auburn didn't know it, they only saw a State coach with a headset on, sort of. "I guess they thought we were trying to listen in to something," said Mullen. "I said (to the ref) well, you told us to do that!" Eventually the issues were resolved, but meanwhile the Bulldogs were able to mount a scoring drive.
"So yeah, no conspiracy theory," Mullen said, adding "It was fun, I got to call plays for a little bit!"
TAKE A NUMBER: The Bulldogs went into game-two with a #16 ranking, four slots higher than they opened the season. They dropped farther after the loss than they climbed, but hung on to the last rung at #25. This keeps State's string of poll appearances at nine consecutive games going back to last season.
It is also the longest stay in the polls since within the 1999 season when State was ranked nine-straight games also, including their Peach Bowl contest.
NEXT GAME: Mississippi State's home game with Louisiana Tech next weekend has been booked for ESPNU telecast with a 6:00 starting time. The game time for the following road trip, to Georgia, will be announced next Monday.
RING RESPONSIBLY: Athletic director took the podium Monday before the head coach, asking the message be passed along to Bulldog fans about abiding by the SEC's noisemaker policy.
"We did a really good job the last two games last year, we need to do a great job every game this year and build of that," he said. "We have a high-profile game starting off at home so we need to be in mid-season form."
Stricklin said fans can again use the prompts provided on the video board to know when noisemakers are allowed, and when not. "So they can understand when it is appropriate to ring, and when it is appropriate to yell. Just be mindful of when to ring them."
Mississippi State was fined an unspecified amount by the SEC in spring for the 2010 games that, in Stricklin's words, fans didn't do the really good job.