Maybe more frustrating, Ballard's five-game stretch of scoring a touchdown also ended as he was held scoreless for the first time since last November at Tuscaloosa. In the five-game run, including the Gator Bowl, Ballard had punched the ball over eleven total times.
Unlike last September when MSU apportioned out rushes almost evenly within a three-tailback rotation, Ballard has been the definite lead Dog in '11. Fittingly, after smashing the Mississippi State touchdown record last fall. Ballard has 41 rushes through three games, alternate LaDarius Perkins 18. This is not any surprise.
What is surprising, literally, is where Ballard ranks this week in team receiving. First, with eight catches. The nearest true receiver(s) all have five catches each. "I didn't even know," Ballard admitted. "I know I had a couple, though." As in, five at Auburn and three against LSU. Ballard wasn't the only one surprised to learn of his stat-status on the squad.
"I didn't either!" Coach Greg Knox said. "That's a new one on me! But he's done well coming out of the backfield and Chris (Relf) has been able to check the ball down to him quite a bit. So it's been productive."
Productive out of necessity, too, as State struggled getting receivers open against LSU or making time to fire their way. Going ‘hot' to Ballard was the simplest solution; for that matter the second-leading receiver now is Perkins with his six catches. So this is not a change in gameplanning, Ballard said.
I don't think it's a big deal, because most of the time we're running check downs. So half the time I'm not even covered." By the same token, the senior welcomes such opportunities to show he is more than a ground-pounder. Pro people are watching, after all. "Most definitely. Running backs have to do more than run the ball, they've got to catch it a lot."
Knox agrees. "It helps. Because they don't want just the one-way guy all they can do is hand him the ball, you've got to be able to catch the ball. I think it helps tremendously.
AIRING IT OUT? What would really help, all agree, is manufacturing more from a true downfield passing attack. Dumping short throws to Bulldog backs is good for Relf's accuracy, now up to 62%, but the bigger strikes have lacked against good defenders.
Dan Mullen doesn't see a big problem, though.
"We're just off the fingertips a little bit on a couple of throws. I don't know if it's a concern with timing as much as we need to be cleaner. We're not missing on every throw, we're just missing a couple of deep throws here and there. And holding the ball a little too long."
Relf has held his fire a little long lately, and took three sacks last Thursday along with quite a few forced keepers for little to no gain. Mullen is not pinning the problem on the passer though…and notes credit is due the other team at times. That includes inability of Relf's deep targets to create receiving space in time, or at all.
"Your timing is always going to be different with guys in your face," Mullen said. "We've just got to get those last couple of inches, to taking those shots down the field."
"It would help a whole lot," Ballard agreed. "They (defenses) would have to respect the pass and the run. When one is working it opens up the other. When we open up both of them, we open up the offense." As a sub-200 yard night against LSU showed, not much was open at all and the Bulldogs failed to score any touchdowns, particularly not a rushing TD.
"It made us one dimensional," Ballard said. "I mean, they expected us to run the ball and that's what we did."
The Bulldogs were not at all one-dimensioned by Auburn, with 333 rushing yards and 198 more in the air. LSU was a whole ‘nother challenge but the fact remains even State cannot count on beating everyone on the ground. And, that there is sufficient ability at the three and four receiver spots to get more big hits than seen so far. Mullen makes it all sound a matter of team timing.
"We've got to be able to get off, get open, on-time, and rhythm with the throws. But that's a little of everybody. I don't see us throwing to the wrong guys or launching balls over heads; we're not shaking our heads and saying what can we do? We're saying we're not as clean as we can be."
START STRONGER: Especially not on the most important snap of any series. And, the one where State was totally shut down. "First down, we averaged less than one yard per play, they averaged seven," Mullen said. "Which puts you immediately out of rhythm. We actually had more big plays during the game than they had, but we had 15 negative yardage (plays)."
To his credit in the last two weeks Relf has actually managed some impressive third-down conversions under long-yard circumstances. It's good to know, Mullen agrees; but better to set the series by knocking out half the needed yardage or more on first down. That, he said, is what leads to real ‘rhythm' on offense…and sets up the more promising pass plays everybody wants now.
"You miss it or you're sacked and all of a sudden you're punting. I think you get in your rhythm, when you get a first down and a first down, hey let's take a shot; we didn't get it, check it down; OK we've got another first down let's take a deep shot and check it down. When you're not going forward you never get that flow going to do what we want to do. Which is to stretch the field with some of our receivers."
Mullen was speaking of veterans Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, and Chris Smith, who have 13 grabs among them so far. Younger targets Michael Carr and Jameon Lewis have five each, albeit their totals were boosted against a bad Memphis team. Would Mullen consider looking for more aid from, say, some true frosh receivers? Such as, Joe Morrow?
"We talk about it," the head coach said. "He's been practicing to go play in the game. I want to make sure that he's ready to go before we throw him on the field." Morrow did not dress out for the LSU game, but that is not necessarily a sure redshirt signal. Not yet, anyway.
"We've not decided, there's a group of guys that we have not decided if we're going to redshirt them or not, yet. What can determine that, number one is their performance at practice; injuries, those things. There's a couple of those guys we're really waiting to see." And how long will State wait before issuing the redshirts?
"Within the next couple of games. Once you hit the mid-point of the season it would have to be like an injury deal, where we're expecting you to really become a starter by the end of the year instead of a role player."
ACTIVATION TIME: A 2010 redshirt who is just about ready for his first college action won't do much to help the receiver corps. But Nick Griffin will be a very welcomed addition to the backfield rotation. Until a knee injury in spring training Griffin was perhaps the most impressive all-around runner of all. State figured he would be all the way back by October; now Griffin might well beat that.
"I think he's handled it well," Coach Knox said. "He's really pushed himself as far as the rehab goes. He's got himself in a position to hopefully get himself back on the field and contribute to the team. He's been working hard in the last three weeks to get back out there and get himself up to 100%.
Mullen said Griffin physically has been ready to go for two weeks. "Fortunately we haven't had to use him, which is what I wanted. I wanted him to be ready to play, then when he felt he was ready to wait another couple of weeks. So we've been able to do that."
Meanwhile Griffin looks to make his debut somewhere other than the backfield. "He's on the depth chart on special teams," Mullen said. Doing what, he did not say, but when a player earns kick-game status from Mullen it is an excellent indicator that more is coming. Sure, the coach said, it isn't easy taking the ball away from Ballard and Perkins and Relf.
"But I'd like to get him some carries at some point. Like we've done with some freshmen we might have to ‘force feed' them the ball a couple of plays just to get them ready to go."
INJURY UPDATE: LT James Carmon was walking through the Bryan Building without a brace or wrap on his left knee, raising hopes he can return to active status for this weekend's game. RG Tobias Smith is done for the year with knee ligament damage suffered on the third snap last Thursday. Coach John Hevesy updated the offensive line shuffles Monday, and it will be included in Tuesday's Notebook.
Mullen said today the players definitely out for Louisiana Tech were Smith and rookie running backs Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton. Reserve DB Ivan Muniz is activated after his own unspecified injury.
The Bulldogs normally have Mondays off, but after a three-day break following Thursday's game Mullen returned the team to practices today. It will be a late session due to Monday class schedules, to end around 7:00.
STILL AVAILABLE: Mississippi State has officially sold-out seating for the Louisiana Tech game. According to the Ticket Office though there are standing room area tickets available this week, for $35. The SRO areas will be designated.
State has sold out eleven consecutive games at Davis Wade Stadium. A crowd of 56,924 filled the house for the home opener with LSU.
SET YOUR SCHEDULE: Next week's conference contest at Georgia has been set at 12:00 et for telecast by Fox Sports Net.