Those are two obvious areas to emphasize as the Bulldogs specifically prep for their weekend trip to Kentucky. The Wildcats may struggle in many defensive aspects but they have been able to hold opposing passers to just a tick over 50% this season. Meanwhile Mississippi State's own air attack has been hit-and-miss for much of 2011, not to mention the recent change in quarterbacking.
For the last game it was sophomore Tyler Russell getting not just his first start but a complete game at that. It could not be called a dazzling debut exactly as he was 11-of-29 passing for 165 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Still the offensive staff was encouraged by Russell's poise and management of the offense in general. And of course it was his much sharper throwing in the second half at UAB that produced all three Bulldog touchdowns in a comeback win.
Does this put senior Chris Relf on the shelf for the rest of 2011? "Absolutely not," said Mullen. Instead the competition for starting and subbing status simply began anew during the bye-week and continues into this one.
"Last week we did a lot of little basic stuff, so this week I want to see how it applies to this gameplan," Mullen said. "But I thought they did well last week. Chris had a really good week, and Tyler continues to develop. And last week we gave Dylan Favre a bunch of reps, you had some extra time so you could give some guys reps."
Anyone expecting Mullen to tip his starting-hand for Saturday must wait longer. For that matter so do the quarterback candidates as Mullen wasn't even offering an evaluation of Tuesday's impressions. "I've got to see what they did to get ready. You have to have more than one get ready.
"I'm not against playing both to them in the course of the game, you might see both of them play. You might not, so much depends on the rhythm of the game. And if they're both performing well I've got to grade the film. But at the end of the week we'll make that evaluation who we feel gives us the best chance."
Meanwhile the whole team operates on the adjusted schedule another day. State changed it up to have a rare Monday practice, which was full-pads at that. Mullen estimated that as a result Tuesday, the normal contact practice, ran about 25 minutes shorter than usual; but the players will make up for that Wednesday. That is because red zone work moves to tomorrow, while goal line was run through Sunday after the players came back to campus.
"Tomorrow will be a little ‘bonus' practice to clean some things up, then we'll get back on our regular schedule. And again obviously Thursday where you do everything."
SHORT BUT NOT YET SWEET: The emphasis on offense both inside the 20-yard line and then much closer to the end zone is merited. In four SEC games the Bulldogs have had 11 series reach the red zone; only three have produced touchdowns. But this is not to be confused with what is popularly called ‘goal line' offense. In fact, Mullen said today, "We just haven't gotten in a goal line set."
No, not even last game when an end zone penalty put the ball on South Carolina's four yard line. "Goal line set is really inside the three-yard line for us, and it's been a long time since we've done that," Mullen said. Not always for bad reasons, either. "Touchdowns have been scored outside goal-line, which is good for us. I like running it in from farther out and if we never have to get in goal-line that's fine."
But the way most recent Bulldog-Wildcat battles have played out, with five of the last six games settled by a touchdown or less, odds increasingly are that State will find itself needing to break the plane from shorter range no matter who is at quarterback. A season ago it was something the Relf-run offense did very well, whether the big running quarterback took it across himself or more often pitched to TB Vick Ballard for the last yard or two.
Mullen said it just hasn't been that sort of 2011. "I think we ended up being on the goal line more last year. Statistically speaking in our research study you end up about 24 goal-line snaps in a season. I think last year we were high on offense and very low on defense on those numbers. But it averages out to 24 in a season. It just hasn't been many, but it goes that way."
Not many for sure. State's last true goal-line situation as Mullen defines it was in the third quarter against Louisiana Tech after a fumbled punt recovery. The first snap lost three yards and the Dogs ended up kicking three points. Much more memorable were three such chances on the last two series at Auburn. The first produced a three-yard Ballard touchdown dive. The other two on the final drive lost one yard, then saw Relf stopped from the two to end the afternoon.
"We just haven't had many to get into our traditional goal line offense," said Mullen. And as seen the Dogs haven't cashed in many of their few chances. This along with frustrations in more typical red zone offense would seem reason for worry. Except Mullen isn't. Having spent the open week reviewing these failures along with all other offensive strengths and weaknesses, he sums it up most succinctly.
"Execution," he says, a one-word response to a season-long question. While State fans hate to hear that word it is just as true as ever. And, Mullen says, "The reason there's no panic, we're not way far off where we want to be."
The end zone, he means.
TRIFECTA TRY? He couldn't three-peat as after all his team didn't play a game. So after holding the title for two weeks, Fletcher Cox had to hand off his conference Defensive Lineman of the Week status to LSU's Barkevious Mingo.
Now Cox will try picking up where he left off with that second consecutive honor after the South Carolina game. He had already got #1 for a seven-tackle effort at UAB, at the time "His best game for sure" according to Mullen. All Cox did was follow that an even better day's work, impressive enough that the SEC tabbed him not only consecutively but following a Bulldog loss. Against the Gamecocks, Cox had six stops but this time four of them went for losses and two were sacks as he dominated interior action.
He not only became the first Bulldog to score a pair of POTWs since his former line-mate Pernell McPhee did so in 2009; it was the first such consecutive recognitions for a State player since Don Smith in 1986.
"I think he's getting in a rhythm," said defensive coordinator and line coach Chris Wilson. "I really believe he's done a better job preparing and knowing his opponent." Yes, the coach credits Cox's own increased efforts at scouting the other side more than any technical or taught items. Cox has always been able to play well on pure ability; now the junior is adding awareness to the equation and it is showing.
"In week seven and week eight you kind of know who you are, what you've got to start determining as a player is who your opponent is," Wilson said. "That's what I really believe he's done, which is pouring out to our other players, is how he prepares. Knowing the guy he's over better than he did."
This is exactly the sort of consistent performances Mullen and Mississippi State had hoped for the third-year interior tackle. "But he has to continually improve. He has to have a dominant performance every single week," Mullen said.
"I just think he's still improving. He's a true junior, I expect to see huge improvement at the end of next season when he finishes his career here. You expect to see improvement the whole time, to be where we want him to be." The ‘next year' comment will draw increasing interest the rest of this year because as a sophomore Cox went through the procedure of looking into early professional entry. He will turn 21 in mid-December.
State absolutely hopes Cox does return for a senior season, and there are good reasons to think he'll choose that course. One of those being his classmate, teammate, and realistically his alter-ego. Josh Boyd and Cox have been nigh-inseparable since both arrived in the rookie class of 2009. Many games their stats are almost identical, and if Cox has managed to tally a few more tackles—not to mention the honors—much credit is due #97 as well.
Or as Wilson said, "It's hard to slide a protection to both of them! So they complement each other really well."