And, maintained possession to make all their pains worth it. These exploits by WR Chris Smith in the South Carolina game, or last weekend at Kentucky by TE Marcus Green, will surely make the 2011 highlight disc. They've already brought a healthy degree of locker room humor from teammates and coaches alike.
"Someone made the comment that some guys you can't just throw the ball right to them!" wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando said. "But joking aside, we stress every day in ball drills frame every ball, catch it with your eyes, squeezing the ball. And it's starting to pay off. We'll keep grinding our guys that that is your responsibility. If the ball is in the air, go get it. Go get it!"
Tight ends coach Sallach seconds that notion. Whether the exceptional examples cited, or more routine if no less important grabs, Mississippi State's eligible receivers are rising to the mid-season occasion. Literally, if necessary.
"That's just more a tribute to what we talk about, how when the ball is in the air it belongs to you," Sallach said. "It's yours, don't let anybody take something that's yours."
While so much of the attention given Mississippi State's passing production, or lack thereof, the first half of this season has been aimed at the passers, the corresponding fact has been inconsistency from the catchers. Coach Dan Mullen has commented on just-misses and this-closes in the air game as proof of potential. The trick was translating that to production regardless who was tossing the ball.
Now, the route-runners are stepping up their collective game just in time for a second-half season run. Speaking of which, nothing will change the central fact of Bulldog offense. "We're always going to run the football. That's what the stats say we do," Mirando said. "But we expect a lot out of our passing game.
"A lot of times OK, we've dropped some balls and not made some plays. Hopefully Kentucky was one step, and we can make it a next step at Tuesday's practice and a next step and a next step. And keep going, have the confidence that the plays are there to be made; go make it."
The Kentucky trip might have been a single step but it was a good, long stride forward. Of the 21 passes thrown 15 were caught for 264 yards; that is a 17.6-yard average gain per grab. For that matter against South Carolina's rightly-regarded pass defense the Bulldogs netted 15 yards per reception. Whereas in the first three league losses the average was 11 yards including a good day at Auburn.
Fans and media ask about patterns and target selection; coaches look at much more fundamental aspects. "They're taking advantage of the opportunities that is presented to them," Sallach said.
"I always think one of the biggest fallacies in football is so-and-so made a play; you can say Malcolm (Johnson) and Marcus have made a lot of plays the last couple of weeks, I'd disagree. Hey, the ball came their way, they did their job. They got open, they made the catch, they ran, they scored, whatever it was. I think it was more taking advantage of what presented itself. And I think it's a tribute to how they've worked over the last couple of weeks to be able to take advantage of those opportunities."
Opportunities which Mirando said the receivers have been working to earn. There's no new twist or technical tweak behind the improved production these last two SEC games, and for that matter including the second half at UAB when three touchdown passes scored State's victory.
"We throw the ball a ton in practice, it's just working and trusting the system, trusting your abilities," said Mirando. "Now they have confidence going into the games and during the game. It's just one of those effects that everyone believes." Including of course quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyler Russell, the Dogs delivering catchable balls at an increasing rate themselves.
Russell was doing the throwing at Birmingham in that second half and played the whole way against the Gamecocks. After an open date though coordinator Les Koenning and Mullen liked how both Russell and Relf performed in practices to set up a rotation for Kentucky. The results affirmed that faith as starter Russell was 9-of-12 for 172 yards and a touchdown (TE Johnson); while alternate Relf was 6-of-9 for 92 yards and another TD toss (WR Ricco Sanders), and ran for two more scores himself in red zone situations.
For redshirt frosh Johnson his third-quarter touchdown was nicely similar to the scoring strike at UAB. The first TD catch was a 20-yarder drilled down the middle caught in front of the goal line; at Kentucky everything literally moved seven yards closer with Johnson still smack down the center but middle of the end zone. Johnson both times claimed he couldn't do anything but catch the ball because Russell's rockets stuck to his hands.
His coach gives the young tight end a little more credit. "He's done a real good job these last couple of weeks of getting a feel for what is going on. We talked in camp, he's a real threat when he lines up as a receiver." No surprise of course; Johnson signed as a wide receiver and practiced their last fall on the scout team. Only in spring did he take turns as a tight end, and now Johnson is finishing a pretty fast position-move.
A good one, too, for the team per Sallach. "Because he is a physical mismatch for a lot of people he's going to line up against. Especially if they try to put a smaller guy out on him. But put a bigger guy on him, he's a good athlete and runs good routes and is going to get himself open."
Now, what about the other half of the tight end equation? Yeah, Sallach said, the blocking bit is coming a little harder. As to be expected. "It's such a different thing for him, from being out in space and blocking the Corey Broomfields and John Banks of the world; to having to block the Cam Lawrences and Kaleb Eulls of the world! It's a big difference! But he's slowly getting better and better at it which as a coach is all you can ever ask, that your guys are continuing to improve."
So is Green for that matter. Usually a fifth-year senior would be a more finished product but all MSU fans know how injury-interrupted Green's career has been. Of the 45 State games played since he arrived as a 2008 freshman, Green has gotten on the field in just 24. He didn't catch a ball until game-three this year for that matter.
But when he hauled down another high Russell throw on the UAB sideline and stepped into the end zone it was Green's first touchdown since the 2009 Egg Bowl. He had a 50-yard grab-and-go last week at Kentucky which followed his unintended pirouette-catch in the first quarter. It wasn't quite as elegant as wideout Smith's spinner in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, Sallach joked.
"I'm going to say Marcus isn't going to get a lot of style points. A lot of production points, but not a lot of style points!" Naturally the Bulldogs will settle for production. And for real points. Besides, said Sallach, it is encouraging to have Green rounding into form again here at the end of his college career.
"Whenever you come off a surgery like he did you're going to be cleared medically before you're cleared mentally. It was a long process for him, he just had to keep working hard and getting stronger and every week he looks a little bit more like the old Marcus. Thankfully he's been able to stay healthy this year and keep working and getting comfortable with who we thought he could be."
By the same token Sallach and Mirando each envision bigger things from all Bulldog receivers. The latest game offered further encouragement along this line, such as Sander's making three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown. This came after the junior didn't come through on two long Russell throws in the S.C. game including a deep strike that with just another half-stride of effort Sanders would have caught for a day-changing touchdown. Sanders earned another shot with good practices and delivered at Kentucky.
Then there is soph Michael Carr, a promising-looking freshman last fall who hadn't caught a ball in five games and was barely seeing the field. It was nothing more or less than lack of execution in practices, just like any other position. So when Carr earned another chance for game-eight he made it pay off with a remarkable 40-yard play that meant adjusting to the ball, out-muscling the defender, and going after the catch.
"One of the hardest things at wide receivers is adjusting to the deep ball, where it's going," Mirando said. "It is almost like catching a punt. So it was good to see he went out there and made a play. He's been tearing it up in practice and it's nice to get that reward a little bit."
A reward for everyone that is, with tight and split ends alike giving Mississippi State more offensive opportunity for upcoming games in a drive for bowl eligibility. "They've done a better job getting open," said Mullen. "And they made plays."
The Bulldogs return to practices this afternoon following a Monday-off. Mullen and select players are to meet with media following practice.