Now it's nothing unusual for a Bulldog ballclub to tangle with a couple of conference contenders in the last month of the season. Rather usual, in fact, over our history. But this time around we're staring at consecutive top-ten opponents who, with a loss apiece, still have objective hopes of forcing a three-way deadlock for A) the Western Division title, B) thus the SEC Championship Game berth and C) the almost-certain ensuing B.C.S. title game chance. I mention that just in case any are looking for this week's visitors to have a letdown. Sorry.
And of course there is the Egg Bowl which is ga-ron-teed to feature even more than the normal anger, anxiety, and angst no matter who is or who ain't stalking the other sideline. High-profile, indeed. Hmmm. Perhaps all these proceedings are better off conducted under the cover of darkness after all.
So. Are these Bulldogs now prepared for prime-time?
Some Mississippi State trends are encouraging, even allowing for the caliber—or not—of most recent competition. Actually while it didn't seem much at the time I thought the offensive resurrection began with South Carolina, by absolutely no coincidence when the line re-assembled mostly as expected. We'll still never know now what might have been this year had Tobias Smith, who Dan Mullen proclaims as "our best lineman" stayed healthy.
We do know that a healthy James Carmon and maturing ahead-of-schedule Dillon Day have settled some issues. Not all by any means, but some. We should give this more attention than we naturally do the current quarterback rotation, because neither Chris Relf nor Tyler Russell would be making the plays they now are without more reliable protection. Just how reliable, this week will test like nothing since…well, LSU.
Having gone through last night's initial review Mullen wasn't entirely satisfied with blocking, run or pass, but he can find progress in that State hasn't given up a sack for two games now. By the same token all of us who watched those September struggles have noticed other adjustments. It'd be overstating the case to claim those quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball faster. Sure, there's been more efficient use of the quick-out passing by both, yet we're also seeing more, and more productive, downfield results. Against UK and TM admittedly but a few completed long balls build confidence for more of the same.
In fact long throws, and runs as well, were on Mullen's mind this morning as it relates to overall offense. "I don't know if our execution was all that great," he said. "We made big plays, which is fantastic and helped us the last couple of weeks." True that: I count at least eight completed passes of 20 or more yards these two wins, and several more rushes that went as far. Or farther. Wasn't it encouraging to see Vick Ballard busting ‘em long and breaking the goal line again? He's been a marked man this senior season but down the stretch looks like the guy who left marks on defenses and books alike in 2010.
For that matter the Bulldog public finally got a good look at what Nick Griffin can really do, and why we who covered bowl camp and spring training raved about his big-back abilities. Mix that in with LaDarius Perkins' reliable contributions and the ground game is almost back on schedule. Just in time for its truest tests, at that.
And do we agree, that was a much more familiar Chris Relf last night than we've seen since Auburn? I want to repeat part of the post-game Notebook here, how since assuming a rotation role Relf is 11-of-15 throwing for three touchdowns. That's one more TD tossed than starter Russell, remember. I saw some message board *****ing about how ‘lucky' Chris was to complete those throws to Arceto Clark. Setting aside the obvious fact that luck not only counts, it encourages…Mullen really liked how Relf read and adapted on the second touchdown throw. "Veteran-ness" the coach called it.
Happily Russell is playing like an old hand in most ways, too. I'm not thrilled about how he didn't protect the ball on his fumble, and don't think Alabama isn't scouting such fine points too. For his part Russell has come out of the past two wins immediately critiquing himself (re: old hand). Beating his head coach to the punch, maybe.
"He made some big throws and some right reads," Mullen said today. But Russell also didn't deliver other makeable plays. Routine plays, to Mullen's mind, and such things are all the more important now for very obvious reason. "When playing a team like Alabama you can't depend on making big plays." Well, not statistically big, because a ‘big' play in this matchup can be simply moving the chains once or twice and tilting field position for a while. "You have to execute at a very high level, for four quarters."
Now if it seems Mullen came away from win #5 deflated, relax. He and the players took the correct lessons from last night, summarized as "The most positive outcome is we got a win, secondly we got to play a lot of players." Not that we're counting on Griffin, or Jameon Lewis, or Dylan Favre, or Robert Johnson, or all those second- and third-team defenders to get lots of snaps this or next week. It's just nice to know they've operated under the lights and produced against somebody else.
Producing against an Alabama defense already being discussed among the all-time best bunches? Yeah, well… "It's not encouraging!" Mullen semi-quipped today. "But we have to find a way to go play hard and make plays, and win the game."
Winning will demand better from several areas that didn't hurt State too much or at all these past weekends. I'm withholding judgment on most defensive specifics seeing how much subbing was done against UTM. Mullen wasn't, at least not on his linemen who'd dominated play at Kentucky and really held their own against South Carolina.
"I don't think we got off blocks very well," was the coach's summary. That led to his bigger issue; for a change it wasn't missing assignments of which review showed surprisingly few considering UTM's total yardage and possession time. Instead, "we had about twenty missed tackles in the game." Which Mullen said went back to disengaging from blocks and just getting to the ball. One need not be reminded there's no such margin for error against the likes of a Trent Richardson or any of Arkansas' play-makers.
And let's not overlook a sudden concern, how field goal kicking has gone from routine to, ummm, not. I and others of the media clan have to bear some responsibility; we thoroughly jinxed Derek DePasquale by celebrating his record-setting career accuracy at mid-point of the senior season. Since then DD is 1-of-5 and none of the misses were particularly challenging situations. Can't be the shoes, they worked just fine for five weeks. At least he remains career-perfect on PATs…ooops, did I just jinx it again? We certainly rub a raw Alabama wound by bringing up placekicking.
It was interesting to be notified in post-game that there is no normal Sunday session for State. OK, maybe not a huge deal, as Mullen noted he's taken this approach before this season…but that was usually because of the two Thursday games or the open date. So it was worth asking why. The answer shoulda been anticipated: not so much the specific opponent, as using slightly shorter practices consistently Monday-to-Friday in scripting the build-up. Plus, with the time change, they might as well practice in evenings anyway now. Rather makes one suspect Mullen had an advance idea this game would be late even before LSU booted the game-winner in OT, eh?
Oh, and one side-note. Mullen said he plans on having safety Nickoe Whitley back from yesterday's unspecified suspension. Good thing because this maybe more than any game to date is a matchup where Whitley's full-physical approach fits.
The clocks have changed, daylight burns out faster and the evening of this 2011 season approaches. Gad, did I just write that sort of slop? Better make sure my own editorial clock wasn't dialed-back too far. Safe to say that we'll all be not just on-time but early to campus come Saturday for the first of these three prime-time opportunities for Mississippi State to not just achieve bowl status but earn the best holiday day available. Oh, and that ‘all' bit just writ?
Mullen is thinking along that line too, even working in an indirect shot across somebody's November bow. "We'll need everybody in the state of Mississippi helping us to get a win," he said today. Oh yes, we can't forget in all the other hype…November is when Mullen's MSU renews title to our state.