Ballard, Ground Game Again Up To Speed

It wasn't only Vick Ballard smiling after putting up a pair of Saturday scores. There were some happy comrades and coaches on the sideline, too. "We enjoy celebrating, having touchdowns," running backs Coach Greg Knox said. "So getting in the end zone gives us a little more bounce in our step."

Not to mention a timely boost to offensive attitudes as they prepare for the annual SEC West stretch run. It begins with Alabama coming to Scott Field for a 6:45 matchup of next-door Division neighbors. Meaning, the Bulldog backfield is about to run into—literally—the league's leading rushing defense.

Not by a little, either, as the Crimson Tide has allowed only 56.3 yards per 2011 game. That's for the season as a whole, of course. SEC-game stats do show more success…exactly half a yard's worth.

So will Mississippi State adjust its core approach to offense? Nah, just the backfield's attitude a bit.

"They know they're playing a top-notch football team," Knox said. "But its like that every week in this league whether we play South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, everybody is good. And this league is built on defense. Alabama just happens to be at the top of every defensive category on the chart."

Speaking of charts, Bulldog backs are showing up a little higher there these days. That is what literally doubling the output can do. After rushing for 131 and 134 yards in a pair of SEC games, State pounded out a fast 288 against Tennessee-Martin. It boosted the Bulldogs to #4 in this week's conference rushing standings, while senior tailback Ballard checks in fourth-highest individually as well. Ballard got 102 yards on just eleven carries against Martin, twice scoring touchdowns.

As it was his first scores since September, no wonder Ballard was smiling. Or smiling as much as the stolid senior ever allows to be seen. Knox, now, he wasn't shy expressing emotions.

"Any time you get into the end zone it's got to make you happy. And as coaches we love seven points!" Not to mention guys who haul the ball, eh? "Yeah, they have little more bounce. And there's not a kid out there that doesn't like getting into the end zone. "

State's ground game guys hadn't enjoyed end zones much this season, or as much as last year. Or as much as expected of themselves. Since scoring two rushing TDs at Auburn the Bulldogs managed just one more in the next five games (Ballard, Louisiana Tech). Injury-forced shuffles on the offensive line were certainly one factor, especially as it coincided with games against LSU and Georgia and their stout defensive fronts. The runners have also been working within a revised quarterback rotation and inevitable adapting involved for everyone.

Now production has picked up not just on the stat sheet but the scoreboard as well, beginning with two rushing scores at Kentucky. Both came from original starting quarterback Chris Relf who himself hasn't run the ball at anything like his last-season pace. Now in November, the senior quarterback is looking much more like his '10 self whether running or throwing. Both of which State was able to do well against the Wildcats.

Against UTM, a FCS program, the results were even more impressive and almost exactly 50% with 282 passing yards, producing three touchdowns. But better from a Bulldog perspective were the four rushing scores in just 40 runs. Knox is quick to credit a more threatening air attack for helping soften up things for his backs.

"I think it has opened up a few more things. I think defenses are aware that we can throw the ball and we can hit the target down the field. So I think it has created certain problems for some defenses that they like to play against us."

Of course Alabama will play whatever defense they like with less concern for matchups than most. Scouting this squad sounds an awfully lot like what State coaches had to say in advance of the LSU game, which proved too true as the Tiger defense held Bulldog backs to 52 net yards on 324 runs, scrambles, or just plain sacks.

"They're very aggressive, they're big, they're fast," said Knox, noting how Alabama stops runners inside and outside with equal ease. Mississippi State cannot do anything about the other team's talents, much less attempt out-athleting them. Knox said it comes down to absolutely basic execution of correct calls, nothing more nor less. And related to calls, the Crimson Tide is tough enough without tipping them off.

So this week there will be more attention than usual even to self-scouting, Knox said. "Because we want to know what our tendencies are. And because Alabama is going to look at that. We self-scout every week just to make sure that we're not running right or left or every time in-motion we're not doing this or that. We take a look at that, and then try to make sure we stay balanced."

Balance has been a Ballard trademark since 2010 arrival from junior college. Whether smashing rushing-touchdown records as he did last season, or trying to gain ground against better-prepared defenses this year, there has been no discernable difference in #28's on-field attitude. Or not until he let himself go just a bit after his 54-yard burst for touchdown last Saturday.

In his two seasons Ballard has already run up to #15 on the career yards list. And his 27 rushing touchdowns are third-most ever by a Bulldog. The numbers might be down this senior season but head Coach Dan Mullen has not been disappointed.

"Vick always runs hard. I guess he feels that pressure from you all," said Mullen. "Inside, he's run well all season, but if he doesn't score touchdowns I guess everything is bad! But I don't view it that way."

From his viewpoint Knox is seeing another Ballard here in the late season. Even hearing, at least a little.

"He tries to play the leadership role. He's not been a vocal leader, he's been more a lead-by-action. He's trying to step it up vocally, but he will at times feel like he has to put the team on his back and try to carry them." And by extension carry the entire offense, Knox added.

"We talk all the time about the running backs being the heartbeat. We have to be productive because we get the ball the most! Vick shares in that load, he understands that role. And being a senior he's going to try to be a leader and work his butt off to do everything right."

What Ballard doesn't have to do is literally carry the entire load. The other encouraging aspect to State's ground game is the productive rotation of senior Ballard with sophomore LaDarius Perkins. While it varies week-to-week, for the whole season the breakdown has been two Ballard rushes to one for the younger, quicker back. As for production, Ballard has averaged 6.6 yards a rush the last two wins; Perkins a matching 6.5.

Interestingly Ballard still has more receptions too, 13 to nine, though their respective paces in passing plans have fallen off greatly. In fact Perkins hasn't caught a ball the last four games, where last season the taiback became practically a slot-back and receiver in November. Regardless, Knox likes how the two proven performers accept the '11 situation.

"Everybody has a role. That's what we try to explain to our kids. Some roles are larger than others, but everyone has to go into a game and play their role in order for us to be successful. And some guys' role is primary special teams. But he plays his role, he does a good job when he's in there, and we try to create packages to get him the ball at certain times."

ROOKIE REPORT: A benefit to playing Tennessee-Martin at this stage of the season was being able to more fully utilize Nick Griffin. The redshirt freshman wasn't fully-activated until October after his April knee injury and surgery, so the only opportunity to run Griffin so far had been a fourth-quarter appearance at Alabama-Birmingham.

Finally now, he has had some real work. And even if it came against a FCS squad, punching out 80 yards on ten rushes with a touchdown did wonders for Griffin's confidence. And, continuing recovery.

"He's still developing, I don't think he's completely 100% yet," said Knox. The head coach agreed, commenting how on a longest run of 34 yards one of the team's fastest players was caught from behind.

"You can watch on the tape, he's got a little hitch in his step he didn't used to have," said Mullen. Not only that but after ten totes some strain was showing. "A lot of it is he didn't go through the summer, he re-habbed but didn't train all summer. So I'd say he's still not 100%. But it helps getting that experience, and hopefully by spring he's back 100% and playing with that confidence next season."

"I think we were very pleased to get him in the game and get him some carries, which is what we've been wanting to do all year," said Knox. "We just haven't had a great opportunity. Saturday night we were able to get him out there and get the ball in his hands, and kind of see what he can do. It's been a while since he's done that. We were able to get him about ten carries which is really good. It really excited us to be able to put the ball in his hands that many times."

Mullen and Knox really are looking ahead to 2012 and how Griffin could contribute with his more classic ‘big back' style. At the same time Perkins will very much remain an excellent alternative with combination of running and catching. And then there are two pups not yet seen in action. True frosh Josh Robinson and Derek Milton would have redshirted anyway this year, but training camp injuries assured it.

"They're doing OK," said Knox. "We play Sunday night football and get them out there, and probably get about eight carries each during the game. So they're developing. The main thing we try to do is keep them continually learning the offense."

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