The Crimson Tide (8-1, 5-1 SEC) checks in as the top-ranked defense in the nation for stopping the rush and the pass. Yes, both. So no prize for guessing what is the #1 unit in overall defense this week and just 187 allowed. What makes Alabama's top status more remarkable is how far back the second-best group, Michigan State, falls. As in some 62 yards per game.
And, do we really need ask where they stand as far as scoring defense with barely a touchdown's worth of points surrendered? No wonder, said Koenning, "They're very comparable, or better than LSU."
Mississippi State (5-4, 1-4 SEC) can attest to Tiger defensive prowess after the September 15 home game won 19-6 by the visitors. That night was also the low tide, so to speak, for Bulldog offense with 193 yards gained and just a couple of field goals scored. Coming so shortly after State began the season by setting a record for consecutive-games yardage of 1,176 against Memphis and Auburn it was a really rude reality check.
One which seemed to take most of three more games to shake off. But since halftime at UAB the Bulldogs have been running, and throwing and catching, on a faster track. Which, to risk over simplification, was when Koenning and Coach Dan Mullen made moves at the quarterback position. Tyler Russell led State past the Blazers that day and has drawn all three starts since.
"Definitely you get more comfortable out there, more comfortable with the guys out there," Russell said this week, adding "Just being out there is unbelievable." Showing that the third-year sophomore is still getting used to the idea of being a SEC starter. Which by no means implies that senior Chris Relf is merely a backup these days. In fact Koenning noted that the rotation system run in wins over Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin has been productive all around.
And, he said, will continue as a competitive situation the rest of this season and hopefully into the post-season.
"I think the big issue there is the one that practiced the best is going to play. So you're getting their best efforts all through the week." Along with production on weekends. Russell has been a 49% passer in his three starts, not a great rate, but yards-per-completion average of 17.9 yards is what MSU needed as much as the three touchdowns tossed. Russell's knack for downfield completions has been a key addition.
"When I got in the game I made some things happen," Russell said. "And I did some things bad." Meaning three picks in the same starting stretch and some missed long shots. "But I think overall we're a better team than we were last year and we have to keep preparing."
By the same token Relf has benefitted from his own unintended change of pace. In his last three starts Relf was a 56% passer but netted just nine yards per catch. He didn't play against South Carolina, but now off the bench in two Bulldog wins—no coincidence—he is 11-of-15 and good for just under 14 yards each completion. Not only that but Relf ran for two red-zone touchdowns at Kentucky, and threw for three TDs in the consecutive victories.
It signals that well-selected rotation use has brought out the best in both quarterbacks. And Mullen agrees with the suggestion that a two-quarterback system can keep opposing defensive staffs guessing…to an extent.
"It's good I guess we can cause people issues," Mullen said. "But until we're averaging 55 points a game I don't guess we're causing everybody that much stress!" Probably not to an Alabama defense that has given up 64 total points in nine games, either. More seriously though, "Anything you can do to cause hesitation in the game you're playing, not the coaching staff but guys on the field; to make them think more than they have to play is always an advantage."
LINING THEM UP: For all focus put on quarterbacks, an involved Bulldog has his own answer to how this offense has improved so since mid-October. "This will be the third week of starting the same line," said TB Vick Ballard. Actually the fourth game starting the same fivesome, and to be really picky 4-1/2 games since this group fell back into place for the third quarter at UAB.
Regardless, "Whenever you can get a group together they can all begin to synch, and all the smaller things can work together," said Ballard. He ought to know. The senior has benefitted more than likely anyone by a reunited, albeit revised with the loss of OG Tobias Smith, offensive line ahead of him. It also is no coincidence that in State's two wins Ballard has averaged 6.6 yards per rush, where in the preceding five-game stretch it was just 4.6 yards. And last Saturday Ballard ended a four-game stretch without a touchdown by reaching the end zone twice.
But…this came against teams not noted for stopping the rush. Alabama absolutely is, and none know it better than Addison Lawrence. This will be the senior right tackle's third start against a Crimson Tide defense and he knows what to expect. Literally, though this isn't exactly secret information.
"Their schemes for the most part it's going to be the same thing. They're big guys, really strong guys, they don't do anything too fancy. They just don't make mistakes and play hard ball. So we have to step our game up also." None more so than Lawrence himself. Though a nominal 3-4 set, it sure doesn't look that way at field level to an offensive tackle.
"Yeah, their linebackers are 260 so it's not too much difference between them and their defensive linemen!" said Lawrence. "I think I'm going to be matched with Courtney Upshaw, a well-known defensive end and one of their better pass rushers. So I'll have my challenges!" Yet one which Lawrence looks forward to actually. Linemen, either side, live for games that match muscles-and-mindset over systems-and-schemes. Let the biggest and baddest win.
"But I think with us running the ball they're going to have to play four down too," said Lawrence. "We've got to make those big plays. And they're there every game. That last inch is where we've got take our next step."
For that matter said Koenning, "There's going to be a lot of one-on-ones, both in blocking and running and catching. If we can capitalize on them we have a chance to be successful." Which brings up a sore State point from the past two seasons. Mullen's squad lost 31-3 and 30-10 to equally effective Tide defenses, but post-game review made it hurt more. Especially last year.
"We could move the ball a little bit, we just never could punch it in," said Ballard, who was actually the top rusher from either team in 2010 with 80 yards. He just couldn't crack an end zone. "That was a big thing that kept us down."
The lone Bulldog touchdown came off Russell's arm in relief as he hit WR Chad Bumphis for a fourth quarter score. It did nothing to impact that game at all; it might offer some encouragement for the rematch though. As did other air-game openings Russell and Relf have been reminded of this week.
"The last two years we had opportunities and we didn't capitalize on them," Koenning said. "Catch a couple of balls, do a couple of things and we're ahead in the game. That's the issue, we were getting the matchups; now we've got to go make the plays."
Simple to say, excruciatingly hard to execute…but that is what this annual inter-state brawl always comes down to. If the 2011 edition is to buck recent trends, the Bulldog offense will have to operate at a level not seen since early in the season, and against far less impressive opposition. Russell, who hails from an address practically straddling these states' border, understands. He just can't let the matchup hype get under State skins this week, much less be intimidated by statistical status.
"You've just got to treat them like another team," Russell said. "They've got a great defense, you just have to go out and play football. I don't think it's about what they do, it's more about what we do."
And do it even better than ever this time. Koenning said this is a different State team in many ways from the last two years. More meaningfully this is a different offense than it was just last month. "We've got different faces in different places, so we'll see how those faces react," Koenning said.
"They played well against the matchup they had last week. Now they've got to match up with one of the top defenses in the country."