Tricking Up Some Fresh Late-Season Treats?

Never mind it looked like something scratched out in playground dirt. As far as Mississippi State is concerned that bizarre offensive formation was a success. Not least, says coordinator Les Koenning, because it worked even better than planned. "We actually thought the first time we ran it they'd call timeout and try to get the adjustment!"

‘They' being Alabama's intimidating defensive team, a unit which eight minutes into the second quarter had limited Mississippi State to a single first down after 18 snaps. So maybe the Crimson Tide was a bit rattled when Tyler Russell found Chad Bumphis for eleven yards to begin the new series. They certainly were shaken by the sight of Dylan Favre stepping into the deep-shotgun set and all but a center and two guards remaining around the ball. Everyone else scattered to either side, far to either side. No wonder Alabama briefly blinked.

"They let us run it, and we ran it," Koenning said. For a five-yard gainer at that. Next play saw a similar but not identical set and while this time Favre threw incomplete the baffled defense was offsides. First down, Bulldogs…

…and last time for the odd and as-yet-unnamed formation(s). State had not gotten the other side to burn any timeouts as hoped, but otherwise Koenning and Coach Dan Mullen came away content. Pleased, even. "It worked and the kids had fun with it and it made the defense adapt a little," Koenning said.

"We don't want to make it a pure offense now. But we do want to make it a changeup where people have to practice it, take more time out of practice to go through that."

What MSU could also take away from the short, and exciting, show of a special setup is how the coaching staff continues to look for ways to expand and improve gameplanning. As Russell and his coaches all noted afterwards, this package—not to be confused with a gimmick at all—had been practiced for three weeks before use. It makes one wonder what else Koennning and crew are cooking up for these critical two remaining regular season dates, as the Bulldogs (5-5, 1-5 SEC) seek bowl eligibility.

Of course it isn't as if Arkansas (9-1, 5-1 SEC) did not already have different State sets to practice for. Ever since halftime in Birmingham, the Bulldogs have kept everyone wondering, and guessing, who would be taking the direct snaps. That was when sophomore Russell took over the starting job from senior Chris Relf for the next three games. But only once has Russell gone the distance, against South Carolina.

It was when Relf returned in a rotation role that State scored wins against Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin. And last Saturday night Relf was back in the starting job, though just for the first series. As Koenning reminded Monday, this wasn't a promotion or demotion either way, any more than the prior change.

This is Bulldog business as usual in the second half of 2011.

"And again, its based on competition," Koenning said. "We went through the whole week, Chris had graded better than Tyler throughout the week so Chris started. It wasn't like it was a bad deal either, Tyler knew it and said he understood. And he knew he was going to play. Same thing with Chris."

As it turned out Russell got most of the first half work anyway. The whole second half, too, though this was not part of any plan. On 3rd-and-5 at the Alabama 24, end of a 62-yard drive begun by that radical change of set in fact, Relf was blitzed straight up the middle and flattened as he had to unload early and incomplete. He stayed sidelined with what Mullen calls a ‘mild concussion."

"He got knocked out," Koenning said. "He didn't know his name and some other things, what day of the week it was. That's not a good sign!" Nor was failing to score on that drive, with one missed field goal; or after an interception gave State the ball back at the Tide four-yard line with yet another missed kick after Russell couldn't cash in either.

What still has Bulldog fans buzzing was Relf assuming the position mid-drive anyway, at the 25-yard line and on second down. Both Mullen and Koenning affirm that while not actually inside the 20-yard line this was the red-zone offensive package which suits Relf's run/throw experience regardless of who the defense is.

Meaning look for more of the same in similar settings this season. Koenning looks back at how well it worked at Kentucky with Russell starting drives and Relf finishing three of them with touchdowns. "It was a great combination for us, we had Chris going with the quarterback run game, he made some throws. Obviously everybody knows that's his forte.

"And Tyler throws the football. Actually against Alabama he ran a couple of times. It's a great way for us to mix it up, it's hard for defensive coordinators to get in a rhythm to know exactly who is in the game and what they can expect. I think it's to our advantage, I really, truly to. It's an advantage if you have two that can play, especially when one of them got dinged up you don't feel nearly as bad."

Speaking of dinged-up, Relf's status for this next game remains uncertain. "I'm not a doctor!" Koenning said. "It's one of those deals we'll find out in practice." Fortunately the coordinator/quarterback coach doesn't have to wait for Relf to recover to keep practice competition going. Favre handled his assignment without any issues, showing much more poise and presence than he had at Georgia in a comparable pressure relief role.

Favre wasn't even rattled having bare minimum protection on the plays. "Oh yeah, we had nobody blocking for him," Koenning said. "That was specific for us, we told him to get back there deeper. He didn't have to worry about the rush too much." Just two live plays, but each was an indicator of individual progress to the position coach.

"I've said it here, I think we have three guys that can play. I don't think it's a situation that creates problems and it's a great deal for myself, we still have two to grade if one can't make it. we'll find out at practice. That's the benefit we have. Now a couple of years ago? Whooo, wow! That would have been a tough deal!"

The upcoming Dog-deal remains challenging enough even if State won't face a defense of Alabama-LSU caliber again this season. Which does not excuse collecting just one touchdown in eight quarters against them, per Koenning.

"They are both the cream of the crop. South Carolina was good, too. Don't get me wrong. We had some opportunities, not going to sit here and say we didn't. We had some opportunities down there, jumped off-sides and missed some field goals. That hurt us, but again we had some opportunities." For that matter the coordinator won't allow any excuses about not-enough opportunities, any more than he cuts slack for dropped balls or jumping snap counts.

"You have to make all the plays against a team of this caliber. When one mistake happens it could cost you a game." If it sounds like Koenning is keeping standards high even against absolute top-flight opposition, correct. After all, when the Dogs got it right in the fourth quarter Russell converted a 12-yard touchdown play to Chris Smith, his old comrade at Meridian High School.

"Chris made a really good catch, Tyler made a good throw, we had good protection, and it worked well." So the demand is to make it work that well more often…all of it. Koenning will at least qualify a few aspects of State's struggles against Alabama. Protection breakdowns, such as what left Relf rattled, didn't allow time for many plays to develop fully. More specifically to that matchup, the Crimson Tide defense took away many of MSU's favorite check-down options because those potential targets had to hold blocks too long.

That isn't the same thing as TV commentary about inability of Bulldog wideouts to complete separation, maybe. And as Russell himself agreed, there were enough other times he held the ball a tick too long before taking a sack or having to scramble for nothing. When Russell reacted faster he could throw it away or even get a short ground-gain, evidence of his improving rushing.

All of which Arkansas has been scouting since Sunday and scripting for. Not that Koenning expects the Razorback defense to make major changes in their core approach. "They're going to come at you from all different angles. Turn on the film and they're blitzing getting off the bus.

"Last year we saw every blitz imaginable and they even drew some up at halftime we hadn't practiced against! But they're going to come after you. They're trying to get the ball back for their offense." It's worth noting last year's Bulldogs absorbed five sacks, but also rushed for 262 yards while Relf threw for 224 more on an efficient 20-of-30 evening at Scott Field. It was just the last couple of incompletes, in overtime, that made the difference in a 38-31 loss.

Also, while Relf did score on a 23-yard run, the other MSU touchdowns came on true red-zone blasts by Vick Ballard. That was the '10 team which thrived in such situations; this year's team has had too many frustrations inside the opposing 20-yard line. What State can hope is Russell's improving experience in red-zone settings can complement his obvious knack for open-field passing. And, that Relf is cleared for another shot at the Razorbacks, who State last defeated in 2008.

Quarterback isn't the only competitive position this practice week. After three false-starts, James Carmon was replaced by Blaine Clausell at left tackle for the second Alabama half. "I thought Blaine did good when he came in," said Koenning. "John (Hevesy) could tell you exactly how he graded but he didn't jump off-sides!" Which matters that much more this week. Arkansas isn't a shut-down defense along Alabama or LSU lines but putting up points—touchdowns specifically—is even more important against a Razorback attack that will light up the Little Rock scoreboard.

"We're heading in the right direction," Koenning said. "We have to keep grinding away." And, maybe, preparing a few more surprise packages for the 2011 stretch run? No reason not to, the coach figures. And hey, despite being flanked-far-out neither of his tackles jumped the inaudible snap count or became ineligible receivers. A good sign, said the coach.

"You get them out there, they're kind of out of their comfort zone. But they looked good in their stance! It wasn't a great take-off but they looked good in their stance."

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