Defense Sets Tone In Friday Scrimmaging

They'd been enjoying a fine spring through the first seven practices. Even so the Mississippi State offense had to figure some sort of payback was coming. Friday, the Bulldog defense delivered it. "We came out today and played hard and dominated," judged Johnthan Banks. "We dominated pretty much today."

Pretty much, they did. For the eighth practice day, and the first full-scrimmaging session of 2012 spring camp, it was Mississippi State's defense setting the tone. A fast and physical one, not to mention lively and loud. Never more so than when the white-shirted squad was allowed to exit first while the offense stayed behind to run wind sprints. And run, and run some more.

By the time the maroon squad was excused they may have regretted some of the proud comments made through the preceding practices. Though, cornerback/safety Banks did balk at suggestions the offense had been winning every session up to now. "They had some good days but they haven't just beat us," he said, a bit miffed. Then again, the defense surely seemed motivated to leave no Friday doubts about who were top Dogs this time.

"You gotta be aggressive with these guys," Banks said. "They're teammates, they're going to talk. They know I talk a lot! So you have to back it up."

‘Domination' might have been putting the situation too strongly. The Bulldog offense did move the ball in some series and scored touchdowns, whether in full-field drives or red zone situations. Coach Dan Mullen gave both units, and all three teams on each side, all sorts of settings to either go or no. It allows the staff to spend the entire weekend hashing through results of drives starting, or stopping, from such spots as the 25, 30, and 35 yard lines going-out; red zone series with the ball placed on the 25 going-in; and briefly on the two-yard line trying to escape the goalpost shadows.

The only protected players were of course the quarterbacks, in no-touch red jerseys. That was a challenge to defensive pride as they were often, sometimes easily, able to get penetration and be an arms-length from scoring sacks or at least hurries. So the very-unofficial statistics for Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott have to be weighed against limits on defensive pressure.

Working first-team only, Russell was 21-of-44 passing for 222 yards by informal measure (no numbers were kept by State staff), with a couple of touchdowns. Prescott was 17-of-31 for 203 yards on the second squad, with two touchdowns as well. Neither passer was intercepted, though third-team QB Sam Cowart wasn't so lucky. He had a tipped toss caught by walk-on LB Jamal Swift.

With nearly two-and-a-half hours of scrimmaging there was plenty plays to run the ball as well. TB Nick Griffin, mostly working second-team, had 19 rushes for 71 yards. On the first team TB LaDarius Perkins ran 11 times for 60 yards with a touchdown. TB Josh Robinson also ran #1 team and had 56 yards on 11 carries, while on the second unit TB Derek Milton had 37 yards on ten rushes with a touchdown.

After a round of kickoff returns against scout coverage the real scrimmaging began around 11:10. Russell and the first team were three-and-out their first possession, then went on a 65-yard drive the second. Russell converted a 3rd-and-10 from the 14 with a toss WR Chris Smith, who had to shake off a shot from Banks before coming down. He did and took two steps into the end zone.

It took three series for the second offense to get a first down, and with Prescott missing on his first six passes. So the #2s went to the ground game with six hard runs by Griffin to manufacture a drive against the second defense. Having gotten as far as the defense's 23-yard line Prescott was incomplete on third down to force a field goal. Which was blocked, by DE Denico Autry.

After two turns each in full-field, Mullen pinned the offenses at the two-yard line. Russell got one first down by finding his favorite target of the day, TE Malcolm Johnson, though in a real game he would have been sacked before firing. The drive stopped at the 13. Prescott ought to have been picked, only CB Taveze Calhoun couldn't quite control his break-up. Then the drive was sustained on a pass interference, then Prescott had his first completion of the day with a 32-yard hookup with WR Jameon Lewis. Although on that same play LT Joey Trapp grabbed blitzing S Louis Watson by the jersey to save a sack with no flag.

The reprieve kept things moving until Milton could score on an 18-yard draw. In a red zone series Prescott had a 19-yard throw just short of the goal line, though again he would have been sacked if not for the hands-off rule. To his credit, when backed up deep on a penalty and on third down Prescott found WR Sam Williams slipping down the right sideline open for a 24-yard gainer and first down. He later lined up under center, not the norm for MSU's offense, but just one play. Because it was a passing call and he threw the 3rd-and-1 attempt right into the facemask of DT Dwayne Cherrington.

After a period of punting by the three units, scrimmaging resumed and showed the wildcat offense…which OLB Cameron Lawrence promptly and loudly labeled ‘pussycat' so all could hear. WR Chad Bumphis did rush for seven yards on two wild-tries before Russell was incomplete on third and short. Lewis was the ‘wild' back for the second team in a series, then got to do the same role with the #1 offense later with rushes of four and nine yards to the good.

While not allowing sacks per se, the second hour saw officials blowing plays dead—usually—if the quarterback was clearly about to be swarmed. Russell had no chance on a double-safety blitz, caught from both sides. He was ruled down on two more drop-back plays with coverage tight. Russell did get back on the scoring column in red zone with a third-down throw to Lewis for a 12-yard touchdown play.

Prescott's best passing play until the end was actually a short flip to WR Arceto Clark behind the line. Clark made a lot of second-team tacklers miss for a 28-yard gainer, before the drive ended with Autry ‘sacking' Prescott after storming untouched around LT Joey Trapp. Russell had a sure touchdown dropped by Johnson, most unusual for the tight end, and Calhoun broke up a third-down throw from Prescott in red zone. Mullen let the twos run another play anyway, and WR Brandon Heavens slipped between CB Corey Broomfield and LB Matthew Wells for the 12-yard score.

Somebody forgot to whistle-sack Russell on one play, a blitz by Banks that had the quarterback dead to rights. After Banks ran on by Russell smartly dumped the ball to Perkins who'd moved into the vacated corner, for a 34-yard catch. Perkins finished this drive with a seven-yard dash to the pylon just ahead of S Watson.

Mullen capped the scrimmage with two-minute play, the offense having one time out and 75 yards to cover. The first offense almost made it, too, getting to the 18-yard line with six seconds left. Russell got off two plays, the first a throw caught by Bumphis but with a toe dragging on the end line. The last chance was high of anyone. The #2 group had better luck, as Prescott completed seven-straight passes for gaines of ten, 11, two, ten, eight, five, and finally 23 yards. The last heave was to WR Robert Johnson, entirely uncovered over by the left pylon for a catch and fall across the goal.

As Mullen noted, only four of the 13 scripted drives by any offense produced more than one first down. He was encouraged by lack of offensive turnovers, and there were only a handful of penalties assessed by the SEC officiating crew. A few is still too many for the coach, especially pre-snap fouls, but for this stage of camp this was not something to obsess over.

What he and the offensive staff will focus on is lack of sustained drive and maintaining field position. For their part the defensive coaches were all-smiles afterwards. They threw a lot of sets and packages at the offense today, whether even or odd man lines, nickel and dime secondary looks, as well as all sorts of blitzes out of both base and special lineups. The defensive line in particularly showed a variety of combinations, with DE Kaleb Eulls in particularly moving around. He was as likely to line up at end as he was to move to tackle or even nose guard in any formation. In the secondary, for a second day it was Jay Hughes and Dee Arrington running first safeties ahead of Louis Watson and Kendrick Market; with Zach Jackson working his way into the backup mix.

On the offensive line, the Thursday promotion of Ben Beckwith to first right guard stood another day with Justin Malone moving back to second team. There were no other changes to the first or second lines so far in camp.

So, eight practices over three weeks are in the books. The Bulldogs have a short holiday weekend to themselves now, before returning to campus for three sessions next week. Then there is the build-up to to the spring game on April 21, when everybody can have some fun on the big field.

But maybe the real competition continues on the practice fields. After all, the offense is now the squad with some revenge motives in mind. Banks isn't worried. He is, though, rather impressed with the state of State mid-way of spring camp. The offense hasn't been a pushover as usual in contact work, after all, so what does it say when the defense can shut them up?

"If they're that good, and we can dominate them, then we're going to have a tough team!"

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