And marking it by helping lead the first touchdown drive of this season, going 66 yards in those eight plays. Just getting back on the field for-real made it fun for Smith; to succeed in scoring was icing, even though from then on he stayed on the sideline.
"I was kind of told they were going to limit me. But I didn't know to what extent. But while I was out there I thought I did fairly well."
Coach Dan Mullen said there was not a specific number of snaps planned, and when Smith went out it wasn't necessarily for the balance of the game. "We wanted to get him one series, see what we were doing, we got him one and put Justin in." Justin as in Malone, the redshirted freshman being groomed to take Smith's job eventually. Interestingly though, the coach noticed something.
"Justin was a little nervous, I saw it in his face," Mullen said. "So I said leave him there because we don't need him to be nervous after tonight! It's a SEC game next week so there can't be any more nerves, you've got to go. You know what you've got in Tobias."
Nervous or not Malone did a good job muscling Tigers around, even the 300-pounders on the interior. Smith even called the kid "a beast now!" but saw the wisdom in making Malone work longer than planned. "I mean, it comes to a point you've got to get broken-in. You can't wait to big games. He had to get out there and get his snaps in."
TAKING TURNS: All other positions saw much more liberal subbing and switching as State met the game-one goal. Mullen promised in spring Dak Prescott would not just be a backup quarterback, he would be a real alternative to veteran Tyler Russell. Because this was the first time Russell himself opened a season at starter, he stayed active until five Dog plays into the third quarter. Russell led a drive 42 yards and handed Prescott the ball for the next six snaps.
The last, a two-yard squirt by Prescott for the touchdown. The redshirt might have been just 1-of-4 throwing (with a 42-6 lead by then passing was not necessary anyway), but otherwise Prescott seemed pretty poised for a debut.
"I thought Dak was OK," Mullen said. "He got to get out there, get the nerves out and go play. It's good that he got that under his belt." Because there are specific packages designed for Prescott's mix of a strong arm and quick feet, complementing Russell's drop back passing prowess.
"I knew Dak was going to play, he knew he was going to play, we just didn't know when," said Russell. "I told him just be relaxed and calm, it's totally different from the spring game and stuff like that. You have to go play and do what you're capable of doing."
PREGAME ADJUSTMENT: As noted in the game story, the Bulldog defense altered its listed lineup before kickoff. Instead of starting big DT Curtis Virges on the nose, it was Josh Boyd back at his old job at least one more game. And DE Kaleb Eulls, a 13-game starter there last year, moved in to tackle for this opener.
Mullen and coordinator Chris Wilson expected JSU to throw a lot and adapted accordingly. "We played nickel a lot," Mullen said. "(Virges) is more run-stop. We wanted to try to get our pass rushers on the field." Which was why Denico Autry and Shane McCardell, listed 1-2 at one of the end positions, both started. And Autry got to show why he was such a reputed rusher in junior college, collecting a first-half sack.
PICKING SIX: State has set a 2012 goal of forcing more turnovers that lead to scoring chances. Twice in this opener Bulldog defenders did both at the same time. CB Darius Slay and LB Matt Wells each intercepted a Tiger pass, and both were able to score.
"At times I thought the defense played great," said Mullen. "At times, not really what I wanted out of them. But creating turnovers and scoring twice was huge." Not only that, but in one game this defense matched their entire '11 total of turnover touchdowns. Slay had one of those last year, too.
In fact, the current State secondary starters have eight pick-sixes between them. The news this night was neither CB Johnthan Banks nor S Corey Broomfield got one of them. They have three each in their careers, and are tied for the active FBS lead in that category. Banks alone accounted for the last time State twice turned interceptions into touchdowns, against Florida in 2009.
Slay's score came on a straight read-and-react interception. Wells was more right-place-and-time, as he caught a deflected throw that caromed to him. On that play Wells, a former safety, was doing what he was supposed to be best at this year; working coverage from the outside linebacker spot. But the sophomore got enough heavy duty in as well in run support. And he even got State's other sack, lining up at almost an end-position and taking a straight-line shot at the JSU quarterback.
"It's all about the other guys, they drew the protection to the other side," Wells said of the blind-siding sack. "So they (JSU) went the wrong way! Thankfully for me, and I got a great sack!" That big hit showed why State has such faith in his abilities. "Matt is a versatile guy, very athletic," Mullen said. "So we want to move him around different spots on the field and let him go make plays."
SPECIALITIES: There were some mixed results from the kicking teams. Though statistics are not an accurate guide necessarily. Take Baker Swedenburg's line; punting just once looks great, getting 28 yards on it doesn't. But he was kicking from the Tiger 36-yard line and hit it at a lovely angle for downing at the eight.
It was Swedenburg's lightest work-load to date. He punted twice in a pair of consecutive games in 2011. State also got two more good plays off punt teams; Slay's deflection in the first quarter was the first Bulldog punt block since Pat Hanrahan at Auburn in 2009. And CB Banks had a 35-yard return.
But it wasn't as efficient a debut as touted freshman PK Devon Bell or his coach hoped. Bell kicked off four times with one touchback, despite the new rules of kicking from the 35-yard line. He also missed his only field goal try, a 42-yarder. Bell booted the first four PATs successfully, then walk-on Charlie Grandfield knocked through the other four. Brian Egan kicked off five times with just two touchbacks…though not reaching the end zone wasn't a bad thing always. JSU unwisely tried returning some of the deeper kicks and got stuck with bad starting positions well short of the 25-yard line.
SUSPENDED: Three Bulldogs sat out the opening game under suspension for unspecified violation of team rules. WR Ricco Sanders, DT P.J. Jones, and CB Jamerson Love had their suspension announced an hour before kickoff. The period is also unspecified.
ROOKIE REPORT: Five true freshmen played in the opener, including PK Bell. Others were DT Nick James, DT Quay Evans, CB Cedric Jiles, and DE Ryan Brown.
With the depth State has on the defensive front, activating true tackles Evans and James was a bit surprising. Then again with one regular suspended and another not playing, the two rookies got a lot more than just a taste of college ball. They played plenty of snaps and got noticed by both frightened Tigers and impressed viewers.
"They need those reps to learn how to play," Mullen said. "Big guys come out of high school I don't think they're used to playing against guys their size all the time. They have to actually use technique, so it's great to see them in a game having to use technique and fundamentals and get that experience. Because we're going to need those guys to play a lot of football for us this season."
The real surprise was probably playing Jiles. For all his acclaimed talents, he came to campus with a deep cornerback group in place. Yet there he was getting into the lineup in the second quarter. Not just that, but contributing.
"I thought Cedric played pretty well as a freshman," Mullen said. "He had a great tackle on a kickoff, a couple of nice pass breakups down in the red zone. I like how he prepared this week, he's been mature since the first day he got on campus and I think that allowed him to be ready to play in this game."
Those break-ups Mullen referred to fortunately came after Jiles one gaffe, when he drew a needless pass interference penalty at the goal line on an overthrown ball. JSU tested the kid immediately with consecutive throws to the left corner; Jiles made sure there was no catch either time.
MSU-ELLANEOUS: In Dan Mullen's four season openers the Bulldogs have averaged 52 points, with two wins each over Jackson State and Memphis…Tyler Russell has thrown for 569 yards and seven touchdowns in his three career opening-games, twice as the backup and now as the starter…WR Chad Bumphis caught his 13th touchdown pass, tying him for 4th on the MSU career list. Eleven of these have been in non-conference games…Mississippi State hosted a 17th-straight sellout at Davis Wade Stadium dating back to 2009.