"I think last year we caught them off-guard," Coach Les Koenning said. "They were expecting us to run and we threw the ball."
The Bulldogs did go to the air early and a little more often than Kentucky figured on. Six of State's first eight plays were passes by Chris Relf on a 80-yard touchdown drive. On the second series it was QB Tyler Russell rotating in to lead another touchdown series that included a 40-yard strike to Michael Carr. And in the second quarter the quarterbacks alternated; Russell threw to TE Marcus Green for 50 yards and Relf came in for a 12-yard touchdown keeper.
The 264 passing yards in State's road win were the most against any SEC opponent all 2011, with 172 of that by Russell on a 9-of-12 evening. While Coach Dan Mullen's offense is naturally built on a powerful ground game, might this return to Lexington see a similar approach? Not least because Kentucky has the same coordinator and scheme, and now Russell is back as the starter?
"It's very similar," Koenning agreed, but "We'll find out what happens this week."
The practice week will also show how much an open date has helped Russell. Nobody will say, either way, if the quarterback was still sore of hand and/or wrist in a puzzling game against South Alabama after Russell exited Troy with an icepack on the throwing hand. Koenning might have offered a hint Monday though, talking of last week's light workload.
"He's been good, we kept him out of a couple of things to make sure bumps and bruises healed up." What the coach more likely meant was the pounding Russell has taken on a few straight sacks and other post-throw shots in the first four games. Not that he has been bagged officially often; Mississippi State is tied for the SEC lead in sacks-allowed with just two in four games.
WILD DOG? Kentucky is among the programs credited for popularizing the ‘wildcat' play, with a back or receiver replacing the quarterback for a direct snap and run. It is nothing new of course; in fact Mississippi State did the same thing in 2001 with Ray Ray Bivines scoring a touchdown in the Egg Bowl win. But the ‘wild' play has proliferated along with spread-type offenses.
The Bulldog who goes wild most is WR Jameon Lewis, a high school quarterback and Class 3A Offensive Player of the Year for the 2009 state champions. Lewis got to rush the ball 11 times after redshirting with a 7.8 average gain and a touchdown at Memphis. Things haven't gone so smoothly the second season-around as Lewis has four carries for a net of nine yards.
"He's played quarterback a couple of times, and he's taken some brutal hits," Koenning said. "He's got to be able to read his keys." Yes, even ‘wild' plays have specifics. The same creativity which makes Lewis a threat to break plays is also his problem and can lead to breakdowns. And after opening the season with a three-catch, 32-yard performance against Jackson State, the soph slot-receiver has just two grabs and 29 yards the past three games.
Not for lack of any ability, Koenning said. It's just the old free-lancing tendencies still taking over. "At receiver he needs to get a little more consistent, at times he ad-libs like he used to. But he's getting more mature and is putting himself in better positions to catch the ball."
And it isn't as if Lewis is in a must-produce role just yet, as slot-starter Chad Bumphis is thriving this senior season with 12 catches and five touchdowns. Koenning said the strong example Bumphis is setting will pay off for Lewis and younger receivers like Brandon Holloway and Fred Brown.
TAKING THEIR TURNS: If you think an offensive player such as Lewis is versatile, just look over on the other unit and check out what Mississippi State linebackers are doing. And doing, and doing, and…
"The first four games Deontae Skinner has lined up in four positions," Coach Geoff Collins said. "Matt Wells, in three. Cam Lawrence and Benardrick McKinney are pretty much playing the mike and the will but the other guys are moving around a lot and doing a lot of different things. Which is what we wanted to do all along."
Or more accurately, what co-coordinators Collins and Chris Wilson wanted to do last season and could not. There were bodies available but the coaches stuck with proven players most of the way even at the risk of over-working them. Safe to say 2012 is a very different and much better story.
"Now each game there's probably been six to eight linebackers playing in very game," said Collins. "We didn't have that luxury last year, which helps Cam to a certain extent."
Help, as in reduce the workload for State's star senior. Not that Lawrence minds laboring longer. In his first season starting, the weak-side ‘backer was plenty strong in scoring 123 tackles. Yet in spring and summer his coaches commented how taking 60, 70, or more snaps were not ideal over the long haul. So, tough as it can be to take the unit's leader off the field, Collins makes it happen.
So far Lawrence has 28 tackles with a sack, still best on the defense but a little off his '11 pace when he finished third in SEC stopping. He's tied for 18th this year to-date. Collins could care less about those numbers.
"People talk about maybe his stats are down. Well, the impact he makes on our defense is as high as its ever been, getting people lined-up and calling run/pass, telling everybody where the play is going to go. The impact is as high as ever."
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman McKinney got his first start at mike linebacker last week. The previous game it was soph Ferlando Bohanna, and for the first two games State went with Wells as one outside man with Lawrence for all intents and purposes the middle LB. All of which was possible because junior Skinner has been able to open each new game in a new spot to suit the scheme.
All of which means everyone, including Kentucky, must wait to see who lines up on Saturday's opening series. "We have several packages we're using," Collins said. "So depending on who they run into the game—‘10' personnel or ‘21' personnel—that dictates which linebackers are going to get the first play."
PERKING ALONG: It's a sign of veteran status, that given an in-season break a player seizes it completely. Take how RB LaDarius Perkins spent his weekend. He did not tune-out on football entirely; but then neither did the junior stay tuned-in all Saturday.
"I didn't watch too much, I saw the highlights. I watched the Tennessee-Georgia game, wasn't too much defense being played! Then I watched Michigan State-Ohio State, it was OK. But I watched a lot of highlights."
Now it is time for Mississippi State to start providing their own highlights. Perkins has done his part with five rushing touchdowns already, including bursts of 44, 30, and 21 yards. In fact with 389 net yards so far he is not far from the 422 total of all last season.
Of course that was when Perkins played in rotation with record-setter Vick Ballard. Now it is his turn to play lead Dog in the ground game, right? Well, maybe, Perkins says. But where two years ago Coach Dan Mullen waited until October for making Ballard the ‘feature' back with others sharing snaps, Perkins sees no such signs so far.
"I really can't tell. Sometimes we start rotating and sometimes I stay in there," he says. And make not mistake, Perkins is willing, able, and eager to haul the ball as often as they'll hand it to him.
"But if feel all those guys rotating in can get the job done. And when they get in they know they might not have but two or three carries the whole game, so they're going to try to make a big play. That's what all of them are thinking, make a big play."
Which can be a good thing, too. At the same time Perkins, based on his own experience, has some wise words for Derrick Milton, Josh Robinson, and Nick Griffin.
"I tell them look for the big play but it's not going to always be there so get two or three years, or five or ten, whatever they can get, and go back in. Keep doing your part carries will increase and you'll stay in the game more."
Good running is the foundation of Mississippi State's offense, and so far it has been so good again. Just as the Bulldogs expected of every area, Perkins said. "We came into the season knowing these first four games we should be able to win. And we knew we had to keep improving after the bye-week. We make sure we don't get complacent and keep working hard.
"We know we have to pick it up now because we get into SEC play. And we have to go on the road also."