Wednesday Bulldog Football Notebook

It looked like a perfectly-planned play. Truth is, Mississippi State's first touchdown at Kentucky was on a secondary option with Blaine Clausell waaaay over on the other side of the intended action. So when Tyler Russell suddenly spun and threw back, the left tackle got unexpectedly busy. "So I had to make something happen!"

Did he ever. While FB Adrian Marcus hauled in that against-the-flow throw, Clausell found some boys wearing blue-and-black jersies. And left them black-and-blue, literally blocking a pair of Kentucky defenders and opening Marcus' path to the end zone. Call it doing what he'd been trained to do just in case…

"It's just part of the game, sometimes you have to think on the fly and make things happen," Clausell said. "Try to get your job done. You don't ever want to go a play without blocking anybody, so that's what I was thinking." Good thing too, as he and LG Gabe Jackson were essentially decoys along with Marcus isolated over on the left flats. Dangerous decoys as things played out, with Marcus scampering ten yards for his first college touchdown. On his first college catch, for that matter.

So while Clausell said it was just another play for him, it was a little something more to junior Marcus. "He was excited and came up and said thank you for looking out and getting me a touchdown. I was like man, just another play…and we've got to do it again next game!"

Of course Clausell's primary task this week won't be decoy duty. He and the whole offensive line have a heavy workload in store. Tennessee's 3-4 base scheme not only is built around a 377-pound nose man, but the pair of ends check-in not much under 300 pounds. And all four starting linebackers are in the 230-250 range. They're just plain big in the box.

Meaning a lot of muscle to move for Clausell and company. Plus, the sophomore said, "They work hard every play so you can't fall asleep on them. You have to work your six seconds or maybe longer every play." Especially if State intends to limit the damage taken by Russell when it is time to throw. The Bulldog front has only allowed three official sacks so far, but the quarterback has absorbed more contact than his blockers are comfortable with.

"We've got to take some of those hits off of him," Clausell said. "Protect the quarterback, that's our job and we have to step it up another notch."

NUMBERS CRUNCHING: Just looking at numbers offers a misleading impression of Tennessee's defense, Coach Dan Mullen said Wednesday. He is not putting much stock in how the Vols rank 12th in SEC scoring defense, the same in rushing defense and 13th against the pass. There are sound explanations which Mississippi State must take into scouting account.

"They've given up points and yards," Mullen said. "But a lot of that has come on big plays, not consistent drives on the field." Besides, those big plays and points have been provided by a couple of top-ten opponents in Florida and Georgia, putting the total stats in a more respectable light.

"So we're going to have to play at a very high level," Mullen said. "And I'm sure they've fixed some of the issues that cropped up in those big plays." During Tennessee's open date, he meant. Mullen added that bye-weeks are always unpredictable in how teams are affected. Those on a win streak might lose the routine; those coming off losses have valuable in-season time to evaluate and correct.

In State's case there wasn't a lot of fixing done after a 4-0 start, but the rest seemed helpful in jumping out to a fast 14-0 lead at Kentucky. "Like us last week it ended up being an advantage," Mullen said. "But you never know. How it will affect (Tennessee), I have no idea."

What ought to affect the home team come Saturday evening is the expected 20th-straight sellout at Davis Wade Stadium. All understand how vital this game is not only in Bulldog goals for the SEC season but in post-season terms, perhaps even that much-sought December trip to Atlanta. "To put yourself in contention in the SEC you have to win your home games," Mullen said. "This would be a big step for us to do that."

Just don't ask the coach about second-half season specifics. "If we win this weekend we put ourselves in position to move forward, that's really all I've looked at so far. I know a lot of people like to project forward but we're looking at winning our game, then moving forward."

MR. SMITH: Meanwhile the Bulldogs are reasonably healthy, with TE Malcolm Johnson (chest muscle) and DT Devin Jones (shoulder) available for Saturday. CB Cedric Jiles (broken hand) is not. The status of DT Nick James (ankle) was not updated this week.

The health situation of most obvious concern continues to be RG Tobias Smith. After a two-game break and open date to boot, the senior worked two series at Kentucky in rotation. Not only was it his first live-play since September 8, "He hasn't practiced one day since Auburn," Mullen admitted today. "He was a little rusty but he got it out of him."

So can a rust-free Smith also stay injury-free and put in much more extensive stretches now as Mississippi State's schedule gets serious? Freshman Justin Malone has handled right guard well whether starting or subbing, but Smith is a true difference-maker on this line.

"I think we're going to find out in the weeks to come," Mullen said. "Obviously he's a great inspiration for our team, they voted him captain this year. He has that innate ability of leading even when he's not on the field."

"Hopefully he gets back in his routine playing and that makes him even more a leader and an inspiration for our guys."

QUICK VICK: He's not wearing maroon-and-white any more, at least not on the field. Still Bulldog fans will be cheering Vick Ballard on this weekend as the rookie running back is scheduled to start for Indianapolis. An injury to the starter opened things up for Ballard, the record-setting runner of 2010-11 at State.

Mullen is not at all surprised by the news Ballard has already moved to the first team, regardless of circumstances. "One thing Vick always did while he was with us, he's a guy that takes advantage of every opportunity. And he's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever been around. It is really not a surprise to see the success."

Or, that once again the Pascagoula native and Mississippi Gulf Coast CC product has once again showed skeptics wrong. Mullen noted how because of grades Ballard was overlooked as a high school senior; and then his two junior college seasons went almost unnoticed. "I think we were his only scholarship offer. He came here, and we weren't sure what we were getting. But his high school coach said you're getting a great player. His junior college coach said you're getting a great player." Which Ballard indeed was compiling 2,157 career yards and 29 rushing touchdowns.

So, said Mullen, "When the NFL people asked me, I told them they're getting a great player!" Ballard joins 2009 alumnus Anthony Dixon as running backs tutored by Mullen now holding NFL jobs.

CONFIDENT CLUB: Ballard was one big reason the 2010 Bulldogs went on a mid-season run of six-straight victories, key to a 8-4 record and four conference victories. State added another win in the Gator Bowl by bowling over out-matched Michigan in only the second Mullen season.

That was the longest in-year streak by State since 1999 posted eight wins to open the schedule. Now these Dogs own a five-win streak of their own, which stretched back to last season is actually seven-straight successes. Comparisons are inevitable.

"This team, at this point in the season, maybe plays with better focus to me," Mullen said today. "A lot more confidence on the field in the way they are performing. But they came in this way, and the fast start has allowed it. Two years ago we started 1-2 before going on the winning streak. That team was desperate, had its back to the wall and found a way to scrap and win some games."

Doing so, Mullen added, set the foundation which now allows these Bulldogs to be confident and perform each week with confidence. Or as he put it, without desperation. "Hopefully we can continue to win and deal with the adversity of success. And if we do have failure, deal with that and go on and have a great season."

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