That Smith received it was based not just on his blocking numbers. It was the fact the right guard did his damage playing just over half the offensive snaps. And, not coincidentally, that all State's scoring came on series Smith played at least part of. Yet what was good enough for the conference office didn't add up to a Big Nasty bonus.
"Because he lost," Coach John Hevesy said. "I think Gabe was one percent higher and Tobias was upset about it, because I listened to them argue about it yesterday. At dinner they were fighting over whose got more (blocks), because they get more dessert than the other one."
Yes, agreed Smith today…he and his left guard counterpart were squabbling. "It's always competition between all of us." Not that the two guards' intramural debating changed the final blocking grades of course, but did set the stage for continue competing this week against Middle Tennessee State (6:00, ESPN2). Far as Hevesy is concerned, the line coach would gladly spend the next six Sundays giving out the sorts of grades—and awards—he did after this victory.
"There is still a long ways to go but as a group they took a lot of ownership in what we had to do with the gameplan. Knowing what was going to happen and communication, that was the biggest thing they did Saturday. They communicated from start to finish on everything we saw."
True. But the communication surely seemed to improve when Smith was on the field. Or put another way, his absence in the third quarter appeared to impact the offense's execution. Smith had exited in the second period with a gimpy right knee, from getting rolled-up he later said. No damage was done though Hevesy said sideline stress suddenly spiked.
"All those offensive linemen went what's wrong? You had Arceto Clark coming up saying what's wrong with Tobias?" Clark had another reason for concern as Smith's roommate; everyone else in the home-house got plain scared as State went three-and-through twice in the period and faced third down as the fourth quarter began.
"I never wanted to leave, but I really started feeling it the middle of the third quarter," Smith said today. "I told Coach Hevesy I was ready to go, and he gave me the go-ahead." Upon which LaDarius Perkins ran through Smith's position for 20 yards. The fifth-year senior guard would work the rest of the period as part of two touchdown drives.
Interestingly, Hevesy said Smith's skills and experience were not the greatest additions for that furious fourth quarter. It was how everyone else afield responded to the old Dog's return. "When he comes in you get the same feeling. A smile on his face. He's one of those kids that it's never a dull moment he's positive about everything that he does. You just get a vibe from him that not every kid has. It's great to have him on the field. It's great to have him on the sideline, it's no different."
Well, maybe not to the coach; Smith would much rather be between the sidelines playing than beside his position coach. And coaching. No, really. "He already calls me Coach Smith," the player said. That and many other, some less flattering, titles, too. Smith takes it all in stride because teammates have their own nicknames for the ranking veteran.
"Grandpa, Old Man, I've got a lot of them. I know it man, Mr. Phil (Silva) says I'm the last of Jackie Sherrill's recruiting class! And Marcus Green is letting me know!" Like the 24-year-old tight end has room to talk about the 23-year-old guard…though since Smith plans on returning for a sixth season if so allowed by the NCAA he'll catch up with Green on that score.
Regardless, more games like the last one puts a spring in an old Dog's step. "This is the best I've played all year. In the Auburn game I did pretty good, too, but this was the best the whole unit played the whole year together." It was a six-man unit in this case; Smith worked 49 snaps by Hevesy's count, same as his total in the Auburn game; with Justin Malone taking the rest. He graded out "78-79 percent" according to the coach. And, added Hevesy, was near to hyperventilating at times in the excitement of a really big-game atmosphere at Scott Field.
"I was laughing today, Gabe had those same deer-in-the-headlights looks three years ago. Blaine (Clausell) had them last year, Dillon (Day) had them last year. Gabe's first game (2010) was against Auburn and the Fairley kid! And he came to the sideline with a look to me like ‘what is this all about?'!" In fact, Hevesy said, "It still happens to older guys, when it gets to be a tighter game they still have that look until they get that first hit gets over.
"Dillon, Gabe, and Tobias are doing a great job trying to help Justin. You can only do so much with confidence, they have to go out and do it themselves. But that's one thing Tobias does, when he's on the sidelines talking to them. He still came back and talked every series about you're fine, helping him through, just to ease his heart rate."
Coach Smith, in other words. "Yeah, with me being a senior that's supposed to be my role. And I feel I have an effect on the guys that trust me when I'm in there. It's all a bond."
The trick now is how can Mississippi State maintain that bond often as possible in the season's second half. Smith has not played more than two-thirds of any contest and given his injury history isn't likely to. This means Malone has to take turns, and do it against increasingly stout defenses. Or even start as he did three-straight games.
Is Hevesy counting on starting with Smith this week? "To me the great thing is I don't know if I need to. The biggest thing is I don't need to play him every snap; but when it's crucial you want you want that leader, you want that infection person out there. The whole huddle smiles and is happy about it."
Smith himself smiles about understudy Malone's emotions, as well as his execution against Tennessee. "It was a big game for him, the biggest game for most of us. For him to play at the level he did while I was out, that helped us out." And if Malone was not in the running for the special dessert Sunday evening, he was observed making a morning stop at a local donut shop. "And it was very fitting for him to be at Shipley's too!" Smith joked. "He's got a nickname, Meatball."
Of course there will be no desserts for any Dog if they fumble away their ranking and #12 B.C.S. standing against a Homecoming guest like Middle Tennessee State. Smith said it will be "pretty easy" to avoid a post-Tennessee letdown. "Because we don't want to let down our guard. We want to be on our game. Every game is a big game." "Every week we expect to win. People pat us on the back because we're expected to win. Now we have a long stretch coming up and we'll see how we take on this game."
Hevesy knows how it should be taken on. "It was great Saturday, we have to keep doing it again this week and the week after and the next six games. They have to get up emotionally and mentally and behind the gameplan like they were Saturday."
Take care of Saturday, and come Sunday the blocking Bulldogs will again be awaiting the coach's grades…and who get served up a Big Nasty. By the way, Tobias, can you describe…?
"I'm going to let Coach Hevesy tell you, if he'll tell you, I can't talk about it!"
Oh, well. There's always Shipley's.