Of course struggles to score often, or score early at all, against both Alabama and Texas A&M equally remind how these best-approved plans haven't worked well enough to win. Defeats against the best opponents played to-date cause concerns, especially with a brutal LSU defense awaiting State this weekend.
There's nothing the Bulldogs can do to influence the opponent's plans this week. Koenning said they can continue working on what has gone wrong and it isn't even schemes nor sets. It's that ‘e' word once again.
"What I'm saying is when you go out and play and are just a hair off it has nothing to do with defense; it has to do with you executing the play," Koenning said. "Not the defense. And execution gets magnified in those situations. In a crucial situation you have to execute."
At 7-2, 3-2 SEC, Mississippi State's situation is somewhat crucial in terms of where these Bulldogs go bowling. Division and league titles are out of reach but post-season eligibility is assured and Coach Dan Mullen wants the best holiday trip possible for his fourth team and their fans. The difference in destination and date will depend in large, even largest now, part on how the offense performs the weekly plans.
Or executes, rather, the theme of head coach and coordinator alike this week. Repeated use of the word signals their faith in both personnel and plays…and disappointment in results. Because as Koenning reports after breaking down the A&M video, there were open opportunities for State's taking.
"And (we) didn't get it done. If you look at it, it's just a matter of execution."
That point, and the lack of points scored, is being pounded into MSU helmets this week with focus on two obvious areas. State did produce first downs on all the first three series, and on the fourth reached the Aggie red zone. Each time drives stalled and, as review showed, as much for Dog mistakes as anything A&M did defensively.
"It was a little bit of both. We did some things, shot ourselves in the foot. But those are things we've got to correct. I think the thing is execution and if we put ourselves in manageable third-down situations, we're going to be in good shape." This was where State got in bad shape converting just two of ten third downs. At Alabama it was 4-of-13.
It's a big trend but doesn't imply a big fix, according to Koenning. "When you play in big games you have to execute. Those things are very, very small; the small things become big things, so you can't be just a hair off with your route or throwing the ball or your read, you have to be right spot-on it. And those are the things we're experiencing right now, we're getting in that situation where if we're just a little bit off it's not near as good as against Middle Tennessee or someone like that."
The execution of most immediate concern is in State's core ground game. Being held under fifty rushing yards at Alabama is one thing; falling short of a hundred against A&M is another. Even if falling behind 21-0 forced the Dogs to ditch most of the running plays mid-game, there was no excuse for failing to move the ball that way effectively.
Especially, agreed Koenning, because the Aggies were aggressive up front which ought to have produced openings with a block here and a read there. "If you execute there's a chance to exploit; if you don't execute it's not going to be nearly as good." So why the failures to execute? Koenning said State is now seeing much faster defensive fronts than anything in the seven-win streak. That isn't a shock, he stressed, but has exposed some timing issues.
"When you start playing those SEC counterparts you can't be just a hair off, you have to be right on." That includes the ball-carriers as much as their blockers. LaDarius Perkins was averaging 100 yards in the winning streak; in the two losses the junior back had 80 total yards on 28 carries. That naturally has some fans calling for different backs, such as Nick Griffin based on a handful of relief-runs.
"Greg (Knox) does a good job alternating those guys and keeping them fresh," Koenning said. "You've got to keep them fresh and he's lucky enough to have some backs he can alternate in there." Still this isn't a situation fixed only by who takes the handoffs; but where and when they are alternated. And running remains the priority.
"We just need to keep going," Koenning said. "I think it's a matter of the complexion of the game. Keep moving, keep moving, and keep moving. Some of our fortes are getting a little bit different, we're out of the quarterback run game compared to a year ago and that's been helpful throwing the football."
Tyler Russell is throwing at a record pace, too. Even in the losses the junior is 34-of-60 for 381 yards and one score, but more than the statistics is the element of optimism Russell brings the entire offense. Unlike with previous Mullen quarterbacks, he offers big pass-play potential. It is not always utilized; Mullen pointed out a couple of end zone openings Russell simply missed last Saturday. The good thing is this is a quarterback who remembers mistakes and works on fixes.
And, "Tyler has been very, very good about not turning the ball over," Koenning said. The interception thrown in Alabama's end zone was a straightforward mistake of not elevating the pass; the pick-off by A&M was directly due to an un-picked-up blitz where given a tick longer to toss Russell had a receiver slanting into the open. What Koenning and Mullen see on tape is not Russell forcing anything under pressure, either.
"He doesn't want to just let it wing, he's going to take calculated risks which is part of a good quarterback," said Koenning. Then again the risks of sacks or hurries get greater the longer Russell waits to throw. It again comes down to a quarterback's own calculations of risk vs. reward. Or his adjusting on the fly. Russell reported a half-time shift to shorter, thus quicker, throws Saturday and the results improved as receivers made better plays after the catches.
Koenning echoed his boss by downplaying some protection concerns, especially the tackles. As Mullen reminded, State typically is a five-blocker scheme with everyone else out in routes leaving no extra protections. This is increasingly risky against better or more aggressive defenses; or in the case of LSU a unit that is both. But the coaches give no clues about additional blocking from backs or others at this point. It's up to Russell to read rightly, and the receivers to just get open quicker. If they can.
In fact the only sore spot State's staff mentions about the line are penalties, jumping the count and derailing drives. "You've got to take care of what you can take care of," said Koenning. "And one of them is getting off the snap count and making sure you don't put your team in a negative position. That's the only thing we really fight. Some of them get too excited at times and jump offsides."
And giving away five yards might be as bad as a mile this weekend. Koenning said there is just no room for such errors against a typical Tiger defense.
"They're fast. They can really, really run." And hit, too. There is the usual list of pro prospects in that two-deep, not least on the defensive line that can make any blocker look bad any play. Even LSU youth on defense is no advantage to State; Koenning joked, sort of, that the best hope is these precocious Tiger talents turn professional early. Even what looked like a depleted September secondary is as impressive as ever now in November, putting pressure on Dog receivers to execute flawlessly.
And for Russell to throw perfectly. "The separation is tighter and tighter, you're getting more into a ‘NFL' game where separation is tight windows and you have to put it in those spots," Koenning said. "We've got to go in there and play our best game. The key points to that are the snap count, getting off on the ball, and understanding your opponent."
And not throw to the wrong team, and create that crack for Perkins, and all the other aspects Mississippi State has not executed so well lately. To some extent this is natural now that the Bulldogs are in, as Koenning called it, the ‘meat' of the schedule.
"And those are things that at times are hard to duplicate at practice, you know, because of the speed of the game. So we're learning through that, we're having that process. It's something I think we're going to get better at, we feel good we're going to get better at it. But we have to keep going."