Dogs Plan On Playing Fast But Not Loose

It was the best non-move Geoff Collins may not have made this November…though not for lack of trying. The coach was trying to change his linebackers mid-series in the third quarter, swapping out Christian Holmes for Benardrick McKinney to get the ideal personnel matched on Arkansas.

"At the last moment before Benardrick runs into the game I grab him as he's running onto the field," Collins related. "Then Christian causes a fumble! I'm like yeah, I'm glad we weren't able to get that sub done!"

That forced turnover, one of four collected by the Bulldog defense and five total, was key to Mississippi State's victory. It was also an excellent example of the improved play-making by players who have advanced beyond backups into genuine alternates available to co-coordinators Collins and Chris Wilson in the last month of the season.

Now comes what might well be the toughest test to-date for a deeper Dog defense. Saturday night they are matched against an Ole Miss offense which already plays at a frenetic tempo, and this week with the added motivation of a rivalry game. Fast and furious is putting it mildly.

In fact Collins now appreciates just how furious things can get when Bulldogs and Rebels meet. Having recruited the South for years he'd heard of the Egg Bowl in passing. Still, "Going into it I had no idea how big this game was and how big the rivalry is.

"Being in the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry, the Auburn-Alabama. And the little one people don't know about, the Western Carolina-Appalachian State rivalry. This is a whole ‘nother level." (Though he means no insult to the ‘Battle for the Old Mountain Jug', understand.) "And it's exciting. Now I know what to expect and going up there to Oxford I'm excited to get a first-hand feel for what it's like to be the away team in this rivalry."

Excited or not Collins' crew has a first-class challenge ahead. A hurry-up, snap-fast offense is tough enough to scheme no matter who is involved. When it features a quick-throwing quarterback who can scamper for yards himself, a wide receiver no defense has successfully shut down, and just the renewed sense of optimism permeating the program, the degree-of-difficulty multiplies.

Collins has been watching this on the screen for days now. "They do a great job of spreading the ball around, they're talented at every spot." So is Mississippi State of course, but talent us useless if out of position. Which is exactly what Ole Miss wants when running up to the line before it is even set."

"The key is just understanding what they're trying to do out of each formation and processing a lot of information really quickly," Collins said. "And Cam (Lawrence) does do that. Benardrick has learned to do a great job, too. So we kind of put it in the players' hands, get them lined-up and let them go play."

This is indeed a week for Lawrence to take charge of, well, everything. The senior earned quite a reputation last year for making all the on-field calls. Lawrence still does, though he is getting increased assistance from fellow ‘backers that his expertise is rubbing off on. Still his word is law this week with no time for debate or second-guessing.

"That's one of the things people have appreciated out of Cam the last couple of years, is how much information he can process in a quick amount of time; and get ready to play and get everybody ready to play."

Arkansas didn't operate quite the same pace but their philosophy was similar enough that the Bulldogs got some valuable practice in both scheming. And then adjusting on the fly. After giving up a couple of first-half touchdowns, State put the brakes on about everything the Razorbacks attempted. Just as Collins hoped.

"I think they just settled in, got into a rhythm of the game. And I think that's been a little of the issue this year, just getting used to the pace of each offense. And once you get a feel for the talent level and the pace, you settle in and are ready to play."

That includes not just senior-seasoned hands like Lawrence, Banks, Broomfield, etc. Recent games have found younger defenders put under genuine SEC pressure. And they are producing. "I think the young guys are playing good and just developing depth," Collins said.

"And we have experienced guys that are unselfish, whatever is best for the team to be successful." In recent cases a variation that has Banks playing more like a safety and Broomfield returned to his former cornerback's identity is paying off.

Given who and how the Rebels run routes this versatility counts. "It's like when we're in base, having three corners on the field; and when we go nickel it's having four corners on the field. Just having that kind of athletic ability out there is beneficial, especially what we're doing."

The Bulldogs just have to do it a lot faster this time. And better. There are still assignment aspects to be worked out in remaining practice days. But Collins is confident everyone will get their tasks figured out. Because, he said, the motivation is obvious.

"Our guys know most of the guys on their team, they're friends with them. It's one of those things that you love your friends but when it's time to play against them you want to make sure you have bragging rights for the year. So I'm sure their guys feel the same way as our guys do."

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