Or at least that's what we can best hope for heading into, let's be candid, a must-win matchup. OK, maybe that is stating it a little strongly for mid-September. All the same and considering what lies ahead for the Bulldogs on this season's schedule, Auburn is once again a crossroads contest for State. Maybe more so even than in '11 and '12, when success or failure in this rivalry sent the Dogs on a particular bowl-track.
Now, it might not be too exaggerative (spellcheck OK'd it) to believe that this Saturday can settle whether this team goes bowling at all.
Yes, guilty as charged. This is the same opinionator whose head said 7-5 and heart demanded predicting 8-4 two weeks ago. That was before watching an offense I had otherwise-excellent expectations of sputter against a decent but not great Oklahoma State defense, especially with the baffling blocking; as well as a rash of first-game injuries. The most damaging of which will likely prove to be Jay Hughes. There are as good and even better athletes taking his place but the guy's smarts will be missed against smart offenses.
As to the blocking, dangit that ought to be better what with all the combined experience and obvious ability in the middle. Justin Malone is still developing and will in time be one to remember, unless he keeps sticking back those long legs to trip up his quarterback. Fortunately Ben Beckwith is not your normal walk-on, and you gotta think those lofty freshman billings for Damien Robison couldn't all have been overstated. Either way we'll see if the advertised depth is really here now. By the way, Beckwith's intro video showed a beard that would qualify him to be a Diamond Dog, eh?
If this seems something like picking-on the protectors, well, it's hard not to believe after opening day this is not a factor in how Mississippi State manages the entire offense the rest of this season. Which gets back to Topic One of the week and likely here on out. Once cleared for full practicing, which Mullen said today is anticipated early in the week, does Tyler Russell return to top-Dog status; or will the staff stick with Dak Prescott after a pretty impressive first start?
Or, and this is why I can't call it controversy yet, will Mullen do exactly what he has been implying would be the 2013 plan all along? To wit, play both of them, and regularly. Remember, even before spring practicing the coach talked of making Prescott more than a situation-specialist for short yards and goal lines. Now of course we couldn't see it, because they couldn't do it, as Prescott was coming off that almost-forgotten turf toe surgery. One wonders—uselessly--now had the younger quarterback been full-speed in spring if the Okie State opener would have been approached differently.
What is fact, is reflected in Russell's own summer statements both to his teammate and media that Prescott was the ‘other quarterback' and no mere backup. Don't misunderstand this attitude. Tyler is as proud of his position and his prowess as any quarterback anywhere. If he isn't taking the first SEC snap of his senior season it will sting. And should because that's the nature of true quarterbacks.
At the same time Russell is a true team leader (didn't you love how he and LaDarius Perkins still filled yesterday's captain duties while injured?), and a winning senior record matters more than statistics. I suspect he grasps better than anyone what it means to a complete MSU offense to have real and regular rushing potential from the position. Especially so if State continues to use just five blockers while everyone else goes en- their –route. Even the best Bulldog lines of years past can't protect a pocket passer against determined defenses willing to give up a little coverage to send extra rush from the outside(s), as most foes figured out last season in fact. Now, I'll qualify by saying if this group of talented and versatile wide receivers had arrived in '11 or '12 and been fully-developed by now, a pocket passer could thrive here this year. These wideouts are key to the future and will get better all season for sure. For now, though, they're still learning and frustratingly for Russell the timing is just a year-off. It will be Prescott who benefits in '14 and '15 for these growing pains.
But back to present. Mississippi State still has the tools for a productive and even explosive offense no matter which Dog is calling cadence. Even, I add, with still-unproven protection. By the way, I posted last week the question, anyone else unable to recall the last time a Bulldog team took the field without a full-time fullback? Seriously, for whatever our football history has lacked elsewhere, State has always, always had a classic blocking back who could also tote a little at need. I guess quasi-tight end Christian Holmes is closest to that description now…and another by the way here, will Holmes be the first true two-way Dog in ages, other than fluke stuff like using Fletcher Cox a few snaps on offense?
The point being that if a blocking back and blocking tight end aren't applied to protection, and receivers are taking that priceless tenth-of-a-tick longer to get open, this multi-receiver approach requires a quarterback who can do more than scramble for his health or pull off the occasional unexpected keeper. Otherwise defenses can play State straight. Mullen knows this better than we of course. There is his track record of applying differing, not to say entirely different, quarterbacks in games to excellent effect.
Yeahyeahyeah, I know the truism that a team with two quarterbacks has none. I don't agree, not entirely and certainly not in college ball. What gets overlooked is that, save for those exceptional cases, the quarterback is as much a function of his lineup's accumulated skills and experience as his own talents. So unless all the pieces are in all the places to do it one way, all the way, being able to change the play-calling pace can—repeat, can—be turned to a positive. But only if the mixing and matching is done in the right points, places, and personnel. Which in Mississippi State's case may well call for nigh-inspired selections in coming weeks as this process is shaken-out.
Or…one Dog takes the job and makes it his own. Mullen made an intriguing comment today. "If Tyler is healthy enough to go, he'll be playing quarterback for us." Wow, talk about a statement which will be parsed to pieces all week! Do we interpret that as declaring, once cleared, Russell has the job back to himself? Or was Mullen only saying that it will be a practice-week competition? Orrrrrr, was the head coach just saying something without saying anything to keep the competition guessing?
Thing is, the Bulldogs themselves will know the practice week score by who is taking the most snaps. Mullen said it breaks down 70-30 or 65-35 in drills, yet I wonder if he was talking more about how it'd split between Russell/Prescott as the co-starters and then Damian Williams, a true frosh who I can't imagine in February thought he'd already have played a real college game by now. Yet another by the way note, Prescott and Williams confirm what a former Dog, who won a whole lot of games in the ‘90s, told me yesterday; that Russell was a one-in-lifetime sort of Mullen signee, a pure passer recruited into a system that at its absolute core prefers the run-option playmaker taking snaps.
For 2013 though we have each variety at State's disposal, and it'll be an eternal shame not to maximize both. Because the Bulldogs need both Russell and Prescott right now, this week, to do what must be done. Or must be won rather, if this team is to stay securely on the sort of post-season path we've gotten used to under Mullen's management.
Because Bulldog bowling, beyond debate, is pretty exciting too.