Dog Blockers Face Matchup Of Muscle And Mind

Those bruising battles in the trenches? They're equally wars of wits. Defensive linemen show unscouted looks, blockers make different moves…and by guys on both sides who've literally seen it all before. "I mean, it can get a little screwy here and there!" said Gabe Jackson.

Just the same, Jackson and his line-mates are working up another set of hopefully fresh twists for this week's road show. The Bulldogs (4-3, 1-2 SEC) are paying a visit to South Carolina (6-2, 4-2), which matches Mississippi State's blocking against a Gamecock defensive front as good as any. And much better than most.

Which is exactly what an old Dog like Jackson enjoys best about life in the SEC. This is another opportunity for the senior left guard to gauge what he's got.

"Oh yeah, I mean you really don't get anything out of playing someone that's not a real good player. So you have to show up, and show out. You have to compete and I love competing."

Jackson can't ask for much better competition that what Mississippi State faces in Columbia. Full-season statistics can deceive based on varied schedules. But no one questions South Carolina's prowess on defense, especially at the point of first contact. They allow a solid 4.3 yards per rush in SEC play and are second-best in pass defense. Of their 17 sacks this season a dozen have come in league games and they are second-stingiest on third downs. Specifically, the Gamecocks are allowing just four such conversions per conference contest.

So, what is this week's scheming? Xs-and-Os count of course but Jackson said what happens inside the helmets can be the difference between gaining ground and going nowhere. "Just play with their minds a little bit, do a few things different." Yes, even against a Gamecock group that like fifth-year senior Jackson has seen almost anything and everything on a college ball field.

"You can't give them everything they're used to seeing." True, this trods upon that invisible line between fooling the foe and out-smarting one's own self. "But you just have to see how it goes. After the first few plays try a different something. Whatever you try, like different techniques or plays, just keep them on their toes."

Different techniques or tricks or whatever, Jackson has been rock-steady himself in doing his dirty job. He has been recognized twice by the Southeastern Conference as league Offensive Lineman of the Week, the second such honor coming this week after his stellar performance in a home win over Kentucky. Coaching stats graded the guard at 91.5% efficiency with five outright knockdowns of Wildcats. He is only the second Bulldog blocker ever to earn OLoTW by the conference, following the lead of 2010 teammate Derek Sherrod who scored the honor four times.

Jackson has also been a consistent starter. He and right tackle Charles Siddoway are the lone blockers to open every game so far what with scattered injuries and suspension. The Bulldogs do expect to have this five-man band intact for consecutive starts now, but a couple of their number are watched closely these days as the strains show.

This was made completely clear in the last game when, during the second quarter, a brand-new blocker stepped in at right guard. With Ben Beckwith, himself starting in place of season-ending-injured Justin Malone, gimpy for a few weeks, rookie Jamaal Clayborn was thrown onto the field.

"I didn't get to watch him on everything, I watched a few plays," Jackson reported this week. "I mean, he did pretty good. Especially for a first time playing ever, and as a true freshman." The move was interesting, as up to then State preferred pushing starting center Dillon Day over a step and subbing-in second center Dylan Holley; or even using backup tackle Damien Robinson back again at guard. Still Coach Dan Mullen and staff figured the Kentucky game, coming after an open date with extra preparation time, was ideal for easing-in a new lineman…and certainly preferable to letting his first experience come at, say, South Carolina.

Regardless, "He's adjusted to it, and to playing with us," Jackson said. "And with Dillon and Charles over there, we feel comfortable with him and whoever else is in that spot." For his part Jackson can empathize; though he did get to redshirt first, by the second fall he was starting left guard on a unit where right guard constantly rotated. Or, when center J.C. Brignone was hurt mid-season, adjusted on the fly.

"So it's good to have depth and someone to depend on." As well as a pre-season system of guards and centers working either spot and both left and right sides of the center. This had Beckwith, nominally the backup to Jackson, ready to step in as starter for the last six games after Malone went down on opening day. "It helps a lot because you never know what might happen, who might go down, or just things happen. My redshirt freshman year playing we had me, Tobias Smith, Quentin Saulsberry, J.C. Brignone we all rotated in and out."

How much rotating or subbing or whatever the offensive coaches dare do this weekend is another question. Especially so at tackle. The Dog at the end of the line is going to see #7 lining up at various angles and distances, and getting what might well be the quickest off-the-snap jump by any defender in the country. Blocking or just delaying Jadeveon Clowney is the assignment Siddoway or Blaine Clausell will draw, usually left tackle Clausell. And while the consensus top defensive draftee isn't having a huge statistical season his influence is far, far more than numbers could show.

It's a safe guess the Gamecocks have been counting up the sacks allowed lately, nine in State's last three games, and they will scheme accordingly. Jackson won't be spared very often to help Clausell, yet he hasn't seen his cohort sweating through the week so far. "He takes the same approach. I mean it's a better player than he's faced, he's still confident and ready to go. And just gameplan for (Clowney) a little different, but the same approach."

But with different results hopefully. Protecting passers and opening running room are ultimately key to Mississippi State's hopes of success, both offensive and overall, in the remaining five conference contests. And no scheme is better than its blocking. So Jacksons knows now is the time for State's linemen to put everything together and execute.

"We've got to keep it up, finish it on the next five games we have left and keep doing good."

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