Pushing Offensive Pace Gets Ross Rolling

Any questions about whether Mississippi State could make an up-tempo style work were settled decisively when offensive Bulldogs noticed something surprising. “It made the defense real tired,” Fred Ross said. “So it helped us out.”

No kidding. If picking up their own pace can wear down the Bulldog defense, what might this offense accomplish against lesser opposition? Well, that was shown on opening evening when Mississippi State hung 550 yards on Southern Mississippi and accounted for six of the seven touchdowns. Clearly, the hurry-up attack passed the first test in splendid style.

’Passed’ being the active word for wide receiver Ross, as caught throws added up to 349 yards and five scores. Oh, and only the other team got tired. So Ross is satisfied with this 2014 offensive style.

Not only does it produce…it’s just more fun. “Because we get on the ball and we’re snapping the ball and the defense is not ready,” said Ross. “So a lot of times we’re wide-open and running down the field.”

Ross himself certainly was running out in the open in the opener. The result was three catches for 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns, on 35- and 21-yard connections with different quarterbacks involved. As big as that was towards a runaway Mississippi State win, it was even bigger for Ross’ own attitude. This was the first action since exiting War Memorial Stadium last November to have a shoulder x-rayed.

"He took limited reps in practice, but had two touchdowns," Coach Dan Mullen said. "The first one he did nice job, we got them caught in a bad coverage for the look we had them in. But the second catch was spectacular there, he just went up in man coverage and made a play."

So talk about your triumphant returns… “It was kind of overwhelming! Because last year I got hurt and coming in this year and making some plays, it feels good. I’ve got my confidence back up.”

In the process the true sophomore looks lots more like the PARADE All-American prospect he was rated at John Tyler High in Texas. Ross’ rookie gifts were enough to get him on the freshman field all eleven games before the injury; with nine catches and a 12.8 yard average. Then came that shoulder setback, along with a groin issue that had to be worked-out.

And work he did, all spring and summer. “We just trained at it, Coach (Rick) Court stayed on me about getting stronger and getting bigger and getting faster. It’s paying off now.” Obviously so. Signed at a listed 185 pounds, Ross is now shown packing 205 on his 6-2 frame and looks even larger in both aspects.

That showed up in a bigger way too as Ross got the better of first-game competition with over-matched defensive backs, and looked just as agile. “I feel I’m more in shape. I have a little bit more muscle. I spent summer getting my shoulder right, and getting my groin right. And then working on little things like blocking, running routes and catching, things like that.”

Yet there is nothing else quite like scoring the first college touchdown. Ross’ opportunity arose late in Saturday’s second quarter, right after Dak Prescott had got a ball to RB Josh Robinson for 24 yards down to the Eagle 35 for first down. Whether the defense was shading more inside after that play, or coverage got blown, or whatever, Ross ran right into a fine open space along State’s sideline near the 15-yard line for Prescott to fire.

He might have been a little too open, Ross jokes. “Man, I was trying not to panic! I didn’t want to trip over myself, I just wanted to make sure I caught the ball first! And then after that make the play.” He did. Ross’ other touchdown and State’s last score came mid-fourth quarter with QB Damian Williams delivering the ball.

Besides the thrill of scoring not once but twice, Ross came away with an un-sore shoulder. He hasn’t taken a real hit on it through camp or first game, he said. “Not yet! But I feel confident with it.” Enough that Ross may not go looking for contact after catches…but neither will he shy away from giving as good as he has to take.

Ditto every other Dog receiver. Not only has Mississippi State’s pass-catching core grown in numbers and talents the last three years, they’ve just plain grown bigger and stronger. Coach Billy Gonzales tells his guys go use that muscle, both blocking for their backs or battling for extra yards after contact.

“Coach G stressed that a lot, about one man not tackling us. So we take pride in that and when one man tries to bring us down we keep fighting through it.” Which also complements the up-tempo approach of course; if a defender is already tired by the playing pace he’s not likely to hit back hard enough in the open field.

“When we first started in camp it was kind of hard,” said Ross. “But this summer we got in shape and through camp it started getting easy for us.” And of course when the offense noted their touted defensive counterparts getting a bit winded, well, that was all the proof required that this approach could work on anyone. Oh, and by the way, on opening night the Dog defense wasn’t exactly exhausted. Not only did they score a shutout but two starters combined for a blocked field goal and touchdown on special teams!

If opening night was such a success, it was still just one game against a non-conference victim. Bulldog wideouts got reminded early this week in review that they are far from finished products. “I mean it’s just little kinks,” Ross said. “Blocking, really, for the receivers. You’ve got to finish blocks. Just get off the ball faster. Little stuff like that.”

”We can get better at blocking. We missed some blocks on the perimeter that would have been touchdowns for the running backs. So we left some points on the field. Going into SEC play we can’t miss those blocks.”

As for himself, Ross is ready to build on his breakout game and go on to bigger sophomore things after some freshman frustrations. Some. “I felt I could have made some more plays but I’m getting my opportunity now.” Just like the rest of the receivers, who expect more and better opportunities as long as Mississippi State is dictating the offensive tempo.

“I mean we don’t really look too much at who gets the ball. We all want to see each other do good because we’re a team. And winning the game, that’s the main goal at the end of the day.”

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