The Mississippi State offense does intend to stick to their known strengths as they face the first and maybe even most serious test of the 2014 season. Which is something that likely holds true for everyone who must take on this Louisiana State defense, Coach Dan Mullen said.
“Statistically it’s the best LSU defense I think we’ve played. So a huge challenge for us on that side of the ball.”
The offensive side of this Bulldog ball team, he meant. A unit which has aced every test to-date and for the most part in impressive style. Numbers, too. Mississippi State stormed through the trio of Southern Mississippi, UAB, and South Alabama scoring 131 combined points; an average just under 44-per.
True, their comrades in the locker room quickly remind; the defense has gotten in on the touchdown fun too. They provided an interception return by three-time SEC defensive lineman of the week Preston Smith. And the special squad, mostly made up of the varsity defense, has scored as well when Smith’s blocked field goal was scooped-and-scored by S Jay Hughes. So not all points have been provided by the offense.
But of course most of them have; 17 total touchdowns in three weekends puts the 2014 offense on a record pace. And it isn’t just points. Mullen’s sixth Mississippi State offense has piled-up more than 500 yards in all three games to open a season, something never done here before. “It wasn’t like we were holding anything back,” Mullen said, before adding something interesting. “We still haven’t shown all our offense yet.”
Very interesting indeed…because State has surely shown a lot already. Whether the ground-pounding base built around Prescott’s read-and-respond and the varied backfield talents; the four, five, even six eligible receiver sets to flood secondary and STILL give Prescott his chance to tuck-and-tote; or even the program’s preferred gadget throw-back play; all of this has been applied. And as the numbers show, it’s worked well.
Well enough to go into Tiger Stadium and keep moving forward and scoring points? That is this week’s acid test. Or as Mullen said Monday, “You’ve got to execute. You have to play a great game and you have to perform at a very, very high level every single snap of the game.”
Which begins and often ends with how Prescott is executing everything, from play-call to adjustments to just making something happen after things inevitably veer off anyone’s script. The junior quarterback has rolled through three games, or the parts of those he was playing that is, tossing nine touchdowns while rushing for two scores. If judged only by that ratio one would say Mullen’s spring-stated objective of having his quarterback do more with the arm than the feet is working.
But there is always a little more to stat-stories. In the last two games Prescott has called his own number, or had it called for him, a few more times than would seem safe for long-term health. The UAB game got a little too tense for comfort at times and Prescott had to keep drives going by his own efforts. He did of course and that’s good, but with non-conference contact most hoped wouldn’t be necessary.
At South Alabama at least Prescott’s touchdown tote was a thing of beauty and exemplified his instant decision-making knack. On a called pass play the quarterback appeared to change his mind with the snap already in-air, because he took off around the right end and reached the end zone 40 yards away. With, even better, successful downfield blocking by WR Robert Johnson to prevent a last-instant shot. It was a similar situation on the throw-back pass from WR Jameon Lewis that Prescott took in from 24 yards out as a host of blockers kept Prescott clean all the way.
LSU’s defense will be a whole ‘nother situation with frequent (and vigorous) contact inevitable. But Prescott has no intention of taking all the offensive load onto his stout shoulders. “I’ve got great guys all around me,” he reminded.
“Great linemen up front, receivers that go make plays; Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert, guys that you hand the ball off and they’re going to get some yards and open up the whole field for me.”
The Bulldog backfield is a productive bunch so far themselves, spearheaded by Robinson’s 6.3 rushing rate and three touchdowns. The latter figure would be higher had not the coaches rotated tailbacks often. This was expected and probably necessary, to get a live-look at everyone available before hitting SEC schedule. But now might be prime time to stick with the best runners or at least those with the most potential to hit big breaks against a LSU defense that doesn’t allow many long drives.
For that matter, Mullen used the first two games to regularly rotate his quarterbacks. The idea is sound. Damian Williams did get premium snaps last November but as a still-raw athlete making plays. As a sophomore he’s expected to run a real offense and early-season snaps surely accelerate the learning. This applies equally to the second-team blockers by the way, who will be put in pressure settings over the course of a long season.
At the same time this kept State from blowing-open both the USM and UAB games immediately as would have happened had Prescott stayed in charge. So Mullen changed the script at Mobile and Prescott took all the snaps until scrambling for a first down in the fourth quarter…and taking a hit. Prescott affirmed this was a way of tuning-up for the next and more challenging road trip.
“Getting those three quarters allow me to get in a rhythm, get going, and get the timing of the game,” Prescott said. Not just for himself, by the way. Everyone profited from an extended stretch with the first squad intact.
“It just keeps giving us experience working with each other as the same unit and growing together as the same unit,” senior tackle Clausell said. “The more reps we take together the more cohesiveness we have, and we just hope to keep it going into this week.”
And while no Bulldog heads for Baton Rouge counting on another 40-point performance or 500-yards output, that’s not their goal either. Making just a few more plays is. After all, Mullen can show them evidence of how well his teams have at times played LSU. The 2009 game did come down to only one play un-made; 2011 was a true grind-it-out with the bigger Tigers also coming out ahead. Even last year’s 59-26 final was nothing as lopsided as the scoreboard, Mullen reminded everyone Monday.
So this ’14 team can see for themselves the difference that a better read here, a better angle there, can ultimately make. Which means, Prescott said, “It just depends on how well we execute.”