Mississippi State Open Date Observations

Random ramblings as any wise Bulldog fan prepares to enjoy this open-date properly and store up energies and emotions for the crucial two home games ahead…

*When he signed four years ago most expected Dak Prescott to follow the Chris Relf career track (no bad thing at all) as a run-first, throw-if-necessary quarterback for Coach Dan Mullen’s ground-oriented offense. Well, while Prescott certainly takes care of the running role (1,325 yards, 20 touchdowns), he’s proven a far, far more potent passer than envisioned by anyone. Except himself.

Try this: former teammate Tyler Russell is rightly regarded as the top ‘pure’ pocket passer of the last quarter-century at State and holds the career record of 42 touchdowns in his 38 games (25 starts). Russell threw a touchdown once every 9.8 caught passes too.

Now check out his successor. In 27 games, 10 starts, Prescott has 25 touchdown passes already. His TD-play rate? A score every 9.3 receptions. This is pretty special stuff from a fellow who defenses must fear first for calling his own number in the ground game.

*But what is really special is just how close Prescott already is to a Mississippi State standard few figured would be touched. The great Don Smith is regarded by anyone who watched him, and the teams he had to work with, as the best all-around quarterback of the ‘modern’ Bulldog era…which in these parts dates from the mid-1970s. He accounted for 52 touchdowns running or throwing.

Prescott is already at 45 TD’sRF and not half-way through the junior season. Sure, schedules are longer and offenses run faster and all that. None of this diminishes Dak’s achievements so far. And his total would be even higher if the NCAA’s numbers-gnomes included receiving scores by quarterbacks, of which Prescott has three. With so many teams now including quarterback-throwback plays in the repertoires, why shouldn’t those touchdowns and yards also count?

*Comparing Prescott and Russell brings up another program fact. Anyone familiar with Mullen’s mindset on football understands at-heart he is a power-football fellow. Or what we old-timers would call a ‘Big Ten’ type coach which in some quarters (not here) isn’t always a compliment.

Well consider this fact. The top four Bulldog passers as far as career accuracy are, 4th-to-1st, Chris Relf, Tyler Russell, Tyson Lee, and Dak Prescott. No prizes for recognizing what this quartet has in common, and it surely isn’t a common style or physique.

*When Mullen adjusted staff responsibilities in spring and named himself overall offensive coordinator, cynics said he was merely making official what already existed. That’s not correct. Les Koenning was very much part of the process, the one who made the first call from upstairs. Often as not things changed—often entirely--by the time the quarterback hollered hut but that didn’t diminish the former coordinator’s responsibility.

By the same token though, Mullen’s taking charge has produced obvious benefits not only in production but efficiency. It goes beyond the stats, impressive though they be with averages of 538 total yards through four games. Or the 41.3 points-per, also a record rate for the same early-season period.

No, what leaps out is the balanced production. State has rushed for 1,083 yards and passed for 1,067 yards. Maybe the touchdowns are skewed to the air right now, 13 to eight, but that’s as much a reflection of how opponents obsess with stopping the Bulldog ground game and take their chances elsewhere. So far Mullen and Prescott are making them pay for it. And yes, it is no coincidence that this coach finds coordinating an offense ever so much smoother when he has the quarterback best-suited to his own play-calling style to work with.

*Not to mention, though we will now, a much better-rounded group of runners and catchers (or both) to make use of. This actually has worked against any of them piling up great big individual numbers. Rather, it had as through three games the ball got spread around liberally.

SEC season reminded who the go-to guys are. After an OK if not eye-opening ten catches and 107 yards against non-conference clubs, Jameon Lewis got the ball five times at Baton Rouge for 116 yards and the first score of the senior season. And to think a week ago folk were asking what was ‘wrong’ with Lewis? They didn’t notice that non-SEC coverages focused on him between-the-hashes, and freed up outside receivers to have balls thrown their way(s).

But this was about the best possible development for the Dog offense too. The experience the split ends gained through three games meant when Prescott had to go their way at LSU, they were ready; most obviously De’Runnya Wilson with four catches (three grading as ‘humungous’ in the situations) and a touchdown.

Even better, Wilson obviously learned a lesson after drawing some early-season flags. He played a clean game on the perimeter against LSU both getting open without pushing-off and blocking way downfield legally. No, he hasn’t done the sort of de-cleating tight end Malcolm Johnson specializes in; safeties are doing the head-on-swivel thing these days with #6 in their vicinity. But ‘Bear’ Wilson shows he can be a competent and clean blocker to go with the big-catch threat.

*The other go-to offensive Dog is obviously Josh Robinson. It raised a few ‘brows when he didn’t touch the ball until under a minute left in the first quarter at South Alabama. Also, Nick Griffin has earned a fair chance at lead runner for sheer grit over his injury-interrupted career. And of course State wanted to see what Brandon Holloway could do as a speed back.

When SEC play kicked off, Robinson was restored to first place in the pecking order. The result was a career night of 197 yards, and if not getting 200 was a bit annoying at the time it only ought inspire him to greater efforts in coming weeks. True, he had ‘only’ 16 rushes but when a guy averages 12.3 per-carry he self-limits the number of snaps required.

This also reminds that last year, when LaDarius Perkins was gimpy, Robinson’s ‘bowling ball’ style worked best against a physical Arkansas defense for 101 yards on 17 rushes. And of course until he broke that 66-yarder at LSU (and is still annoyed he got caught), J-Rob’s longest previous run was 51 yards last season…against upcoming opponent Texas A&M.

Griffin soldiers on and Holloway still looks for his best role, but there are two real questions in the backfield after one month. Will Ashton Shumpert’s all-around skills get put into play? Because while he is a power runner of the old style, Shumpert can hit the hole quick out of a fullback slot too and break it big a la what State used to do in the 1990s. Plus, insiders insist he has legit receiving skills for the using. Maybe MSU is saving this card for an upcoming opponent…and coverage or lack thereof?

*Jamoral Graham is the only true scholarship freshman of the 2014 signing class to play thus far. Primarily as a punt returner, a role he has the talent for but at LSU showed he also has some finer points to learn. Such as letting it go when standing on the five-yard line, and especially not ‘slapping’ at a bouncer going by him in the same general area. Press box observers thought he’d just possibly touched that carom but there was no review.

Still his returns of 21 and 14 yards on two punts fielded were absolutely a step-forward in an area State has not been productive in for a few years. Expectations for Graham as a slot receiver are also great, along with redshirt Gabe Myles. It’s a measure of Lewis’ gifts that he can keep these kids down in the depth chart.

Now, will any of Graham’s classmates get on the field this fall? Mullen was asked just that during his call-in show and left the proverbial door open by saying in some freshman cases those decisions had not been made. Frustratingly he offered no names so anything is guesswork now since practices are closed. But guesswork is fun, too. And if not for sheer depth already at linebacker, the praise given Gerri Green and J.T. Gray would seem to put them thisss close to making the dress roster. Then again, Dezmond Howard was the scout team rage last fall and never played; he is now and is fulfilling youthful billing while positioning himself for full-time duty in 2015.

*Turning to the veteran linebackers, it nearly missed notice that Benardrick McKinney hit the 200-tackle milestone Saturday. Right on the nose in fact, with a team-best seven stops at LSU giving him 200 in 40 career games.

McKinney’s numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away either for career or this junior season; he’s only got two double-digit tackles games in his tenure. But he stands out to experts who understand what a great middle-linebacker means for a defense as a whole. Besides, it isn’t easy to tally a lot of tackles on this unit, especially with soph Beniquez Brown (22 tackles, second on squad) beating McKinney to the ball often as not.

*Among the happiest hounds in the house Saturday evening, Christian Holmes deserved mention. Not just for his work at Baton Rouge either, but how the senior has performed in the linebacker rotation. Remember, ‘Turtle’ was on the verge of passing on the upperclassman season in spring before opting to stay around in 2014. Now here he is third in team tackles and getting about as many snaps as any starter.

*Asked what an open date is good for, besides healing bumps and bruises, Mullen said it was for addressing issues exposed in the first month. First on the list: passing defense as a whole and downfield coverage in particular.

As noted here, in their three non-conference matchups the defense matched-up lesser opponents with a pretty straight-up scheme of isolated corners and not a lot of safety support. Vanilla in other words, and not a bad idea under the circumstances to test individual ability. Then LSU went wild in the late going to hit 9-of-15 passes for 199 yards in the fourth quarter.

Considering they are about to face a real gunslinger offense next weekend, upgrading coverage takes absolute priority now. Interestingly, while Mullen acknowledges the issues he is not nearly as down on defensive backs as others. The talents are there, and the experience too since these are cornerbacks who came up clutch repeatedly in 2013 with three picks each for Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun. Plus Will Redmond is fully-into the system this season, and each week Tolando Cleveland shows a little bit more.

Oh, and through four games last year State had five interceptions. In the same sample-size this season it’s six, though a third of that total has come from defensive end Preston Smith! The point being this defense has the pass rushers to create pressure and the athletes in-back to cover competently.

In fact, Mullen commented that part of the problem is the defensive backs have tried to parlay their abilities into bigger plays than necessary. He meant going for interceptions rather than just batting the ball down, as at least two touchdowns surrendered this season came on exactly that sort of situation.

*Mississippi State arrived at the first of two open dates in reasonably good physical condition. The only real players of health question are in the area of most concern though. Tackle Justin Senior had a knee ‘scoped Monday to address a condition Mullen said the soph played on at LSU anyway and could have gone the rest of the season with. A bye-week was still the right opportunity for a fast fix. And even with the sore knee Senior played an outstanding game, especially getting downfield for one huge block on the night’s crucial third-down of the third quarter. Remember, this is a Canadian kid still relatively new to the American game and just turned 20 years of age.

Guard Justin Malone came to midweek interviews with a boot on his left leg after getting rolled-up during the game. He’s expected to report to A&M week practices as usual.

The biggest blocker question of course is not an injury but a suspension. Mullen repeated Thursday he did not agree with the SEC sidelining center Dillon Day for a game, the result of two ‘stomping’ accusations by the losing team as well as a comparable 2013 incident at Auburn. But he accepted the league’s ruling and somebody else will snap the ball next week. Interestingly, Day was still #1 center the first two days of this week as State did more ‘brush up’ practicing on exposed items than actual game prep.

It is assumed by media but not confirmed by any coach guard Ben Beckwith will move to center for A&M. Beckwith all but said so this week, without really saying it in so many on-record words. He hasn’t snapped in a live game since 2008 in high school after all but did play center in the spring game. This does not mean Coach John Hevesy will abandon senior Archie Muniz just because he snapped a ball over Prescott’s long reach that set up the touchdown giving LSU a realistic comeback shot. The other option is Devon Desper, who was at right guard in that situation after Mullen had replaced the first line.

One sideline on the much-criticized decision to ‘take foot off the gas’ in the fourth quarter. Mullen did not do so until the first offense had driven to the Tiger 12-yard line with a 34-16 lead and going on six minutes left. The fascinating fact is Mullen didn’t change the offensive line out of merciful intent at that point. LSU had two defensive starters hurt on the previous play and during the injury timeout the coach started thinking what might happen if he left his #1s on the field. Why risk losing a starter to an angry opponent or something like that?

Fortunately even if relaxing the pressure allowed LSU to make that rally the Bulldog survived, lessons were learned, and that ravaged secondary even came up with the winning play when Redmond intercepted the last Tiger pass. Though as Mullen said, he still should have knocked it down just to be safe.

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