Now. About the state of Mississippi State 2016. Or, if opening day meant what some suddenly suspect, 2017. Because if these Bulldogs don’t bounce back to beat South Carolina and even do so decisively, this season becomes become a long, live preparation for next year.
Which was a nagging notion in Bulldog Country all summer anyway. More than a few times yesterday I heard, not only from fans but even school staffers, that 2016 had the least build-up, the least energy, of any preseason in years. I’d say since what, 2006? Honestly, some of this was unavoidable.
It’s the ‘bad’ schedule year for one thing, none of the real rivals coming to campus. Just six games, too, and thanks one last time former Tulane AD for fouling us up. Of course You Know Who is wearing a Cowboys uniform. And overriding all, the most uncomfortable topic of all, is ongoing humiliation at the arch-rival’s hands. That weighs on a fan base.
Added to all-the-above was simple uncertainty what Dan Mullen really has to work with here in year-eight. Small wonder then this lack of Bulldog buzz leading into 2016. Well, things are certainly buzzing today.
I’ve stated this before and most seem to agree, including media peers. Among all the genuine achievements of his tenure to-date, the most under-appreciated aspect has been Mullen’s total lack of ‘bad’ losses. Bad defined as losing an essentially sure-thing matchup to non-conference clubs. I always explained this had nothing to do with betting lines and picks and favorites and such. It meant Mullen went seven whole seasons without losing a game State was beyond-question supposed to win. Something no other Bulldog football coach of modern memory could claim, by the way.
There were close calls. La Tech ’11. At Troy ’12. Bowling Green ’13. Mullen’s teams always managed to make that one more play and avoid major upset. He never had his Northeast Louisiana or Troy or Maine moment.
Until September 3, 2016.
This was an absolutely bad loss. Worse even than any of the other examples would have been because it was as sure an opening day W as can be for Mississippi State. And it became an L. It doesn’t take away from avoiding it for seven seasons, understand. Just that an obscure point of pride is gone.
With it also goes the squad sense that hey, we may have one of those days when we’re just sorta OK and sputtering but we’ll still escape somehow. They know better now. Maybe it is a good thing for the future; probably it isn’t for this particular team as confidence is surely shaken. I have to wonder that even if either field goal had gone good (and trust me, those kicks did NOT lose the game, it was squandered long before on offense and defense alike), would these Bulldogs have left the field with any genuine confidence?
Well. What next?
With the holiday, we don’t have the normal Monday game week presser, though the plan is to practice tomorrow. It’ll be Tuesday before Mullen can be asked if quarterback has just been settled.
It should be. Because that was as good a game as Damian Williams can physically play, against exactly the sort of defense he should play well. And it wasn’t well enough. It should still have been for that matchup, and let’s give credit where due.
Williams got off eight plays between 0:57 and 0:09, and if his only real mistake was not sliding down middle-field in setting up the last kick that was more a case of smart South Alabama tacklers keeping him upright and dragging him to the left hashmark.
He also led four scoring drives in as many series; and two other times drove the ball within what for any other program in this d@@@@@ level of the sport is an automatic field goal. For the love of mercy, invest a scholarship in a specialist, will ya? Wasn’t Sean Brauchle the last recruited kicker here? Instead State will surely sign another two-star lineman who may by the junior year be doing placekick protection.
Where was I? Right. Quarterback. As genuine a job as was done yesterday, that was not SEC quarterbacking. I heard fans grousing about lack of downfield separation by receivers. Sorry, it’s hard to separate when four or five wideouts have to stay within 10, at most 15 yards of the line of scrimmage because the passer doesn’t have vertical range.
Explained another way: Williams’ size and arm and style confine receivers to routes not only shorter but spotted. There aren’t going to be in-stride catches downfield, I mean. Except by backs and sure enough the longest pass play of the day was 19 yards on a ball Brandon Holloway caught behind the line and hauled from there. Always a good play, a valuable item in the repertoire…but nothing to challenge downfield coverage. Take that one play away and Williams’ 19 other completions averaged 6.5 yards of gain.
So let’s say it…and believe me it was said often and loudly yesterday evening. Don’t just start Nick Fitzgerald this week. Stick with him. Find out if this is the guy to run this offense. If not, move on.
Agreed, his two series were not at all sharp. The three passes took f-o-r-e-v-e-r to arrive and were aimed more than thrown anyway. Still we’ve seen enough ’15 backup and spring scrimmage snaps to know Fitzgerald has the range and the reads. He’s also got Fred Ross and Donald Gray among others who can separate themselves downfield. Plus, he’s just the better runner, period.
Because the game went south in the second half, there was no chance to ask Mullen about the bizarre use of Fitzgerald as designated kneeler before halftime. I am convinced had USA not scored to open the new half Fitzgerald would have been back on the field first series no matter what the coach told TV. As things went to hades from there, I had no argument riding Williams the rest of the way and the guy did his part, mostly, within confusing constraints.
Seriously, 1st down on the 21 leading by six, having pounded the ball that far; and a couple of throws outside which even if caught only create a sharper kicking angle? Somebody got clever at the wrong time.
Just as somebody remains convinced Holloway is a SEC running back. Sorry. I like the guy and he’s the best interview on the offense. There are also situations where a 165-pound back can thrive running between the tackles, as his seven-yard squirt for touchdown showed.
Such situations mean A) an unwary non-SEC defense and B) successful interior blocking. Neither was evident in the fourth quarter when twice within three plays Holloway was sent into center to start a series. 0 and 2 yards resulted. Swear, it was as if he was already ducking while taking the handoff in anticipation of contact.
No, his forte is as a package back on outside runs or throws. Otherwise it is sheer stubbornness to insist this is lead back in an offense that is unsettled at quarterback. But opening game didn’t show enough encouraging alternatives either. I still think, maybe hope is better word for it, Aeris Williams can be the well-rounded runner/receiver for Mullen’s varieties of spread. Ashton Shumpert? He’s got one cut and no burst.
In fact the best ‘back’ I saw yesterday was Keith Mixon. OK, I should say Fred Ross but he’s got enough on his plate already. Mixon had more moves and burst and such than any Bulldog back so far, though to be fair had the game gone as should have Alec Murphy and Nick Gibson would have had some late chances. Regardless, when Malik Dear presumably comes off suspension this week—and I’m convinced he would have made an major difference yesterday—is it worth giving the redshirt frosh a look at back? Yes, I’ve heard y’alls pleas and outright howls to make Dear a back. I’m not there, yet. Not unless Ross is going to stay 80% in a slot spot. Then I’ll agree since Mixon and Dear need touches. Lots of ‘em.
The real issue is still not so much who is the best runner for handing off to. It’s who will do the handing off and everything else. Unless there is some internal and intangible issue setting him cross-grain with the club, it makes no sense not to ride the most talented of the tested quarterbacks charge. Give him the offense for a whole SEC game. Decide which backs best complement the offensive tendencies that chosen quarterback favors.
Then…live with the results. Maybe those two decisions will suffice for this season. Maybe not. 2016 hopes were always fragile and hinged on the Auburn-BYU games almost completely. As in, these Dogs probably had to be bowl-eligible before November. Now what we thought were toss-up contests are looking much more problematic.
And there’s no remaining margin. The third-surest W on the slate, wasn’t. This week brings what, in August, set up as the surest SEC win of ’16. It better still be.
Otherwise, come this time next Sunday it’s 2017.