Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Bulldog Running Offense Shows Better Balance Ahead of Open Date

Aeris Williams walked in wearing a smile. So the easy assumption was, this Bulldog was happy after a team win and a touchdown game for himself. Nope. “I’m always happy,” Williams said. “Honestly.”

Honestly, there were plenty other Dogs happier about more than seeing Williams getting in the end zone against Massachusetts. Team and fans were thrilled, and likely relieved, to see a pair of rushing touchdowns and just a step shy of 300 yards from Mississippi State’s struggling ground game.

Oh, the 299 yards wasn’t a huge step-up itself. The Bulldogs got 290 in the win over South Carolina after all, and 259 against South Alabama. The difference this time was consistency from every Dog that hauled the ball.

And it wasn’t about changing tactics or matchups, per Coach Dan Mullen. “Just running the ball hard, guys running off the ball, covering people up.”

Scoring, too. The two touchdowns, scored by Williams and Ashton Shumpert, were as many rushing scores as State had the first three games combined. What mattered more really was how the Dogs ran the ball when they just had to run the ball.

Especially in the second half. Williams said it was simply a matter of the bigger Bulldogs asserting their strengths over scrappy Minutemen.

“The offensive line. They started pushing, and we started telling them they can’t mess with them. And they just were tearing (UMass) up.”

Better blocking certainly set up Williams for what became the go-ahead touchdown. Trailing again 21-20 midway of the third quarter State got a long kickoff return and short field to work with. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald set up UMass with his own two positive runs and a pass play; and on first down at the 16-yard line read the defense before handing Williams the ball on a right-sweep.

It turned into something straight off the game playlist page.

“It went just like practice. In practice we have to go through a 45-degree cut, I took my 45-degree cut and cut back outside, and scored. It was just…beautiful.”

A thing of Bulldog beauty indeed, and Williams’ first touchdown since a Belk Bowl bolt through traffic. Shumpert’s 12-yard dash to seal 47-35 victory was pretty in its own right, a cut off left tackle and open alley to the pylon. Those are exactly the type runs Mississippi State has expected from Williams and Shumpert all along. Not that the backs take credit.

“I thanked the offensive line,” Williams said. “Because without them I’d probably have been stopped at the line of scrimmage.”

There was a whole lot of such stopping earlier in this game, and certainly at Tiger Stadium a week earlier. Getting genuine ground-pounding production again was a positive sign of offensive progress overall. It also gives the Bulldogs evidence to apply in this week’s open date drills, of what hasn’t worked and what now can.

The first step of course was settling a quarterback. Not that Fitzgerald was going to lose his job after opening day issues and an upset loss, understand. So maybe it was just settling down how the sophomore is to run the offense. Which at first meant just plain running.

Fitzgerald’s position-record 195 yards against South Carolina was a stronger re-start. Even after LSU showed more than a running quarterback is required, this weapon still is what State has to build the ground game around.

Williams knows what Fitzgerald presents a defense. “Because they always have to keep an eye on him. Once they take their eyes off him, I mean we’re gone already.”

Well, gone is exaggerating it. Still Williams is on the right track. A real running threat at quarterback is absolutely key to making State’s 2016 version of the spread system work. Now there’s another tweak.

In those two SEC games, Fitzgerald’s called runs were generally going to the edge(s), and interior runs mostly last-second reactions to the defensive set or scrambles. Against UMass, the quarterback called his own number going right up the middle all along.

And, more interestingly, from under-center and not out of the shotgun.

Fitzgerald said in this game it was a down-and-distance deal. “It was just a short yardage thing, trying to get the first down, to get that short yardage. We did a little QB-sneak action and it worked out well for us.”

Well? State’s first points came as on 3rd-and-4 Fitzgerald didn’t sneak, he dashed past center Jamaal Clayborn for 21 fast yards. Other ‘sneaks’ went for shorter but still solid gains that did more than just move chains. Fitzgerald finished with 110 yards on his 15 runs, again leading the team.

However, the supporting crew had their own good games. Starter Brandon Holloway was able to get around corners more en route to 80 yards, a career-high output. Shumpert finished with 68 yards and his touchdown. Along with Williams, the three tailbacks averaged 6.4 yards per attempt.

And of course Fitzgerald netted 7.3 yards on his keepers, called or forced, even allowing for a single sacking. “There was a lot of room and I just followed it,” he said.

“Our blocking finally stepped up. The line was moving people out of the way on the perimeter and the running backs running really hard.”

Now, the best part? Bulldog backs weren’t satisfied. Happy, as Williams said. But not at all satisfied. “I feel we could have beat them by a lot more points than that. Which we should have beat them by a lot.”

True. Tougher tests are right ahead and the Bulldogs are a long way from bowl eligibility. So this open date is not time for celebrating.

“But a win is a win like (Mullen) said,” Williams said. “And we’ve got to be happy with any win.”


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