Running Backs Coach Greg Knox

Emory Bellard wouldn’t recognize the formation. The principles? Yeah, those he might find familiar when Bulldogs try running the ball. “It’s all a triple-option read,” Coach Greg Knox said.

Never mind there isn’t a bone in sight, whether wish-, wing-, broken- or inverted-. Though there are certainly some veer tendencies. Regardless, whether the rushing play heads up the middle, stays inside the tackles, or tries to take an edge, what happens wasn’t specifically signaled from the sideline.

The direction is determined by what the quarterback sees. Or maybe doesn’t see.

“It’s all a read,” Knox repeated. “The defense dictates just like in the pass game where that ball is going.”

Fans hate to hear (or read) this, that Mississippi State’s offense is not forcing its will on defenses. They like less watching a Bulldog back blast into pileup and stopped for little to no gains. But this is the fact of football life for an offense still figuring itself out one month into the 2016 season.

“You have to take what the defense tells (the quarterback) to do,” Knox said. “You’ve got to make that read.”

Thing is, some aspects of State’s ground game are making, yes, gains. Massachusetts isn’t the stoutest test on the slate but netting 299 rushing yards with touchdowns by two Dog runners was progress. That day also raised the season average to a surprising 5.6 yards per attempt.

Now comes a much tougher test as Mississippi State hosts an Auburn defense with an elite front line and fast linebackers. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and the receiving corps have their own challenges of course. But if the Bulldogs don’t deliver on the ground though the passing game will be pushed that much more.

So then, which Bulldog backs will be asked to do that delivering? Nothing seems ready to change in the rotation. Senior Brandon Holloway remains first Dog up, then either Ashton Shumpert or Aeris Williams getting ensuing series.

Riding the lightest runner seems counter-intuitive under SEC circumstances. Knox figures Holloway is the best bet to break a big run off simply because he’s the fastest of the veterans. “They’re all different, they all bring a little something different to the table. His is speed that allows him to make big plays.

“We try to put him in some positions to be successful. Whether it’s inside or outside, we try to get him the ball in space where he can operate one-on-one and be very effective for us.”

Still power has advantages and maybe more so in this matchup. Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams each scored at Foxboro and showed some burst in the process. Physically there isn’t a lot to choose between them, and Knox indeed said there is another, larger factor.

“Shump is a little bit older, a little bit more mature and more experienced. He actually doesn’t think, he just reacts. Where Aeris is still thinking a little bit so that slows him down. He’s still understanding it, still learning it. But it’s starting to come with him also.”

The fourth veteran, Dontavian Lee, is playing; just on kicking plays. Knox said the time lost in camp shows. “When you have three guys in front of you, you have to take what hand is dealt.”

If that sounds harsh, consider that State’s staff has gotten in a similar situation in using some untested personnel. By now redshirts Alec Murphy and Nick Gibson were supposed to have played live snaps. None of the games developed to allow it. Not yet.

“We would love to be able to get them in a game a little bit,” Knox said. “But the opportunity just has not presented itself.”

Maybe it will this weekend, one way or the other. Priority won’t be getting snaps for reserves though. It’s a game which sets up as maybe a crossroads for the remaining State season. For that matter October’s results will almost certainly settle if Mississippi State continues the record bowling streak.

In-turn, upgrading the ground game could be the difference between SEC success and frustration. Knox believes his Bulldogs can get the job done.

“You work hard, good things are going to happen in your favor.”

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