Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Bowl Site Practice Begins Thursday; Miami Offense Presents Same Style Challenges

Sure it’s cliché this time of year. It is also still fun to hear a coach proclaim his club will show up in bowl town completely prepared. Peter Sirmon predicts this for the Bulldog defense.

“Where you can go drop the ball down anywhere you want,” Mississippi State’s coordinator said. “Put it in the parking lot and we’ll be ready to go.”

Well, Mississippi State won’t have to play Miami-Ohio outdoors at all. Though, given what baseball folk say about Tropicana Field’s turf, asphalt might be the faster surface. Never mind. When Bulldogs and Redhawks line-up under that dome Sirmon expects his defense to go on the attack after a productive campus practice period.

“The guys will be OK. We have a good plan in place for how we’re getting ready.”

That getting-ready resumes Thursday after Mississippi State reports to St. Petersburg tomorrow evening. They will have closed practices for three days at a high school facility; and a Sunday walk-through on the stadium field after a Christmas morning team party.

For Sirmon and defensive staff bowl season has been maybe more welcome than even for their offensive counterparts. Simply stated, 2016 was a frustrating season. To be fair some struggles were anticipated for a first-time coordinator and entirely-new-to-MSU quartet of defensive coaches.

But few would have believed the Bulldogs would give up 33 points per game (ten more than in 2015), and a startling 461 yards each weekend. Even allowing for the complete turnover in staff and a mostly-new base scheme this was a frustrating first-time-around.

Yet by virtue of earning a last-team-in bowl berth, all Bulldogs had an extra month to work together. While the offensive staff could focus on developing the underclassman-heavy future, Sirmon’s crew could evaluate what worked, what didn’t, whys for either…and address a whole lot of basic items right now.

“You kind of got to dust some things off,” said Sirmon. “Because we were in that developmental mode in camp, in spring football mode where you’re really just working on your own fundamentals. And not really matching things up. And we weren’t spending a bunch of time in the meeting rooms preparing for a certain style of offense.”

The gears have shifted to game preparation of course, with three more days of that on campus and now three more in warmer Florida weather. The conditions alone should put some spring in Bulldog steps.

The chance to win one more game, for seniors and transfers to go out winners and the ’17 varsity to build more momentum after their Egg Bowl victory, adds to the excitement. The chance, repeat.

Because for all the predictions that Mississippi State (5-7) has drawn perhaps the best matchup of bowl season, Sirmon sees more to Miami. Much, much more. Most of all, he recognizes a ball team which pulled off a resurgence besides which anything the Dogs did pales, overcoming a 0-6 start to win six-straight games and earn their own bowl berth.

“Talk about an awesome turnaround for their team,” Sirmon said. “They’ve really turned it around, they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”

The Redhawks (6-6) are playing with a confident and more to the point healthy quarterback. Sophomore Gus Ragland could have lost the whole season after an April knee ligament injury. But he rehabilitated in time for October activation, and changed everything.

Activated for game-seven, Ragland not only started but won…and kept winning all the way through. “And hasn’t thrown an interception all year,” Sirmon said. A 62% passer, Ragland has 15 touchdowns tossed.

Changing that one key component both changed the season and gave Sirmon something of a new team to scout. Or did it? “They tweaked a few things in their offense,” Sirmon said. “They haven’t changed that much.

“I’ve watched all twelve games, you’re looking for some themes and some patterns.” What the defensive scouting sees is a typical spread-style attack using inside zone runs as well as getting the ball to the perimeter with reads for run or pass options. ‘They’ve even dabbled a little in ‘21’ personnel as well.”

It adds up to, per Sirmon, an offense in keeping with the spread schemes Mississippi State has seen all through this season. Now that is not necessarily encouraging word based on results. In the last six games, for examples, five opponents topped 500 total yards and three of them reached 600-plus.

At the same time, familiarity has to count for something. It certainly has allowed the Dogs to address their regular season issues ahead of 2017 rematches with most of those offenses. The bowl game provides a measure of how much the defense has addressed in those aspects and what will need more spring emphasis.

And of course, the best fix for all football problems is win one. It won’t be as easy as most seem to forecast. Sirmon says Miami will show up expecting to win, too.

“I know their defense is playing well. So they’re going to be coming in with some confidence.” By the same token, he wants his Dogs to pick up where campus camp left off and get the defense tuned in time for Monday’s kickoff.

“We’ll essentially start to really refine it the week down there.”

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