From The Dawghouse

Please bear with me for a paragraph as I once again call on my favorite non-college sport for a suitable metaphor that should make a practical, if painful, point about the state of Bulldog football here at the halfway point of the 2006 season.

While going over the game participation chart last night I had racing on the tube. No, not Tennessee's runaway second-half show at Georgia, but the grand prix event from Japan. During the race it looked to this amateur eye that several back-of-the-field cars and drivers have been improving through the season, yet they still aren't catching up with the leaders. In fact most just keep falling farther behind as the front runners constantly upgrade their own equipment.

If you made it this far, you likely see what we're, umm, driving at.

I'm convinced any still-objective observer, if there be such an animal in the passionate world of college football, has seen some signs of progress by Mississippi State lately. Admittedly after consecutive season-opening shutouts anything offensively would've been an improvement. But since getting blanked for nine quarters the Bulldogs have been markedly better at moving the ball forward and even scoring the occasional touchdown.

Getting any points while going through three starting quarterbacks, a cycle that seems is about to start over, is some sort of accomplishment. The kicking game has made the greatest progress in all aspects. The defense? That's a surprisingly different story though given lack of steady support we still can't be too critical there. Most breakdowns are coming where opponents attack the less-experienced personnel, guys who will only get better for the burnings.

And yet…there are precious few signs that a presumably-progressing football team is gaining any ground on the conference kin. In both record and reality, here at 2006 ‘halftime' the Bulldogs are bringing up the rear of the SEC. Worse, it's hard to honestly say they haven't fallen farther behind the rest of the league this year since Kentucky and Mississippi have wins and Vanderbilt probably should.

So…where is this proclaimed progress we're supposed to see? Forgive my calling upon the well-worn theme of intangibles, but that's fact. There are aspects to State that are indeed better. At Baton Rouge, with the outcome assured before halftime, I commented to a cohort in the press box that just the Bulldog body language was completely different; that even down 35-0 players weren't slumped in defeat, that they jumped into assigned positions as if about to start a game-deciding drive. In a hopeless situation where previous teams would've gone through the motions these guys stuck to the task.

Yesterday? More subtle good signs. This time they didn't wait for intermission to pick up the pace, the Dogs responded to consecutive touchdowns by bearing down in both directions. Ditto when West Virginia blitzed out of the locker room to a too-easy score and 21-7 lead. Or after Omarr Conner went down, or that how'd-he-not-catch-it? interception in the end zone to make it a one-touchdown difference again. There were so many opportunities to just emotionally pack it in and accept another loss, yet that didn't happen. Not even the punt return touchdown to inflate the final margin was a gimme, the guy was that quick against a squad weary from chasing Mountaineer rabbits.

Good signs. And all still too subtle, too intangible, to amount to what really matters. State is still back of the pack in this race. While nobody actually thought the Bulldogs would beat any of the ranked foes played so far, few envisioned a 1-5 midpoint mark with the lone victory requiring overtime. And at this point 2-10 is looming uncomfortably large in most projections for the finish. Heaven help all involved if that second win doesn't come this week.

If fans find it hard to accept lack of obvious progress, it's no easier for the players and staff to explain. In fact it might not be a bad idea to put a lot of weekday practice footage on M2M; not for the X-and-O stuff of course, but to show how these players continue to put in a good afternoon's work. Even, believe it or not, to have some fun, with each other and their coaches. There's no clock-punching here, no ‘get the day over with' attitudes. From warm-ups to dismissal there's a truly positive atmosphere around these Dogs.

So why doesn't that translate over into actual games. More specifically, in how State starts games? As Coach Sylvester Croom said last week, "I wish I had an answer for that." Upon which made an (to my mind) unfortunate comment about getting the services of a sports psychologist. More practically the coach has talked a lot lately of trying to change one other aspect of MSU mindset. Of putting both the program and their own immediate histories behind, ignoring the names on the other jersies, and playing their own game. Now there I do think he's on to something, because it would certainly play a part in early-game intimidation and thus falling behind. Or, is it that the Dogs simply are still much more comfortable playing from behind? That it takes some internal pressures off and frees them from responsibility to win? Hmm, now I'm starting to talk like a sports-shrink…

Along that line of thought, we might expect Croom is learning not to make so many ‘absolute' style statements in this area. Most of us grasp that he's speaking generally, but the words come out much stronger. Thus when Tuesday the coach comments on "guys staying out of trouble…having decency and manners", then on Wednesday one of those guys is arrested for simple assault and public indecency…well, let's just say the P.R. timing couldn't have been worse. But the larger point is that these Bulldogs really are behaving as a bunch, probably better than the general run of college males at MSU these days. It's just that given those strong statements such incidents stick out all the more.

It will be a shame if Croom has to adapt his public persona and become more guarded in all comments. Certainly we scribes enjoys his rare (for major sports anyway) candor and lack of instinctive spin; but the old P.R. guy I used to be kinda cringes, though, hearing unambiguous statements that I just know will come back to haunt. But better the man be what he is, as he tries every trick he knows to help these Dogs be what he is still convinced they can be.

Croom says the overall talent level is higher, if still far short of the SEC elite, and that efforts by the first- and second-year players in practices and games bodes better for the future. Well and good. But if there really is a strain of ‘MSU historyosis' infecting their elders as the coach claims what is to keep the kids from catching it? Only one thing, and that what State has failed to do since leaving the Snow Bowl six years ago. Win games that can be built upon.

"We do not have confidence," Croom said last week. "And the only way to get confidence is at some point trusting what you believe in and going out and winning against a good football team. Two years ago we beat Florida, it was exciting, but I wasn't particularly excited because I knew we were not a good football team yet. These guys are hanging together and have gotten better in practice every week. We've gotten better from a talent standpoint, no question our character as a football team has gotten better."

But the record still hasn't. Will it? It says volumes about State's situation that Jacksonville State will be labeled the most important game of Croom's career…because it's true. And just winning by not-losing won't be sufficient. The Bulldogs have to come out clearly, obviously, openly playing to win for a change. Maybe that's harsh since, as noted in the game story, they threw the ball on three-straight first downs and on 19 of 30 first-half snaps. So much for popular opinion that the gameplan is always two dives at center and a third-down throw short of the marker even if caught. Though, fairness requires noting that I still can't figure why certain receiver combos are on the field in down-and-distance that just don't seem to match up well. Or why bruiser Anthony Dixon is used on ‘stretch' type runs where faster feet are needed just to get to the corner.

Then again let's also give credit for adapting to circumstances. Like keeping Mike Henig in a shotgun where he's clearly more comfy. Or running the faster receivers in different tracks, like down the hashes instead of just along the sidelines. It shows this is not nearly as fossilized a scheme as many want to believe. Not that I'm yet convinced it's the best one long-term for MSU, though, a tack I'll take in a future column. And it's also hard to shake the perception that one reason State starts so slowly is they're trying not to lose it all in the opening quarter. It's the pro-ball philosophy; kinda like when Lynn Amedee was coordinating in 1996-98.

Getting back to the confidence aspect, State is still in the poultry-and-produce conundrum. What comes first, confidence or success? Even false confidence should be sufficient for a Jax State…but then the same was true for Tulane and we saw what happened when the Dogs relaxed against a non-SEC visitor. That third quarter alone did more damage to the perception (perhaps even reality) of the building job Croom is attempting than anything before, even Maine. And here in year-three it's increasingly tougher to shift responsibility back into the past. Maybe that theme should also be consigned to history, too.

Progress? Yes, it's there. But it's also coming slowly, while everybody else in the league seems to be speeding up. And unlike NASCAR, ain't nobody gonna wave the yellow flag so the back-markers can catch up. If the Bulldogs are going to gain ground the rest of this season they will have to pick up their own pace.

*THERE ARE times you really can't help wondering why things develop as they do. Take Mississippi State's quarterbacks. Debate and denigrate their performances all you wish, but even the most frustrated fan has to dial back on the vitriol today when considering their hideous run of 2006 breaks…and tears, and strains.

(Note: this is being filed before receiving official word on the health of Omarr Conner and Tray Rutland.)

After six games all three starting play-callers have been put out with injuries. That's an average game-life expectancy of…sheesh, was the quarterback meeting room built over a native burial ground or sump'n? It's a good question how anyone has the grit to line up under center these days. Thankfully grit is what Mike Henig has, along with that right arm. Of course Tony Burks briefly forgot how Henig will bring it, and it cost State dearly. Doubt he does it again; no doubt we'll see that play again, too.

But the quarterback depth chart just about doesn't exist any more. How d'ya like being promoted to #2, Ty Evans? Hopefully the JSU game gets under control soon enough to ease the kid in some series that matter, because he wasn't ready to be blitzed for the first time. Of course who would be?

Henig, who had to sit out four games with that busted collarbone, had mixed feelings upon a forced return to action. "I hurt for Omarr," he said, then adding that when he heard his name called "It felt good! Two days after surgery I was out there throwing. It was killing me sitting there watching. The doctor had cleared me to play at LSU, it just wasn't my time."

Now it's Henig's time, again. You might think the wideouts will be checking some private program just to see who's throwing balls each quarter, but Burks isn't worried. "In practice they rotate like that all the time, so it's no biggie." And what about the guys charged with protecting the passer? "The O-line guys can tell that they've got to block different for different quarterbacks," Henig said. "I'm not going to bread 30 or 40 yard runs…not that I'm slow or anything!"

Oh, and once again, may I remind all that Henig is practically the SAME HEIGHT as Rutland? I know what you think you see; it's an illusion. I see them standing side-by-side at practice and can vouch."

*YEAH, THEY can scoot. But let's not get carried away, because West Virginia hasn't necessarily got the best offensive speed I've seen on a football field. Have we forgotten those Florida squads of the 90s? Or how Tennessee for years had true track-speed at wideout? And I doubt there's a current Mountaineer who could've matched strides with Herschel Walker. Or Bo Jackson. For that matter I'd bet on Matt   Jones in a straight footrace with WVU's quarterback. That said, where the ‘Eers have an edge is where most don't notice. Their offensive linemen trade pounds for quickness. Thus, as Quinton Culberson noted, the blockers could get upfield quicker than a typical, bulkier SEC line and attack the lineabackers and safeties. So if you lined them up in an 11-man relay race, yeah, maybe WVU would win over any team I've seen.

Yet it really isn't the velocity that makes the Mountaineers so explosive. It's a combination of quick feet and quicker reads. Those backs, quarter- or tail-, do use their speed to outrun the first line of defenders; get to the point of decision, see opportunity set up by those downfield blockers, and seize it. Then beep-beep, as the Roadrunner would say.

*WHICH LEADS us to the flip-side of this story. If we had any illusions regarding State's collective deficiency in offensive velocity the UAB experience dashed ‘em. The Dogs are slow. Not just by SEC standards, by any D-I measure. Funny thing, though; the way West Virginia ‘ran' their defense made it possible for State to pull out some passing plays long-practiced but rarely put in games due to mixes and matchups. Such as utilizing Tyler Threadgill, who still struggles to find a niche in a precision scheme but has one practical skill: he can go straight and far. Hopefully future foes present opportunities to get Threadgill, and Keon Humphries going on deep, direct routes.

*THERE SHOULD be some good news shortly for the Bulldog offensive line. At the game unofficial word was that transfer Mike Brown has been granted his appeal to play this season. Or this half-season, anyway. Brown, who left Florida as a defensive lineman and arrived at State this summer as a new offensive tackle, has essentially been issued a half-season penalty for moving across the conference.

It would be good for Brown since he's already redshirted a year at UF and thus gets no credit for sitting out this season. And it hopefully helps the line, a notion few would argue after watching J.D. Hamilton get abused by much-faster blitzers. The departure of Calvin Wilson left redshirt Chris Spencer—who himself has practiced every darn postion up-front there is—as the only backup at either tackle. And Brown has practiced as the #2 left tackle since arriving, assuming he'd be given permission to play. So having him certified should be a positive development. But we won't really know until he plays, will we?

*DURING THE Maroon-White baseball game Friday, I couldn't resist posting an alert when I saw an amazing sight. Top of the second, rookie team batting, one out with runners first and second, and transfer outfielder Mark Goforth at-bat. What did the new guy do?

I scarce know how to say it because it means using a four-letter word. You know…bunt. Yep, Goforth squared and dropped a nice bumper to the left side. Not only that, he made first with an infield hit to load the sacks. And it led to a run on a fielder's choice grounder.

Must admit, my wise-guy side got the better of me…because I called down the press box to baseball SID Joe Dier "Guess the kid hasn't been taught better than bunt around here."

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