And secondly, because the next magazine just got turned in. The December-dated mag, that is, which comes out in November and trumpets the pending tip-off of basketball season. It ain't easy spending three weeks in the heart of football season writing basketball stuff, but we do it all for you Dear Reader. I even fulminate briefly in the editorial about overlapping seasons, which will be a special headache next late-February. Besides the hoops SEC stretch run, and the start of baseball season…spring football will be starting up! Has to, with the spring game absurdly early on March 31.
Rick Stansbury's guys began their own preseason Friday evening, and it's a shorter camp than normal with the season moved up a week to November 11 tip-off. While back in early summer the coach wanted badly to play in one of those holiday-time tournaments, you know Stansbury is now very glad his wish was denied…and that it resulted in that Canadian tour with three romps and two good weeks of practice.
Talking to him Thursday, Stansbury said he's so much farther ahead now in terms of evaluations and experimentations than any of his previous eight seasons. Which is doubly-good news considering the makeup of this squad. I mean, of the probable early starting lineup—Jamont Gordon, the Delks, Charles Rhodes and Vernon Goodridge—three for sure can play at least two regular roles and the others adapt as needed. Such versatility is a good thing in the general sense…but only if it doesn't prevent perfecting their primary roles (re: the aforementioned Pegues) for big games ahead. I mean, you can have too many options to make fast, confident decisions.
Oh, and if you wonder, the first question I asked Coach last week wasn't about lineups or health. It was when would the public get a chance to see these Dogs for themselves. I'd barely started the query when Rick jumped in saying we could have it first, that there will be an open scrimmage October 28 with the time to be set once the Kentucky football game time is set. We could know as soon as tomorrow afternoon, so stay tuned here.
No need to speculate much at the moment about what kind of season it could/should be. I did greatly enjoy talking last week with Goodridge for a magazine piece, not just because he is a critical piece in this picture but because he's a sharp fellow. We talked basketball, of course, but also all sorts of other stuff from his background in Barbados and Brooklyn to his well-known fondness for electronica. Mr. Gadget, I called him. But I nearly fell over laughing at one point. We were talking musical tastes and after hearing who he has on the stereo today (confession: I'm so hopelessly out-of-it I only recognized ‘Jay-Z' among the names mentioned), I suggested he give some of my old redneck rock a try. He'd heard of the Allman Brothers, but when I mentioned Lynnerd Skynnerd he asked "what kind of base lines does he have?" Once recovered from a bout of hilarity, I politely informed Goodridge L.S. was a group.
And it should be a lively group hitting the court this winter, too. So I'll wait until the 28th as patiently as possible to see what the Dogs are doing in camp.
Back to the bunch playing real games at the moment. It's risky to make too much of beating Jacksonville State since that's what any respectable SEC side should do with a minimum of fuss. Yet let's not overlook something obvious. Any program still struggling to get its collective cleats on firmer footing will take whatever success it can grab. And the Bulldogs grabbed this opportunity with both paws. Really, I oughtn't come across too tough on the offense. They showed some first-half stuff that looked interesting and was close enough to being productive, if the whole 11 on the field at each time had been just a bit more confident.
Which points to a season-long issue Coach Sylvester Croom has been addressing, the painfully slow starts by this offense. For those counting, and aren't we all, the offense has scored two first-half touchdowns now in seven games. More accurately second-quarter touchdowns, as the MSU offense hasn't gotten to the goal line in a first period all season. And no longer can critics point to (perceived) conservative early play-calling, because for the last few weeks we're seeing State throwing earlier and oftener as well as using a variety of run-styles. But image is everything, as the tennis guy said, and you'll never convince some that State only attacks ‘tween the tackles until falling far enough behind to open it up.
There is a gram of truth behind the perception, though, in that the Bulldogs definitely prefer playing not-to-lose initially. No shame there; most teams do against either equal or better competition, and it's the NFL's mantra. State's problem has not so much been cautious play-calling as hesitant play-running by Dogs who still lack the sort of game-proven faith that makes a difference. Explain, you say? Simple. An unsure…no, let's call it a not-completely-assured player penalizes himself by slivers of seconds during the process of executing what has been practiced all week. And time, Dear Reader, is something modern football doesn't offer once the hogskin is hiked. In just my years in the game college ball has gone warp-speed at all positions. I don't mean alleged 40-times, either. I mean the speed at which everything happens everywhere, most of all in making reads and decisions on offense.
The perfect example is still from the season-opener with South Carolina, when frosh Anthony Dixon was handed the ball and told to get a half-yard to continue a drive. Remember how he made a single false half-step, tried to correct and was stuffed? Without going into how a true rookie had to be put in such a situation in the first place, the play reflects how lack of certainty makes a good athlete look frozen in place…yet it all happened in the space of a heartbeat.
Now. All that said, Saturday's second half showed some Dogs playing with more poise than any time of the season to-date. Again setting aside quality of competition, the offense lined up and moved the ball on four-straight series and produced three touchdowns. And, an interception when Mike Henig got greedy and forced one in Eric Butler's direction. That's OK as he'd delivered on some clutch throws already, such as the strike to he's-back Aubrey Bell on third-and-long. It makes one only wonder how the season would have developed if Henig hadn't gotten knocked loopy on the very first play of the first game, then broken-up later. I still believe the Dogs would've taken South Carolina in four quarters with Henig running the show. In turn, and with Brandon Thornton also healthy, you can't convince me State would have spotted Tulane that much of a lead. There's a good reason both were starters in the opener, y'know.
Oh, well. It's all in the books to stay. For the moment we can be grateful Henig, Thornton, and most others are mid-year healthy; and that Mike Brown got cleared after sitting half-a-season for transferring within the conference. I shudder how confidence would've suffered if still-developing Chris Spencer had been thrown in at tackle yesterday when J.D. Hamilton went down. (We'll get his injury update Monday morning.) Just as importantly, there are signs that the offense is gaining confidence in itself at last. Maybe in small increments and individually, but it can add up. Or so we have to hope as State gets into all-SEC, every week for the rest of the schedule. If the lack of execution which has been the Dog downfall the last 2-1/2 years is improved with confidence, there is the chance to get something better done before this season is in the books.
The stretch starts with a road trip to Georgia, a venue where State has not won (are you ready?) since 1956. Egad, before even I was born. And speaking of the road, I'll hit it Friday. After getting emotionally ready, that is, by watching a movie suitable to the challenge. For ventures on less-challenging interstate stretches I'll watch something merely amusing, like say ‘The Gumball Rally.' That works well on trips up or down I-55, or I-10 through the panhandle, or on that wonderfully easy I-16 span from Macon to Savannah. I-20 is schizo, not so bad from Jackson-to-Dallas but tougher heading eastward and requires something more combative, like ‘Smokey & The Bandit,' to properly prepare. Especially if I gotta go on through and not just to Atlanta. Getting psyched for even tougher cases, such as I-65 from Nashville to Louisville, demands re-watching the existential classic ‘Vanishing Point.' And while my own experiences on it are relatively limited, the only way to get ready to face the hell of I-95 is ‘Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.' Or maybe something by Sam Peckinpaugh (sp?) where the horsepower is old-school.
Reading back over this, the chemicals do appear to be taking over. So before I collapse chin-first on the keyboard…which might actually improve the writing…I'd best call it an evening. After celebrating both a MSU victory and meeting a D.B. mag deadline with a Southern Baptist margarita. I ain't so far gone as to need ethyl alcohol in the system yet. Though, if these Bulldogs should happen to score the first victory of my lifetime in Athens, it might just be the right time to start indulging in the devil's tonsil tonic. We'll see.