Yeah, I know, not all are so at-ease today, and not just Mississippi State fans still stung by the 45-0 loss…if that's the four-letter word they choose to use. I can think of at least a few folk far more upset today. Somewhere old friend and Wolverine fan Sekou Smith is shopping for a TV to replace the one destroyed yesterday, while muttering anatomically-impossible suggestions for Lloyd Carr. People can be soooo sensitive about this schoolboy's game, eh?
Seriously, though. Because getting the gamer and participation charts done took so long, it wasn't until Friday mid-morning I was able to scan the boards and take the temperature of Bulldog Country. Honestly, folks, most of you surprised me. Truly. I anticipated having to wipe venom off the screen after the opening-night blanking; instead I found myself reading a series of level-headed, objective, even insightful posts about the game that was, the team that is, and the season that yet may be. Well, OK, a few still hadn't vented the venom completely, but soon even they were mostly coming around and on the whole the tone was actually optimistic. Friends, congratulate yourselves for demonstrating restraint under the circumstances.
And, to many of you, for saying some of the things about the state of State that Bulldog staffers are also saying. Not coach-speak either, but the result of game-review to take stock of what broke down and what is to be built on. Those of a mind to might be encouraged hearing that every coach I've spoken with, on and off the record, agrees. State has the chance to be a competitive football team now if…and you can guess what or who that if involves. Much more on that in a bit.
First let's go over the good stuff, starting with this: there are no more LSU-class defensive lines on the schedule. Heck, I'm still not certain how good that Tiger secondary truly is because there weren't enough plays where the Dog receivers completed the pattern before the ball was airborne. And that without a lot of blitzing. Yet this leads to a positive point, the obvious improvement in Mississippi State's offensive line. I don't claim they ‘won' their battle with the Tigers because they didn't. But neither were they beaten the way Bulldog blocking has been by most every decent or better foe since, what, 2000? Right. As often as not State linemen held their own or sometimes even advanced and that is good, good stuff indeed. I know we all expected such improvement in 2007 but then we've hoped the same for a long time and been annually disappointed. Now there's legitimate hope for a change. Let's just see if they can do the same or better next Saturday against a lesser d-line.
Second, while they didn't get to use it often enough the wide receivers flashed the athleticism we've touted since spring. Forget numbers of completions or lack thereof. Co-Eric Riley and Brandon McRae are just what this offense needs to complement Tony Burks, Jamayel Smith, and Aubrey Bell. I really, really want to see Riley's number called more often. There's a place for Lance Long in the schemes, just not trying to beat deep coverage. Safe to say there should be more judicious selections in matchups from now on.
And, hopefully, more using the versatility of these backs. I appreciate the gameplan of daring plays with big potential against LSU as that was probably the only way State might—might—have succeeded, so don't take this as a critique. I simply mean that one dump pass to Arnil Stallworth shows what this pro-style scheme can really do against more-human opposition. Imagine Anthony Dixon getting the ball when already moving ahead; in fact I do as Dixon's one weak point is he doesn't have the great ‘first step' and a swing pass or pitch plays to his strengths. Ditto Stallworth, Christian Ducre, and eventually Robert Elliot who I expect to see in action as soon as he learns to protect the ball.
By the way, does anyone else appreciate the irony of some second-guessing we're hearing? For three years the number-one gripe about State's offense is ‘always running between the tackles.' In fact I recall the abuse Coach Sylvester Croom took a year ago for saying publicly he meant to run right at LSU as they were too fast to beat wide. So, this time State attempts getting around the corners and what? We hear howls of running too often east-west instead of north-south. We can be sooo hard to please sometimes. That said, Dixon definitely is better off slamming towards the designated spot and, if clogged, running over folk instead of trying to pick his way through. Keep those 240 or so pounds chugging and watch for something to break, as against Alabama and Arkansas last fall.
Fascinating, I now note of myself, that I've spent all that space on an offense that didn't score a point. Guess it's because we do see the potential for play-making there now. Besides, what else about the defensive effort needs saying but, whew, what a relief. Fears that the Dog D was going to get plowed after graduating those three big tackles can definitely be filed under Needless. Don't misunderstand, there will be better and more explosive offenses ahead than LSU's, so we can't say this unit has been completely tested. And there were some breakdowns by still-young players in coverage and support situations to be corrected. But we can certainly say Mississippi State's defense is faster front-to-back and side-to-side, is more aggressive across the board, and with clear athletic ability to only improve.
Which in fact we can say about almost the entire team. We are seeing the results of better recruiting and preparation in a bunch of Bulldogs that are more athletic—that's speed and strength both—and a roster that's deeper. I mean, could you have imagined the last few years letting a Willie Evans, Michael Heard, or now Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal take a series-off and still get sacks? That's what adding a Jimmie Holmes, or moving a Tim Bailey, has meant. For all Croom's stated concerns about depth, State played ten different defensive linemen against the second-ranked club in the country…by choice, not necessity. Even the great defensive Dog teams of the ‘90s didn't do that, and some of these guys weren't even at full-strength yet. It's a similar situation on the offensive front which is just about a complete two-deep now as those young blockers work into rotation—not simply substitution—roles.
So. It's taken long enough to get to the single point of complete concern, and I don't mean punting even if that's worth wondering about along with the untested placekicking. No, from now until next Saturday's first offensive snap there is only one topic to be discussed from multiple angles. Is Michael Henig still the top choice and best chance at quarterbacking the Bulldogs? I'll confess to a modest prejudice here as I like the guy. He's just fun to talk to, fun to watch at practice, and undeniably tough of body and mind. No teammate questions his commitment to the club and every Dog talked to emphasizes their continued faith in the fourth-year junior.
Still. There comes the time when production is absolutely essential no matter the opposition or situation. I can understand and maybe even excuse a couple of those interceptions for broken routes and mis-communications. The others? The easiest if not maybe not 100% accurate way to put it is they were the result of forced shots fired a tick too early. A bit, just a bit more patience in the pocket and receivers should—should—have sufficient separation and a chance to catch and run. I don't pretend to know if it was adrenalin, or nerves, or just the need to try hero-plays. But Mike is better than that, we've seen it in practice and occasionally in games. Those games State won or played well enough to.
Yet you know and I know and he knows that inconsistency is the hallmark of Henig's career to-date. I could care less about completion percentages, for now anyway. They matter of course but then we would be just as thrilled by hitting some key big-shots over a series of shorter connections. Kinda like how a good three-point shooting team can beat a foe that makes only layups. Still there's no argument that in the sort of gameplans State will usually run, or throw, Henig has to hook up more often than not on swings and slants to set up the great gainers that change games.
This of course presumes Henig remains the quarterback. And for now he is according to Croom who pre-empted at least some weekend discussion by telling us he's staying with #7. At the same time, come Monday afternoon with juco Josh Riddell off suspension—think he'd have gotten a few series Thursday if not for an unwise choice of off-field behavior?—and competing for playing time again. After just one spring and preseason he doesn't have the full range of repertoire Henig has learned in four years. But is that necessarily a bad thing? I say this as my single greatest concern of the last few years is still that the staff might be asking more technical precision, even perfection, than a Mississippi State lineup is capable of. Though on the few occasions it has worked, it's worked out pretty well. Either way, now with the improved blocking and better talent at runner and receiver this year is a fairer test of the proposition Mississippi State can win via a ‘west coast' style offense.
By the same token—and might I ask has any of us ever actually seen said proverbial token?—I have to wonder if it might not hurt to scale back the playbook a few pages until the quarterback(s) have their cleats solidly set (another area Henig needs to settle down in) under them. No, that doesn't mean 30 handoffs to Dixon ‘tween the tackles and a dozen deep tosses. Simplify is not the same as dumb-down, State must mix it up to succeed no matter whom against. I loved some of the adventurous play-calling seen in the opener, from Dixon at ‘quarterback' to the flea-flicker. And hey, didja notice State took care of the play-clock despite the new rules? Don't tell me this offense hasn't made some progress.
All that said, it will be instructive to watch practices—or as much as we're allowed to see—for who gets how many snaps and throws what to whom. For how much work Riddell and frosh Wes Carroll, whose precocious talents I'm increasingly intrigued by, get compared to Henig. Not that we can report all the details at the time, you understand. It will be more a ‘taking the temperature' each day as the Dogs prepare for their trip to Tulane and, we all agree, a must-win game. I say ‘all' while guessing Croom won't phrase it that way when asked that obvious question by media both Monday and Tuesday. And if you think it through a coach really can't afford to call anything a ‘must win' game anyway. Besides, he's not big on putting that sort of pressure on his players, much like a certain baseball coach we know and love to make jest of. Thank heavens I've yet to hear "that's football".
But make no mistake, for Mississippi State to hope of any true success in '07 they must leave the Superdome with a victory. Or else the positive evaluations and hopeful sentiments now being expressed will take a naturally negative turn, and a bunch of Bulldog folk will be out next Sunday shopping for replacement TVs.