Three yards and a cloud of dust? Make that two rushes, an incompletion, a punt, and we'll be back after this commercial break. With audience all the while groaning from stadium bleacher or living room lounger of the annual need for a genuinely balanced offense to compete in this league. Some day, some hopeful day…
At the obvious risk of entirely overstating State's current case, that day suddenly seems much closer. No, the Dogs haven't reached any promised land, for that matter they aren't even at the station yet much less bought the tickets. But today quite a few previously-skeptical folk, even others who'd almost abandoned hope, are suddenly daring to dream. Again. It's as if at some unofficial point yesterday afternoon a metaphorical light was switched on and thousands of Bulldog loyalists abruptly, collectively gasped ‘Oh, I get it now!' As in, they now can see what Croom and staff have been driving since arrival and through the course of three frustrating, even infuriating seasons.
Now, let's hit Pause for a moment. I'm not formally anointing young Wesley Carroll as the definitive savior of Bulldog football. If for no other reason than the true freshman hasn't started a SEC victory. Not yet. For that matter it's hasty to assume the kid is assured of starting status this November. Not just because veteran Mike Henig will be full-strength by then, but because…well, do we really need reminding that the last couple of years Bulldog quarterbacks have had the health half-life of your more obscure sub-atomic particles? Sorry, sometimes the failed Chem-E student in me resurfaces.
But it doesn't require a degree to see Mississippi State has the makings of a quarterback with the correct chemistry to engineer an effective SEC offense. And it would be interesting, if consuming of time I don't have today, to find the last MSU quarterback who threw his first, let's see, 74 college passes without an interception. If there ever was one. No, I'm not gonna jinx the lad or team by reciting the season and overall records for passes-without-picks here.
Nor should I invoke other psychic dangers by comparing a kid with all of seven games under his college belt to his occasional successful State predecessor. Though I'll relate that when a fan-friend of mine invoked another #13 of a quarter-century ago because of how Carroll can run (or maybe it's the hair), I reached further back. To grainy filmclips of another guy who didn't have a big arm but did know how to work within a system, utilize the talent around him, keep composure under pressure, and just make things happen in dire straits. That old Dog quarterback now coaches State's running backs if you're in need of a clue.
Croom has played and worked with quite a few accomplished quarterbacks over his career. So when this coach tosses out an unsolicited comment such as "He's got ‘it' whatever ‘it' is" we should all take note. And hope.
In no way should this be interpreted as saying the Bulldogs caught good, umm, breaks when Henig and Josh Riddell went down. That would be denigrating the honest and in Henig's case above-and-beyond labors in the good cause. Which makes the booing upon the veteran's emergency entrance yesterday so galling. Honorable State fans should applaud the mere fact Mike still pulls on the pads after all his hours of rehab. And Henig keeps coming back for more abuse, physical and fan alike. As would Riddell in the same situation; it's just one more indicator of the type of people Sylvester Croom wants wearing Mississippi State game-gear.
Henig is almost back to 100% physically and given his greater experience practicing and working this system, as well as with Woody McCorvey who recruited him it would be foolish to write the fourth-year junior off. Remember that Henig has two good SEC wins (2005 Egg Bowl, 2006 at Alabama) on his resume, as well as strong statistical performances last season when healthy and with the offense in a rhythm as coach calls it. And there's always that cannon hanging on the right shoulder that the freshman can only envy.
So Henig will prepare as to play each week and I won't be at all surprised when he does, though hopefully not because Carroll is hurting again. Admit it: when you heard of the concussion at halftime didn't ‘here we go again' scroll across the mental flatscreen? Did mine. I confess to spending as much time looking for Carroll on the sideline as watching Tennessee's opening drive of the third quarter. When he pulled on the headset, well, ‘whew' was the word that came to mind and mouth alike.
We must be very clear on this: State did after all lose the game. Here I quote Carroll himself. "It doesn't matter how good I played, I'm only concerned about winning." Dang, the kid already talks like a quarterback, too. When discussing his second touchdown toss he even critiqued the timing, pondering aloud if he could have done something to get the ball out sooner. So no fears of over-confidence from that quarter just yet. The boldest Carroll comment, questioned about how he fits into this squad, was "They know what I'm capable of doing."
Bouncing back onto the field after a literal brain-rattling hit showed the entire roster what Carroll is made of. "Him coming back shows he's just a tough player, and we need that especially at that position," said wideout Jamayel Smith. "If the quarterback can do that then anybody should be able to do that."
It's a larger expression of how Croom wants his entire ball club to think and play. "Wes managed the game well. That's how we've got to play, we have to play hard-nosed physical football and not beat ourselves." With no picks or fumbles to-date Carroll's certainly met that line on the job description. And for the stat-obsessed fantasy fan who thinks ‘managing' a game is no big deal, well, there's a reason McCorvey called for Carroll to come back for that deciding-touchdown drive at Auburn and not an older or stronger-armed teammate.
And now the rookie has thrown two touchdowns that any SEC passer would gladly claim, as well as some hard slants that were key to opening up the field last fall. Which goes back to the opening comment of just how great a boost to collective confidence it is for a team to be able to score by passing, whether grab-and-goes or strikes directly into the end zone. And this from an air-attack that is far, far from reaching full potential.
Which brings me to a pair of asides. First, for three years Woody McCorvey has been assailed for excessive conservatism in play-calling. The critics might not be silenced yet but the volume has dialed down with some of the stuff shown this season. No, the coach has not changed his plays or philosophy; his personnel has developed to the point State can practically attempt a wider variety with reasonable percentages of success. And this goes way beyond the guy under-center; it's the center, and guards and tackles first and foremost. The long, hard process of developing a competitive offensive line is showing results now. That, and having a pounder and play-breaker of Anthony Dixon's maturing talents. Fascinating what a smart passer can do as long as he's got time to throw and a runner to keep defenses frozen that priceless half-a-heartbeat after the snap.
The other side-note is about Carroll's arm-strength or lack thereof. We tend to forget (I sure did until reminded) that he did have a throwing-shoulder procedure last January after a prep injury. No, he won't ever have a rifle; but give the strength staff a winter, spring, and summer to upgrade both the shoulder and, as importantly, the lower-body where extra throwing velocity comes from. Then we'll see what State really has. Though it's worth adding that next spring will feature the best quarterback battles at MSU since, oh, was it 1989? Yeah, when Eric Underwood, Tony Shell, Sleepy Robinson, Todd Jordan, and Handy Campbell competed in fall camp. Wrote a fun ‘Young Gun' piece about it in the old D.B., too.
See, I just can't forsee Henig or Riddell simply conceding the job for spring, nor Chris Relf meekly accepting a backup's life. Not unless Carroll and State string together an incredible last month of the season, anyway, which needless to say we'd all welcome. Lot of ball left to play between now and December anyway, which with some great breaks between now and then could include playing in the last month of the year. It's possible with an offensive squad gaining confidence weekly.
"We really are," Carroll said Saturday. "We've got some great play-makers on offense out of the backs and receivers. If we get them the ball they're going to make plays. We're not a one-dimensional team. Yeah, we can run the ball and we've been doing a good job of that. But as soon as we pass and run the ball it's going to keep any defense off-balance."
Spoken again like a leader beyond his years. But there's one other thing Carroll seems to have going for him that his current cohorts have lacked through no fault of their own.
Think back to the third quarter, 3rd-and-3 on the Tennessee 14-yard line. The Vols probably figured a run was coming (I sure did) but Carroll straight-dropped, look down to the left, and waited for Smith to make the break. All the while a Vol was roaring in un-blocked from the right side. No, Carroll never saw him coming, he admitted, which was probably for the best as he might have ducked to evade and not thrown what turned into a lovely corner-pattern touchdown.
But that's not the lucky part. As he threw the ball Carroll's body twisted right-to-left; which meant when the blitzer hit him at knee-level the joints folded forward naturally with no damage. Had the contact come an instant early it would have been side-on with all the implications for knee injury MSU quarterbacks are painfully familiar with. That is the luck I meant.
There's more. By any measure Carroll got away with one at Auburn, a sideline throw that should have been picked for six in the first quarter to change the entire game. Ditto a first-quarter toss of similar pattern yesterday. It's not logical of course, but we Dog watchers just can't avoid the feeling that had either of his peers thrown the same passes in identical settings the bad guys would somehow have come away with the ball. Yeah, yeah, it sounds stupid, even superstitious…but it's also, utterly State.
Or has been. And for all the faith athletes place in their individual abilities and experiences, I'll vouch that they also have an unspoken belief in the lucky guy who just gets it right somehow. Could Carroll become this kind of special guy? I'm not saying, I'm just saying, as the current saying says.