"These guys are unique," said Croom. "Auburn did some of the things, Arkansas has a similar package. But (quarterback) Pat White is the difference. That's the key to the whole thing. He's just as fast if not faster than (Darren) McFadden but he can throw the football extremely well. By far the best throwing-running combination in one person I've seen recently. Unless you count a phenomenal guy like a Vince Young, he's a smaller version of that kind of a guy."
State can't mimic that sort of guy in practice, though both Robert Ambers and Zack Harrington are trying to duplicate White's execution quarterbacking the scout offense. And WR Tyler Threadgill has played the part of halfback Steve Slaton with the scouts.
Veteran Bulldogs got a good look at White in last year's game in Starkville, when the quarterback scored twice, ran for 85 yards and threw for 95 more. Slaton got the big numbers but it was the triggerman making that damage possible, says SLB Gabe O'Neal. "They hurt us on the cutback, a lot of scrambling or on third down plays the quarterback draw. We contained them the first half, the second half they got moving." Particularly in the fourth quarter when a tired Dog defense couldn't keep up and WVU ran away with the victory.
So, having tried once, what will—or can—the Bulldogs do differently or at least better this time around? "Discipline," said O'Neal. "That's what the coaches are thriving on this week. Just play your position and trust the other guy next to you." Which is all well-and-good during practice week. But on game-day with the crowd howling and clock running and blood rising, it's not so easy to hold one position when the ball seems surely headed elsewhere.
"Everybody has to play disciplined this week," S Derek Pegues said. "West Virginia runs a lot of trickery, and you have to pay attention to formations and play your assignment. I played option in high school and if one man takes the wrong assignment I'd be out the gate every time."
"You can't make every play so you have to be disciplined and play your assignment," said O'Neal. "Because they're very shifty guys and if they get a crack they can go all the way."
Or as Croom put it, "If you lose your discipline at any point in the game it can kill you." He and staff have had some still-warm evidence this week, replaying how Tennessee back Arian Foster twice changed course at the line for major gains. Lesson learned, O'Neal said.
"Coach was stressing don't over-run the ball, don't over-run the ball. A lot of plays Tennessee was cutting back, we have to stay focused and can't do things like that and give them big runs."
FAKE GREEN: Speaking of runs, as if West Virginia needed any accelerative aid their home field is artificial stuff. Field Turf, specifically. The Bulldogs don't often play on plastic grass, though they did have a good evening in the Louisiana Superdome in September. And the seniors have played twice on the Sprint Turf at Oxford.
Still, "I don't like turf games," said O'Neal. "It's just like playing on concrete." Pegues doesn't love the stuff either. "Because when you hit it scratches you up. But that's part of the game, if you want to go to the NFL you have to play on it in college, too. I guess I haven't got much a problem with it. And it helps my speed."
ON THE OTHER SIDE: West Virginia's offensive speed is common knowledge. What Croom says is not so appreciated is how quickly the Mountaineer defense can move this year. The challenge is compounded by the areas and angles from which those defenders come.
"It's a scheme we haven't faced this year except in practice," Croom said. "Because our defense runs a variation of what they do." Not all the time of course, as State's base is a 4-3. But the last three games the Bulldogs have also shown more three-man fronts or two-linebacker sets with extra safeties playing up. So at least the MSU offense has a little awareness of how an odd-front works.
Just not exactly how WVU does it. "They have a lot of variation in the 3-4 scheme. What compounds it is their outside linebackers are essentially big strong safeties or free safeties that play at the line of scrimmage or linebacker depth. What happens on blitz pickup is who's who? Thankfully they don't stand them all up because that would really compound the problem." A pause, then "Hope I didn't give them an idea!"
Certainly Bulldog blocking gets the idea, that they have a special challenge this week. "They play three down-guys and three linebackers," explained senior C Royce Blackledge. "And the nose guard's job is to kill the center! They had a good defense last year, we just have to come out and execute and run the football and put some points on the board."
LINING IT UP: Which Mississippi State has done a much better job of since being shut out on opening night. In the six games since the Bulldog offense has scored 17 touchdowns by run or pass (not counting what the defense contributed on interception returns). Last year's offense managed just 24 touchdowns in all 12 games.
For all the attention given the guys running, throwing, and catching for touchdowns, the literal bulk of the credit belongs to the fellows up-front. When Croom called the Tennessee game the best all-around effort of his tenure to-date, he began with this unit. "I can't say enough about how our offensive line played. It was a tremendous performance, they protected the quarterback extremely well and run-blocked extremely well."
"I take a lot of pride in that," Blackledge said upon hearing the quote. "The whole offensive line does. Because the whole offense starts up front, the guys up front getting it done. We take a lot of respect in that."
And according to fifth-year man Blackledge there is no secret to why Bulldog blocking is receiving real respect at last. "We're playing for each other now," he said. "This is the first year that we've got guys that have played together and are experienced. That most definitely has a big impact."
There's even a welcome ironic twist here. Just as Mississippi State is enjoying productivity from a tested and cohesive starting line, there is also something else the program hasn't possessed for too many years: depth. Not merely at individual spots, but across-the-line. Freshman Derek Sherrod and junior Mike Gates have been alternates at right tackle and right guard with starters J.D. Hamilton and Craig Jenkins for a month. Now line coach J.B. Grimes is confident enough to sub-in backups elsewhere. Blackledge can be spelled by Johnny Carpenter; LG Anthony Strauder by J. C. Brignone; and even all-star nominee LT Mike Brown can yield the spot to Mark Melichar without hesitation.
"It's nice to know you have relief when you need it, that you have guys who can step up and play and give you a break," Blackledge said. Even nicer is that the intact second unit can get it done, as they did in the first quarter against Tennessee. The backup five manufactured as solid a drive as their elders, who only took over at the change of quarter for the actual touchdown play. Regardless, "We were very fortunate to get our second line in there and they gave us a shot," said Croom. "Guys like Brignone and Melichar who haven't played a lot played very well."
"I was impressed," agreed Blackledge. "For a lot of those guys not to have much experience, they came out and did a great job out there. They executed, worked hard, and got it done." Not that the senior center is asking to be replaced early or often, understand. "It's tough when they take you out! But the coaches know what they're doing."
INJURY UPDATE: S Zach Smith missed another day of practice with the thigh bruise suffered in the Tennessee game. His status is questionable as of today. HB Arnil Stallworth has a slight shoulder separation but continues to practice.