But now, safely back in Starkville and more suitably fed, the travel-lag is taking charge. So be warned this won't be one of our better attempts at columnization. Though, I doubt it will read any worse than the play-by-play from Saturday's opening—and effectively the closing, too—quarter when the Mountaineers put State away in less than 13 clock-minutes. Fact is I hadn't planned on a column at all, but instead spent Friday night and much of pre-game and first half baking together an classic Dawgs' Bite diary story, this one consisting of allegations, speculations, exaggerations, pontifications, vituperations, and with a thick icing of simple slanders. Goodness knows it was easy as them folk in the hills are almost too easy targets for a vicious pen. Or P.C.
Naah. Don't want to appear petty after that thrashing. Besides, as unfriendly and at times even outright appalling things appeared outside—I can't get over those two sweet young things wearing the apparently popular tee-shirt with the words ‘West' and ‘Virginia' bracketing an unprintable obscenity—the stadium and game operations were first-class. It was good to see old friend Mike Montero, former Southern Miss media relations man now working in Morgantown. And that's the only press box I've ever visited with nine, count ‘em, nine TVs on one wall behind press row and each with a different game showing! I did mention to Mike, though, that it might be helpful for future guest media to have a map and directions.
Because game-day traffic ‘management' by the town and campus was the absolute worst of my three decades in the business. It made motoring up to Neyland Stadium seem a snap. Maybe the only way to express just how awful it was even with a parking pass, is to say it made the weekend's two connections at Atlanta's Hartsfield Intergallactic feel quite pleasant. Yeah, that bad.
Oh, yes. The game. Well. I went to Morgantown with few illusions about either the matchup or prospects. Few, since I kinda thought the Dogs would be able to chase WVU's relay team a bit better than last October. Not out-run them you understand, just make quicker reads and take better angles this time around. Yeah. Took all of one offensive snap to answer that. Though as the day progressed (for the Mountaineers) State did start getting more up to pace, and no not simply because the backup quarterback played the whole second half.
I gotta think some, repeat some, of the problem with the first quarter was…hmm, how to put it? OK, this word will likely be mis-understood, but it's the best I can do. State played nervous. Anxious about the need to make perfect reads, take perfect angles, to do it to them before they did it to us. With the unfortunate if probably inevitable result that it actually slowed the Dogs down. Sure, those White and Slaton guys will make lots of folk look as if running slow-motion, and Coach Sylvester Croom doesn't hide his goal of recruiting much more speed, but State isn't THAT velocity-deficient right now. It just seemed that for a quarter-and-a-half many Bulldog feet were semi-frozen in place by fear of getting burned, which only fueled the flames further. Ouch, what an dismal mangling of metaphors that was, a nap is necessary soon.
I take as further evidence for my Sunday case the way State played after the game was lost. With nothing else to lose except health, and thankfully this year nobody was seen limping out of the locker room afterwards, the Bulldogs loosened up, sped up, and played the sort of ball they should have all game. Not, I stress, that had they done they'd have won. But MSU sure as heck wouldn't have lost it in one numbing period.
There was another underlying reason for concern just as mental as the first. These Bulldogs put so, so much into preparing for and then playing Tennessee that I just wasn't sure they could rouse themselves to any comparable effort a week later and time zone away from home. I figured that only something MSU-momentous early would push the guys to a consecutive peak. Well, it did and it didn't and it was devastating. That apparently-initial turnover on the kickoff—and by the way, we've got to ask this week why State chose to kick off and give one of the nation's most potent offenses first chance with the ball—sent the entire sideline into a first-play frenzy. Which was dashed just as quickly, leaving the team flatter than before. Again, I'll not say that if Jarvis Kyles hadn't been off-sides and MSU opened the game in West Virginia's red zone the outcome would have been automatically different. But I'd bet it would have been a lot more competitive getting to whatever final score.
So. What if anything else to take from yesterday, besides the apparent lack of injuries? A couple of conclusions are obvious enough, starting with the need for more speed. State's trying and each recruiting year the lineup get a bit fleeter, just not—sorry for the phrasing—fast enough yet. Though I've noticed enough of some freshmen and redshirts already in the system to feel encouraged about overall defensive speed next year. And never, ever forget that knowing what to do is worth a tenth or two also. That's what makes West Virginia's speed so lethal; their fast guys know what they're about to do and almost never hesitate. Notice how when Slaton was initially checked behind the line and forced to ever-so-briefly pause, he gained little or nothing? It was forcing that initial hesitation that came tough for State, until the Dogs began breathing, thinking, and running more naturally in the second half.
The other positive aspect from my press-box vantage point was Wesley Carroll. No, it wasn't his best freshman effort on percentage, yet I thought the rookie threw the ball his best-yet. Explain? Other than two, maybe three plays where he forced something and was darn lucky not to toss his first college interception (good gawsh, the kid already has the SEASON RECORD for consecutive passes without a pick), it just seemed Carroll was picking his targets and firing the best of this season. On both touchdown drives, when he got the time of course, Carroll was excellent on second and third downs. Even more telling to my eye was that third-quarter series backed up inside MSU's ten-yard line. Folks, hope y'all will watch a replay of Carroll's play-action on first down, down the middle long. Carroll did ‘hang' it a bit and WVU's secondary was just too darn fast closing on Brandon McRae.
Yet a toss like that showed at least one observer more of young Carroll's potential as he matures…and strengthens the right arm. Though I also need to note what none of y'all got to see last week. It was Chris Relf in Thursday's practice hitting everybody, everywhere; short, medium, long, even in coverage. The redshirt came with a gun and is starting to show some touch. I know, you're tired of me writing it, but it's going to be a competitive spring for the quarterbacks.
The question of the week isn't about who will win a job in spring, but will the Bulldogs win two more games this fall and get that bowl berth. That, I won't try to predict, if for no other reason than were I a gambling man this SEC season would have broken me already. ‘Chaotic' is the word you're searching for to describe this conference campaign. And when everything else is going against grains, far be it from me to rule State out or in any of the four remaining games. Admitting, of course, that the staff has another tough week of work ahead to get the guys in the right mindset for Kentucky where these Dogs will surely be heavy under-Dogs. And, to keep them from looking ahead to that overdue week-off we all need. Actually yesterday would have been an ideal open-date…just as had State played any of their three November foes last week I'm entirely convinced they'd have won. Oh, well.
I'm also reasonably certain that a week from today I won't be on this keyboard. Because one weekend of terminal-tramping is enough, I'm driving to Lexington and taking the Kraut hatchback instead of the ragtop for the better mileage. Great timing, too, as after leaving Starkville with regular at $2.63 I note today it's $2.75. Welcome home, indeed.