Thank a merciful heaven for this week's full open date. And, need we be reminded, for the schedule scramblings that result in a perfectly-timed free week for both Mississippi State and we who follow the Bulldogs hither and yon. Which is probably the name of some Kentucky hamlet come to think of it. Anyway. Remember how when Jacksonville State bailed the State staff was scrambling for a foe-and-date, and November 3 was a possibility?
It's all worked out quite well, as I doubt the Dogs would be able to muster enough moxie to play, well, Jacksonville State this week. Much less Alabama, which until a very-timely twitch of SEC scheduling was due on this date. Whew. What a break.
Which swings me back around to the theme. A week ago at this time we reported State had changed practice plans and was taking the afternoon off, at least from on-field work. Oh, the surprised responses, even the outright outrage that Coach Sylvester Croom dared, dared let the lads laze around on a game-week Monday when they obviously oughta been working overtime after consecutive losses.
Now? Croom's snap-decision was sheer inspiration. I don't think it's over-Stateing the case at all to claim that just that brief Monday break paid off Saturday. With both teams playing their ninth-straight weekend, it was the Bulldogs who had just a little more spring in the step and glint in the eye both at kick-off and certainly in the third quarter. We should insert kudos for the strength program here; Coach Ben Pollard deserved consideration for a game ball as for four quarters State out-muscled Kentucky on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
And, let's acknowledge as well that the Wildcats were somewhat short-handed with speedsters Rafael Little and Keenan Burton sidelined by ailments. But don't make that an excuse for State's win, either, and not just because injuries are part of the season. Senior star Andre Woodson was full-strength where MSU had their third starting quarterback of '07 under-center, and a true freshman at that. So it's all a wash there.
No, the game hinged on State being a little fresher and stronger and sharper on weekend #9 than the home team. Stress, the home team. The Bulldogs made themselves at home on the bluegrass, knocked the hosts around, and made the winning plays. Or just as vitally, did not make the sort of losing plays—i.e., interceptions and turnovers—as did a Kentucky team that for two months nobody could slow, much less stop. Such mistakes arise from two sources: uncertainty, or exhaustion. As this was a veteran Wildcat offense that knows very well what it is doing, well, the conclusion seems obvious here. The Bulldogs were not quite as tired this time, where the Kats were wearing out. And Woodson, who set the all-time NCAA record for passes-without-a-pick this year, was intercepted three times.
Another example: State did not sack a quarterback, not once, in the previous three games. The Dog defense bagged Woodson three official times and harried him plenty others. Avery Hannibal got two sacks and Titus Brown settled for one, though it was his right-side pressure that kept Woodson scrambling out of both the pocket and his comfort zone. Please don't take this lightly, folks. State's d-line had been both frustrated for three weeks, and worn-down by the effort of trying, and failing, to get to guys like Ainge and White. Yet the had enough fuel and fire left to get after and get to the best all-around triggerman they'll face this or most any years. It was sufficient to earn ‘Caveman' Hannibal SEC Defensive Player of the Week, a fitting honor for the senior. Titus won't mind his cohort getting the award too much.
Hannibal isn't the only Dog winning SEC recognition this week. I guess the league couldn't make Wesley Carroll their Offensive POTW, and that Georgia halfback did have a great day against the Gators. But Freshman OTW is fair enough for the rookie after a day that shows why this kid is something special. No, he's still not a gunner from the pocket though the arm strength is coming along nicely. But Carroll throws the right passes in the right places and in the perfect times to maximize his own tools, and utilize State's improved—and still improving—talent at wideout. And tight end (take a bow Jason Husband). And out of the backfield.
Look at the stats; Carroll had only one completion net over 20 yards, and it wasn't even a touchdown. What it was, though, reveals the core principles of this offense, and why I thought the main game-ball should have gone to Woody McCorvey for a brilliantly-called and better-executed first half. State's longest completion of the afternoon came on 3rd-and-11, and when it mattered most. The 22-yard strike put the ball on the five-yard line where two Anthony Dixon non-bobbled carries made it a 24-7 scoreboard. Carroll's touchdown throws were of 11 and two yards, again to tight end Husband and halfback Dixon.
Put another way, the Bulldog offense showed how a SEC game can be won without bombing deep or breaking huge runs. Yet keep in mind that State has also shown itself capable of those, too; which serves to loosen up the defense and make the more-controlled, shorter strikes and handoffs gain ground in sufficient chunks to move the chains, the clock, and the scoreboard. Of course if I had to single out two key offensive plays, to my fuzzy mind they came on the same series. On the same all-important opening series of the day.
To wit, Carroll's third-down throw and great catch by Eric Butler that got a second first down at midfield. Without that play the drive stops and Kentucky has a chance to establish the offensive tone all day, not State. And we all know the Dogs had to set the game's rhythm or likely lose regardless of conditioning and strength. They had to also get into UK minds as much as bodies right from the start.
The second is more debatable in import, but I meant something to me. It was Carroll's intentional scamper for nine yards two snaps after he'd hit Butler. Heck, for an instant I didn't know Carroll still had the ball, so slick was his faked handoff to Dixon and then spin-out around right tackle. I'm convinced that called-keeper kept the UK ends and linebackers honest all day and left more room for Dixon and then Ducre to ramble. Note, I didn't say fumble, the one sore subject of the day and absolutely a priority when practices resume tomorrow.
We've raved about young Wes for a few weeks already, so let's just talk about the offense in general this time. I notice folk bragging on how Croom and McCorvey have ‘opened up' the gameplan at last. In fact I'd already been thinking along that line when Croom made his rather strong post-win statements. Specifically: "People ask me a lot why don't you open it up a little more," Croom said, also revealing some long-pent-up annoyances. Though only we three there who have covered all '07 games (myself, Gregg, and Kyle) and State staffers would recognize the source. Yes, the staff has heard critiques of conservatism, stubbornness, inflexibility, unwillingness to adapt to personnel, etc., for three-plus years. And on the whole Croom has, generally, managed not to let the temper show.
This was a good time to open the door a bit more, but not because the offense had ‘opened' up as we'd think of it. And let me report that almost everything seen this fall that wasn't used the previous three seasons isn't new at all. I've seen practically all of it practiced ever since Croom and McCorvey arrived, depending on quarterback and complementary personnel. Why wasn't it used? BECAUSE of said QB & CPs. Never, ever forget: this staff is not going to attempt a play in a real game that was not successfully or at least encouragingly executed in practice. This isn't a bunch of coaches who care to wing anything in any aspect. Accept or dispute it, that's how this staff is going to stay and play.
We're seeing more of the proverbial playbook here in 2007, and even moreso two months into the campaign, because State has a settled-in quarterback capable of doing it on weekdays and weekends alike. But…as Carroll matures far ahead of any reasonable schedule, as the line continues to provide the best blocking we've seen at State since, yes, 2000, and as all other parts get used to each other under game pressures, the Bulldogs will do more and more interesting things than attempted from 2004-06.
Which, paradoxically, will actually allow the basic things like straight handoffs and short passes to work that much better, because defenses will have to be on their cleat-toes all the time against the fancier stuff. Makes sense? If not, well, watch and enjoy. And try not to think ahead to 2008 and the hopes that Robert Elliot can be the sort of any-snap, any-where chance to take it the distance that Jerious Norwood was. Oh, if only State had such a home-run threat in the backfield this year…
Sorry. Here we have a pivotal November ahead and I'm babbling of '08. I need the rest almost as much as the Bulldogs. By the way, an official on the team plane said the return-flight attitudes were, as I'd put it, contentedly quiet. Happy with the win and what it makes possible for the rest of the season, but not celebrating any bowl-bid yet. Properly not, because State is still one win shy of the mandatory sixth success, with three remaining games that no matter what one wants to think today could still go either way. Though we have to like aspects of the timing with each. I mean, Alabama will have spent two weeks building for the showdown with LSU and however it turns out bouncing back next week won't be automatic. Especially with a 11:30am kickoff at Scott Field as I now note. I love you, LFS.
Arkansas, which has uncomfortable undercurrents in the program already, will be coming off games against South Carolina and Tennessee. Any failures in those games won't help with home-away-from-home atmosphere in Little Rock. As for Them, well, in Oxford it's gotta be a lot like what Emory Bellard said when asked how his team was handling a losing streak and unhappy home folk. "Podnuh, it's a happy time," he drawled with enough dripping sarcasm to melt the floor.
Still any Dog careless enough to write a ‘W' beside any of those game-dates today deserves an extra hour of sideline-to-sideline sprints. All the remaining foes have the firepower and motivation, even if in Them's case no bowl is at stake. Speaking of which, relax. No matter how many league teams earn eligibility this wonderfully-insane season, a post-season place will be found for Mississippi State. Count on it. But first the Dogs have to do their part by scoring #6. Of course they'll make it automatic with a seventh or, and I should be thrashed for suggesting it this week, eighth win. That's what I mean by all games being capable of going either way.
They could all go State's way, too.
Hopefully all the above made some kind of sense. Regardless, I'm mailing it in the rest of today. We'll be back covering practices Tuesday and Wednesday, around work on the next magazine. Just finished a lengthy feature on Charles Rhodes that will come out in December (dated January issue) and is very, very interesting. Really. Charles gave me one of the best, most insightful and even revealing interviews I've ever done, and while the article might be uncomfortable in some places it's a piece I'm proud of. Proud of Charles, too, for showing aspects of his life on and off the court many athletes never allow. I'll just say here, y'all need to cheer Charles for a lot of reasons beyond what he does in uniform.
I also need to catch a baseball coach for a magazine piece. If you wonder, no, I didn't watch much of the Series. Not even last night, as I was more occupied making sure my Most Loathed Team of all lost their game and thus increased the odds that State could go to the Liberty Bowl. But congrats to Jonny and team for their championship, even if I'm still a kinda/sorta Detroit fan from my Little League days. It's gotten to where I see about as many Red Sox caps at Diamond Dog games as those with MS logos.
But please, let's not, not, not start playing ‘Sweet Caroline' at State home games. I got sick enough of it at the Tallahassee Regional, and besides, everytheheckbody else will be doing it in '08 already. Besides, I don't want to be sitting by Veazey while he's singing along to the lines about ‘touching me, touching you...' It makes Gregg and myself uncomfortable.