Indeed, based on Coach Sylvester Croom's initial—brief and blunt—Saturday comments Divine Intervention will be necessary for some Mississippi State players to escape the practice unscathed. And I'm not talking about the forecasted Monday thunderstorms that might send State inside where it'll be a close call which thunders more: the storm or the coach, if the Bulldogs don't give maximum effort with desired efficiency.
Now it's worth saying here that I've yet to hear a happy Coach after the first scrimmage, be it spring or August. I can't imagine how he would respond if a team did perform to demands their first time in game-type work. The shock might be too much to handle. In fact, when on the first scrimmage snap Wes Carroll hooked up with Jamayel Smith for a 19-yard gainer, against the #1 defense and working out of a normally run-play formation, I'll confess to some startlement. Yeah, made that word up, but it works.
The point being that good first scrimmages at State in my tenure—going back to the Bellard teams—are almost never offensive festivals. And if they are it implies REAL problems for the season ahead. It's more reassuring to see a steady defense the first time-out, and hope that the offense will gradually catch up over the course of camp. Which admittedly hasn't happened too often, either, in previous years.
Ahhh, but here we might have seen yesterday reason for encouragement. Set aside if you can that there was a lone (offensive) Saturday touchdown. Because in this opening scrimmage the offense made their counterparts work for the near-shutout. OK, so maybe many will take that as faint praise at best. Not this fellow. No, of course, I'm not raving about the yards and drives seen Saturday. I am however somewhat pleased just by the fact we saw yards and drives for a change.
Mark that, for a change. Because in just about every scrimmage we've been allowed to witness since spring 2004, and definitely in all five spring games, Dog defenses have gone almost unchallenged. Not yesterday, the D-teams had to put out game-level effort every single snap and still were beaten, occasionally, for yardage.
Most importantly, to my humble mind, was something not on the informal stat sheet. Third downs. I recall about a half-dozen quality conversions of third downs, most of six or more yards. This against a defense that oughta know what is coming, who and where, and still Carroll and a couple of times Tyson Lee made the plays. And their chosen targets made the catches, which also oughtn't be ignored. Yeah, a couple of them were close to ‘whistle' sacks, but that's beside the point. The offense made more plays than the raw stats show.
So what about discussing, or cussing, a one-TD output? Offensive that is, as the defense got on the board too and that also should be cause for encouragement as it continues the defense's play-making policy of 2007. First let's agree that it was a well-earned score of ten plays and 75 yards without any single huge play making it easy for their side. And against a legit defensive lineup, not a scout or scrub squad. Again, faint praise for folk who after four seasons reasonably are demanding more displays of practice firepower. My impression is that at long last the scrimmage offense is at least getting in position to score touchdowns; and twice more was a single well-executed, if at all, block from other completed drives. And if I have to try convincing readers that a single offensive penalty is improvement, it's not worth the trouble.
Yet the real reason I left Scott Field far from fearful, much less depressed, about the offensive afternoon was something else the offense showed. Rather some things else, as in formations. Those who read the (admittedly long but I wanted to get it done in one serving and order supper) scrimmage report might should re-read this re-peated paragraph:
"Nobody could complain about lack of offensive diversity. In just the first two series by the #1 unit the alignments included standard I-sets, single-back with either the full- or half-back, two halfbacks flanking the quarterback in a shotgun, and even with the one back going in motion. Receiver combinations ranged from two, three, and four wideouts, paired with single or double tight ends and at times the tight end either in motion or in a wingback's stance."
Hmmm, not bad writing and recounting if I say so myself. Now true, passing plays predominated the scrimmage script with 49 attempted throws and about ten more called counting scrambles and sacks. Coordinator Woody McCorvey wanted a real test against a prepared defense, and got it. What impressed me was the sheer diversity of sets McCorvey and Croom wanted to try, as well as were willing to expose since we media can't watch full-team practices. Makes one wonder how much more will be scrimmaged next Saturday when the gates are closed to all witnesses, eh?
And, thus, how many additional twists and tweaks have been made to the standard gameplan? The other, obvious implication is that McCorvey intends to make use of more plays because there is more personnel to plan with. Though, to be fair, Anthony Dixon is a capable enough receiver that he needn't come out every time a pass is planned. That we did not see Saturday, but we all know it's in the repertoire. What I'd anticipate of the week-days ahead is more work for Robert Elliot and Wade Bonner in catching drills to round out that particular package.
Certainly we saw yesterday was confirmation of Croom's comments about how well Smith, Aubrey Bell, and Co-Eric Riley have been practicing. What was lacking, and the real reason behind the one-score output, was the just-in-timing between them and their two quarterbacks. Carroll and Lee were somewhat out of Saturday synch and they'll admit it; in fact they did. It wasn't a big gap, just a tick here or there that left a specific selection of plays unfinished and incompleted. Of course those are plays that entirely depend on team timing and the blocking is very much included, and coordinator Charlie Harbison wasn't calling off his Dogs yesterday. I could do a fair-size column on his defense, the aggressive sets and attacking approach they're putting into play so far this camp, but I'll save it. Other than to say all those 3rd-and-double-digits passes that got completed on State last season will be have to be done on the run if at all this year.
Such pressure was being applied consistently to Carroll/Lee and still they made plays when the timing was right between all involved. Again, people, that's progress. Don't want to harp on it over-much but those third-down completions and conversions still stand out as what this offense can be capable of as all the pieces, and I mean all, get accustomed to playing off and with each other. Not that you have to believe me if you still prefer to wail-and-woe some more about State's offense. That's your paying privilege, and yes I'd have been thrilled with more intra-team game touchdowns.
Yet the aforementioned variety of sets and player packages can't but make me think increased production is still possible in 2008. More to the point, the Bulldogs themselves know the need far better than we how important a reliable offense is to achieve their goals. It's great to have a defense capable of scoring points itself, but that isn't something to assume will always happen; the opponents might not cooperate. That's why McCorvey said the emphasis this work-week will be on timing, timing, timing. Which, if you think of it, implies progress. I mean, why worry about timing if the basic parts aren't first functioning? They are, so the focus shifts from simply getting the machine cranked to tuning all the parts. (Can you tell I'm writing this while frequently flipping channels from NASCAR at the Glen to the sportsters at Elkhart Lake? And would somebody kindly shove a pipe wrench down Kyle Busch's larynx?)
Anyway, it's back to the morning shift every day this week with additional afternoon practices Monday and Wednesday. And I have to think that, again based on previous pre-seasons, Croom will come back with more on-further-review compliments about the scrimmage's results. Though this doesn't mean that any Bulldogs would be forgiven if they go through the Monday motions.
They wouldn't have a prayer.
One other item. During pre-scrimmage stretching the thought struck me: those are pretty classy uniforms the Bulldogs wear. Ooooooh, no, I can hear the howls as I type; dull, bland, boring, outdated, etc. Well folks, as of now I will no longer read much less respond to message board @#$%^ing about State's current garb. I like these unis and that's that. Somehow Saturday's hazy sunshine put those maroon tops in a best-light I hadn't really noticed…and normally my focus is on personnel and formations during drills and pre-game anyway.
But to these aging eyes the Dogs are looking sharp. Not stylish, which is actually the core point because styles change. Class doesn't. Sure, sure, enough folk will whine that State needs more flash, more frills, more whatever it is that Today's Players Want. I.E., to ‘help recruiting'. I don't care, and I'd be a tiny bit concerned about the core-commitment anyone whose decision to sign with a program hinged on a uniform.
Nope, I like the look that is gradually becoming as much an I.D. for Dogs as the classic MS on Diamond Dog hats. Hey, it's dull, bland, boring…and it's us. Sorry, I ain't gonna argue logos today because I've lit enough of a fire already for one Sunday. But perhaps as a campus committee studies a new and/or revised logo for State and Bulldog teams, they might consider that Led Zep's greatest album hasn't been lessened a bit by the fact it is called by a variety of titles and everybody still recognizes the same subject. Or giving R.Plant the final say, "'Cuz you know sometimes words have two meanings."