Sunday State Sidebar: Quarterbacks

They put up some numbers. They made some plays. They even operated from fresh sets and schemes, with more variety in a single half than this offense had displayed the four previous seasons combined. And none of it mattered in the immediate terms. "We showed we could move the ball," Wesley Carroll said. "We just stopped ourselves too much."

The ‘we' being Mississippi State's offense in general and the pair of quarterbacks in particular. Starter Carroll and alternate Tyson Lee did indeed move the ball down and around Louisiana Tech's field. Each directed a successful drive, both capped by Bulldogs who were able to score their own first college touchdowns. But these triggermen knew they had left even more business unfinished in a 22-14 opening-night defeat.

"We hurt ourselves most of the game," said Lee. "We hurt ourselves more than anything."

And both Bulldogs were hurting over the missed opportunity to get this 2008 season started well. Especially because the game itself began with such promise. On the second series Carroll directed a nine-play drive for 94 yards and a 7-0 lead. All nine plays were for gains, with four rushes by halfback Anthony Dixon and four completed throws for 70 yards, the last a eight-yard TD flip to WR Brandon McRae. Carroll even ran for six yards himself to get a first down.

In the second quarter it was Lee's turn to make his MSU debut. "I told them I was going to play both of them," Coach Sylvester Croom said. Lee's first series ended with a sack, but his second went 83 yards in a dozen snaps; most of them handoffs to Dixon and Christian Ducre. Yet it was a 13-yard strike to WR Aubrey Bell, ending inches shy of the goal, that set up FB Brandon Hart's touchdown vault and the 14-3 advantage.

A fine start, not to mention an encouraging reliever. So what happened? Why did a unit that was piling up yards (225 at halftime) and consistently moving chains so suddenly turn it off? No ‘offense' to the Tech defense intended, but both quarterbacks took the blame for their unit.

"They didn't do anything that we couldn't handle," Carroll said. "We basically stalled on drives."

"The first half we came out and did alright," Lee said. "The second half, we just didn't execute. When you beat yourself normally you don't execute on things you did in practice, and you can't expect to win like that. You have to do the things you do in practice in order to win a ball game."

Sophomore Carroll, the SEC's surprise success story of 2007, had to take the starter's share of the blame. Because after the first touchdown drive he had two more series to expand on the early lead. Both ended on interceptions, with the ball snapped from the Tech 43-yard line and then the Bulldog 36. Even when Lee's touchdown drive made it 14-3 there was the unavoidable sense opportunities to take total control had been, well, thrown away.

An irony given popular impression of State's supposedly-stolid play calling is that 12 of the 18 first-quarter snaps were passes. And, thrown out of a startling combination of alignments and player groupings. By halftime the breakdown was even at 21 throws, 21 rushes though that wasn't entirely telling; a Tech punt downed at the 1-yard line naturally resulted in three runs, including a Lee bootleg that likely will be seen a lot more through this season.

Still the Bulldogs were throwing the ball all around. By game's end, again the stats distorted by attempts to rally in the last period, the breakdown was 40 passes against 31 rushes…and of the latter some were keepers and three were sacks, all at Lee's expense.

"We ran off what the defense gave us," Carroll said. "They were begging us to throw the ball. And we did well sometimes, not so well the other times." Carroll's night exemplified that evaluation. He was 12-of-25 for 172 yards, a very good line for the man getting half the series. But the one touchdown was more than offset by three interceptions. The most damaging of all came after Tech had gone in front 16-14. Carroll drove the Dogs a yard inside the home team's red zone where on 3rd-and-8 his throw into the right-flat was not near a teammate.

It ended up in Techster Deon Young's hands for a 42-yard return, ten more yards tacked on by Hart's needless late hit. Tech kicked the second of their three field goals off it.

"It didn't matter what quarterback was in because we were moving the ball," Carroll said. "That wasn't the problem. We just stalled when we got in the strike-zone, we made too many errors."

Interestingly, Lee quarterbacked the three remaining series as Croom and McCorvey went with the junior transfer over the seasoned soph. "I didn't see that big a difference, myself," Croom bluntly said afterwards. "We tried to get somebody to make something happen. And Wes didn't play well, he didn't make good decisions. So we tried to get Tyson to make some plays."

Lee tried but after a 25-yard catch-and-go to freshman WR Delmon Robinson he was 3-of-7 for just 13 yards with a couple of sacks and other hurries. For his first college game Lee was 10-of-15 for 85 yards. While not picked-off, his three sackings matched Carroll's three intercepted balls.

In the natural and intense second-guessing the quarterbacks weren't the only objects; perhaps not even the top target. Sideline opinions as the minutes wound-down focused more on two spectacular failures by special teams. There was the fumbled kickoff return as redshirt HB Wade Bonner was stripped at State's 30-yard line; and the muffed punt by WR Jamayel Smith that ended up at State's nine-yard line and set up Tech's go-ahead touchdown.

Both were fielding kicks because State's record-setting return man, senior Derek Pegues, was back in Starkville serving a mandatory one-game suspension for missed spring semester classes. Croom pointedly declined to put any blame on Pegues' absence and teammates didn't discuss it…but few observers were ignoring the subject as botched kick returns led directly to Tech points and put State in field position troubles.

"It's tough," said Carroll. "We've got to take that on ourselves. We weren't disciplined, we made too many mental errors. They didn't out-play us, we just beat ourselves. We can't do that against any team, we've got to continue to execute instead of driving the ball and stalling."

As the coaching staff runs through their game review and assembles plans for the upcoming home game with Southeastern Louisiana, there will be plenty of talk inside their offices and speculation outside exactly how McCorvey wants to play his quarterbacks. Croom had nothing to offer on the subject Saturday night but it will be a primary topic Monday morning when he talks with reporters. But the quarterbacks involved understand their task isn't so much to beat-out each other.

It's to beat the Lions next weekend by not making the same self-destructive errors as in the opener.

"Louisiana Tech played a great game," Lee said. "But you can't hurt yourselves. We'd loved to have win, but we didn't get it. We'll move on from here. We did some good things so we can't just harp on the bad things."

And one bit of good news? These two triggermen have no intention of letting any sort of quarterback controversy develop, whether at practice or in the stadium. As Carroll said, the two talked between every series about defenses, reads, and possibilities. "And I liked that, it develops that chemistry early because we can help each other out a lot. It's going to help in the long run.

"We'll see what we have to correct. We did some good things but we've got to make a lot of corrections."


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