Now by no means do I begin to imply here that the forecast is suddenly all sunny. Or that most State folk have regained all summer optimism shattered at Ruston. The Bulldogs are still a loss behind schedule, and Saturday scores from Auburn and Georgia Tech did not do much to help MSU attitudes. Heck, had a certain rival held on to that last-minute lead I'd have been utterly unsurprised at reports of attempted suicides in the Junction, given how sooooo many State fans allow the other school a total strangle-hold on their emotional health.
But what beating an eminently beatable Southeastern Louisiana team did was settle a couple of concerns. Not nearly all, but some. In fact the real contest was in the Bulldog locker room and, because of weather, the Palmeiro Center from Monday morning to Thursday afternoon. How would a team bereft of emotional 2007 leaders and so painfully slapped in the facemask—mostly by themselves that is—respond?
Silly as it sounds, this was a legitimate worry; had this year's returning players and redshirts been so spoiled by their first taste of real success last year panic after an entirely unnecessary and very embarrassing setback? Heck, would they listen to fans who as quickly as they'd cheered last November were now openly abusing staff and squad alike? Talk about spoiled… Fortunately the Bulldogs were able, as Carroll said Monday they would, to not listen to anyone or anything outside the program. Don't take it personally, folks, it's just part of their job.
Well, the players passed this particular test. But that will be simpler than passing, or running and tackling and kicking, the test coming next Saturday evening. A former player whose opinions are worth respecting actually likes a lot about the matchups with this Auburn team, with the all-important exception of the Tiger offensive line. Yow, that's a heckuva front to face for a defense still figuring how to best play the game. We saw a lot of the three-man front practiced last week (unreportable of course) that y'all saw last night, with all sorts of linebacker/safety combos being tested and evaluated. So State won't lack for options to try against Auburn; it's just the minor matter of finding something, anything that actually works.
ON CALLS: Speaking of trying things. I'm still fascinated by the recent furor that State didn't run the ball enough at Ruston and threw too often. Sheesh, four years of whining about predictable, unimaginative, boring ground-pounding offense; then as soon as Woody McCorvey calls a few passes on first downs everyone is screaming about getting away from our strength. Would somebody make up their mind what is the perfect gameplan?
OK, seriously. I'm going to break a self-imposed oath and resurrect name ‘Mike Brown.' Because with him at left tackle, a healthy Derrick Sherrod at right this year, good young depth (which has now had to start consecutive games), and a strong middle of the line, this offense really would need do little more than pound away with Dixon-Ducre. What maybe some are now appreciating is that with still-unproven tackles it's actually the right time to expand the repertoire and take advantage of the wideouts. And, the improved arm Carroll is throwing with. More on this in a moment.
But what we're really learning about Carroll, and in a broader sense the offensive plans, is how much freedom—responsibility, really—Woody McCorvey is giving his soph quarterback after the initial play call. Coach Sylvester Croom made it abundantly clear that State is still and evermore a running offense FOR THE INITIAL CALL. But unlike 2004-06, when that run-call was to stick no matter how much the defense stacked, the current quarterbacks are expected to adjust as perceived necessary.
But since the crowd can only assume what they see was the called play (a la the throw to Marcus Green last night, a second-read in reality), such impressions are inevitable. I only suggest cutting some slack until the after-fact story comes out.
LION EYES: What we oughtn't overlook is that in some technical aspects Southeastern was an interesting test for this particular State squad, given their (the Dogs that is) stage of development. And do note I said technical, not physical, since if it'd been the latter case concerns would be serious today. Take their odd-front defense, something Croom noted hadn't shown on any 2007 tapes or in their '08 opener. No, don't take post-win comments about giving up on scouting seriously, if only because these are football coaches and if they weren't burning the video all-hours all week they'd go insane from inactivity. Besides, it's easy for a team with nothing to lose to try a completely different twist this early in a year. And the Dog offense seemed to take the unexpected scheme in stride after the first series.
Then there was the Lions' offensive approach. Not just that they run yet another variation of the base scheme State will see a lot more this year, which made the game a useful practice in one sense. They stayed at the line, allow little time for the upstairs staff to make their calls, relay them to the team, get the guys aligned and sometimes subbed, then adjusted before the snap. Oh, with such adjustings called on-the-field by guys assuming the responsibility Jamar Chaney was supposed to handle all this season.
The results were satisfactory, I reckon. Take away that one real SeLa strike, the 70-yard pass play in the final period, and the Lions come away with just 45 passing yards total and 33 net on the ground. That's less than two yards per-snap all evening. But what must truly make the head coach and coordinator Charlie Harbison happy today is that the Dog defense had no, zero, zip pre-snap penalties. They lined up correctly under interesting circumstances and didn't jump the gun. No, that wasn't a SEC foe with the ball which likely would have had the Dogs more tense prior to every snap. Still it was a good technical test. And of the three defensive penalties, one was a facemask by Dominic Douglas who was partly trying to make up for Chaney's absence; and the others holding or interference on SeLa's one scoring drive. Not bad.
And the lone offensive flag assessed was to new starting tackle Quentin Saulsberry, a false start that made for an easy field goal choice in the second period. Again, not bad at all.
If you wonder why this focus on flags, look back a week please. Ten penalties were nearly as crucial in dropping the opener as any of the interceptions, though not as bad as the fumbled punt I still fear we'll all be looking back at in November and (fill in emotional response-verb of choice). It's been said before and be ready to hear it more, but this 2008 team has frightfully small margin for any errors and self-imposed gaffes are the worst of all. Only injuries will impact this club worse.
IN A TIGHT: Which is why we'd best hope Marcus Green comes back quickly from that nagging hip problem that developed in mid-August. I watched the offensive staff all spring and August working on ways to get the converted running back the ball down-field where he'd put his old skills to use. Contrary, of course, to popular impression that these coaches ‘never use the tight ends.' I've heard the same fan gripes since, ohhh, 1980 with Jerry Price, by the way. Yet we can rattle off games turned or won by a single well-chosen, well-timed play to these guys against defenses who seem to have scouted by listening to said-fans.
Early in the week I asked a State coach about where the TEs figured into the Tech gameplan. There were three coach-called passes for them, or for Green specifically (that cast on Brandon Henderson's fist is a problem). But each time Green couldn't clear the line of scrimmage in time for the play to develop as called, and the quarterback had to look elsewhere. Ironically, the tone-setting throw to Green last night was itself a second-read as called target Co-Eric Riley was in traffic. And while the catch, with two guys between Green and ball, was pretty darn slick, I'm as impressed by how quickly Wesley Carroll read the situation and changed tack. It was so smooth, it looked to all the world like the called play anyway!
And, showed just how much more zip Carroll has on the ball this year. Last season there's no chance of a throw like that arriving in time. It's also why State is suddenly throwing so many of those quick square-outs on the sideline this year; Carroll can get the ball there now. And please never forget gridiron geometry; that such a throw side-to-side is usually at least 20, 30 yards in distance. Why not throw it downfield that far, then? Because the receiver is already in position. And if you have wideouts who can make a first-move and get by their single coverage, a gain follows; where downfield throws of any distance are lower-odds of good results.
DUCK! While praising the improvements in Carroll's arm-strength and timing…I can't wait until Monday's practice to ask…what the heck happened on that double-flea-flicker throw in the second quarter?! The gadget play—yes, I saw it practiced last week but you didn't expect me to tattle, did ya?—worked perfectly save for the throw itself. I can only assume Wes lost his grip because that was a real quack-up toss. No doubt he's getting his feathers ruffled in today's game-replay, in good humor of course.
And Wes more than made up for it with the shortest of his throws all night, that flip to tight end (we never use them, remember?) Austin Wilbanks for the most enjoyable score of the evening. You have to feel good for Wilbanks, the Mississippi College transfer who gave up a sure thing at one level to be a part of SEC football. Few such stories work out so well, of course, but this makes the happier endings that much more enjoyable.
NEW LOOK: Finally, I really would appreciate more input from y'all about how we cover games now. After four years of doing it the same way—long all-inclusive game story and participation list—we're trying a different approach. Not very ‘creative' as I don't have to come up with leads or structure a story, true. Nor did it allow for expounding on, say, Anthony Dixon tying the career touchdown record; or Adam Carlson's nine-good field goal streak ending; and so on. Just quotes, a game review, and the same list of who played and who didn't which is of most interest in the first half of the season anyway.
So tell me what you think of it, if it's the right way to go or what else we might try. But in one sense I already failed the first test. Even with this straight-forward, non-literary format…I was still last man out of the press box. At least it's the one I know where the light switches and Coke machine are.