No, I haven't scanned boards nor prints on the subject yet. No insult to either constituency intended, I just wanted to write this without prejudicial influence in either direction…though I feel safe in saying there's only one direction most will take. Over three minutes left, two timeouts at disposal, a defense not just controlling play but coming up with utterly unexpected turnovers and providing the only points put up so far? You punt the ball on 4th-and-15.
Mississippi State did not.
Now let us be utterly clear: in no way can we absolutely and honestly say the decision to go for a, ummm, long shot first down at that juncture decided the outcome. If I've learned anything about team sports in general and college games in particular, the course and ultimate outcomes are more often set by something that happened long before the moment we media and fans naturally focus on. As far long-before as, say, a practice injury that nobody outside the locker room knew about until Saturday's second half. Here I must offer an apology to one Everett Kennerd, for disputing his statement that he'd heard Anthony Dixon was hurt in practice mid-week. I countered that I'd seen A.D. running around Thursday and he looked OK. Which he was…until we reporters left as required, and Dixon strained a groin out of observation. My bad, Big E.
On-the-other-hand justice also demands admitting that even a healthy Dixon would not have guaranteed a Dog victory…though given how the game developed you gotta like those odds. I did going in, even predicting a 17-12 success that would be settled by a kicking play or turnovers.
We surely saw enough of those, eh? Not to mention bitter irony. I mean, could we have asked better of Blake McAdams in his primary job last night, under the conditions of wicked wind and the SEC's most dangerous return man? He was superb…but he also couldn't get a clean placement down on what shoulda been a routine field goal (with the wind) that would have tied it up in the third period. And, maybe, set the stage for success.
Or not, as at 3-3 would Auburn have tried twice throwing passes out of their end zone? Maybe, maybe and more likely not with the risk of a go-ahead safety. The Tigers could afford to take that chance given how their defense was playing.
Which swings it back around to why State didn't, for one of the very rare times under this regime, play the percentages? Yeah, I know, fans have howled for four-plus years about the low-risk approach to everything taken by this staff; then the Dogs do take some chances and the howls still come. You can't win, unless you win, and isn't that a nifty Sunday solecism?
All our debating is meaningless of course. Instead I reprint this Saturday-night statement from the man himself, in whole. "I'm sure everybody's wondering why I went for it on 4th-and-15. Because I didn't know if we would have a chance to get the ball back. From that field position if we punt a strong chance the ball goes into the end zone and to me it's not that big of a gain. To me, I figured at that point in the game it was over three minutes left, I was very concerned we might not have a chance to get the ball back. Even if we didn't get it I felt our defense could hold them. So we took a shot, we had a guy open, and our two guys ran into each other. The quarterback had to scramble and we still had a chance to make it."
So there. Let the debate and more likely disparaging resume. But know this: I do not provide that quote to defend or deny the decision. It is for another and to my long-term mind more important reason. To wit, as evidence that whatever this staff does on the field or at practice or in recruiting or whatever, it is done with thought first. We can, and will, argue with the decision, but please let us understand that what is done is indeed a decision, after a process of thought in the situation(s).
Put another way, these coaches don't do much if anything by whim or even hunch. Much less improvisations on the proverbial fly. Even when Coach Sylvester Croom speaks of ‘gut feeling' we who've been around know better. Those ‘gut' feelings really come from career-long training and tendencies. Just wanted to make that clear.
Still…most of the gut feelings at DWS last night shouted punt and play field position. Because there was a whole lot better odds of scoring off yet another Tiger turnover or blocked kick than anything the offense was going to manage in this matchup.
And maybe—again, maybe as too much strange stuff happened to state with assurance—the whole issue is moot if State comes through on either of the other fourth-down tries. One of which really stands out to me, that third-quarter situation right after the missed field goal. Tay Bowser had turned the momentum with his partial blocked punt and for the first time the Tigers looked shook. 4th-and-1, a pure power formation with Christian Ducre, hero of 2007's Auburn game, in the I and seemingly sure to get the handoff. Except Wesley Carroll rolls right behind blocking and has time. Maybe even room to run himself though I need to see the replay; Auburn's pursuit was almost as incredible as their coverage last night.
What everybody saw was a hopeless throw to a covered tight end who just a couple of days earlier finally shed the cast on his right hand. But as I asked Carroll and he confirmed, that wasn't the call. It was to be a flip to the fullback skinning off the corner with lots of green in front and the tight end blocking the only tackler in sight. A perfect call, that developed perfectly at 10 positions.
Just not the one that mattered most as the fullback got hung up at the line and couldn't get out in the open. And that, folks, was for me the perfect summation of State's offensive game this Saturday and this season and ever since this staff arrived. Here I provide another Croom post-game quote where he essentially affirmed a question I've had for years myself.
"The thing about offense, if one guy makes a mistake you've got a problem."
Which is exactly my issue all along. Forget titles and labels, that's meaningless. Mississippi State is trying to run an offensive system that demands NFL-class execution. Nothing wrong with that in itself at all, IF you have the right personnel with enough collective experience and earned confidence to do it at all 11 positions, almost all the time.
State doesn't. State hasn't. I will not say State won't, though, because in all spite of a 116-yard output on 55 offensive snaps I can seriously say I've seen some progress. Damn me for a fool all you wish, it's the right of a paying subscriber. But again, I've seen some progress. Some.
Yet I can't shake the suspicion that any system, whatever the theme or title, relying on excellent execution all the time will hold up here. I think it was after the 2005 Kentucky game I stated this, that what these Bulldogs are being asked to do requires more, oh, precision than they are capable of. Put a more practical way, when all a defense has to do is delay one player out of eleven to foil a whole play, it's time to simplify the process. That's just me, though. I could again be wrong.
Because such a pro-style philosophy has been known to work. Take, oh, 1998 for example. His name is anathema now, and I recall a favored fan allowed to travel with the team cursing him aloud on the plane after that blowout at LSU within earshot of players and staff. Come to think of it he wasn't one of my favorite coordinators, either. But Lynn Amedee's notion of playing like the pros--that is, keep it close all game and when the right opportunity to make one big strike arises, take it and make it work—turned out pretty OK back then. Of course it was too boring, too safe for fans back then and he was fired that winter. And State didn't win another West title with more exciting systems. Just tossing that raw meat out there for consideration, and a reminder that what we think we know ain't necessarily so.
THE OBVIOUS JEST around the press box last night was about the ‘baseball score' results. And indeed the 3-2 outcome, the first-ever such at Mississippi State and for all I know right now in SEC history (y'all can research it, I'm too lazy), was reminiscent of the other outdoor ballyard. So what I did have enough Sunday energy for was checking how often 3-2 really IS a baseball final.
Answer: ten times in the last five State seasons. Most recently, a March home win over Georgia, though it took ten innings.
THE CURSE LIVES. I mean the old ‘Curse of Dawgs' Bite' that was such a source of after-the-fact fun for readers of the original tabloid magazine. You know, the annoying tendency for whatever Bulldog appearing on the cover, or individually featured inside, to have a disastrous follow-up week. Football was affected most, of course, though basketball wasn't entirely immune. Well, the Curse has reappeared. And with a vengeance for the October 2008 issue, though so far cover-boy Keith Fitzhugh doesn't seem to have suffered anything in particular. Just in case, do be careful Fitz. No, it's the folk featured inside who are suffering this month, starting with…Jamar Chaney. Enough said there. It's been a rough couple of weeks for lead-feature boy Wesley Carroll, too. And no sooner does the issue come out with the combo-feature on Adam Carlson and Blake McAdams than both have the galling breakdown last night of the bad hold and missed field goal.
Now setting aside our inherent sports-superstitions, the obvious fact is that the current monthly-mag format begs for these uncomfortable coincidences. That issue went to press in late August and naturally such long-lead schedules force us to go with ‘known' quantities; veterans in general and seniors in particular. Stilllll…one must wonder. I mean, it was only a year ago we put one Mike Henig on the cover for the 2007 lead issue, then featured him in the next one…and by the time it came out he was himself out with the busted hand. I fear it will get to the point no Dog wants to be featured even through my superb prosery. Or something like that.
Oh, and if you wonder…the next issue, to be turned in next Sunday for October mailing, features Dogs Anthony Strauder and Mike Gates, themed around their conversion from previous positions to quality college guards; Derek Pegues' game-and-season changing punt return in the 2007 Egg Bowl; and a game-day in the life of A.D. Greg Byrne.
Please, heaven protect them all from ill-fortune and the Curse, or I might be out of a job. And one more by-the-way, Scout wants us to hold most basketball stories for their pre-season December-dated issue.
TEN YEARS AFTER. At least another bunch of Bulldogs to be featured next month should be safe as they're presumably out of the D.B. Curse's jurisdiction. I mean members of the 1998 Western Division champs (OK, technically co-champs but who worries about such details?) that were able to be on campus yesterday for the ten-year anniversary gathering. Not nearly as many came as hoped; maybe a score to the afternoon meeting and a few more arrived later for the game. But it was good to re-unite with them that did return, and I talked with several—Eric Allen, Ashley Cooper, ‘Zo Miller, and Ed Smith—for the ten-years-after feature piece. Oh yes, it will be fun writing.
It was also interesting to get their collective take on the state of the program. After all, many of these guys went through their own painful processes to get to the success of '98, not the least of which was recovering from mid-decade probation and penalties. And let's not forget, even in the Division-title year there was a thorough thrashing by LSU and shootout losses at Okie State and Kentucky. "Nothing came easy" was their consensus.
Which is why their opinions on what State is now doing, and why and how, was instructive. These winners agree that it's always going to be an uphill battle to be a Bulldog, good times or ill. And, with hindsight, they can see how unique their own situation was; with the opportunity to seek whole-sale fixes from the amazing talent-well of state junior colleges in the 90s. (I still recall the psychic shiver I felt that afternoon chatting with an administrator outside Bryan where I first heard of forthcoming ‘progress rules' for athletes, as the implications for State football recruiting were instantly obvious.)
So, while they are unanimous in thanking their own coaching staff for the opportunity, and motivation, in how State did it Then, all I spoke with expressed support for the current regime and how it's being done Now. And as Allen said, he genuinely hopes for the day his '98 team's legacy as Division champs is surpassed by a true SEC Championship squad for State. May we all live long enough to see such.