It's not that the Bulldogs actually had to play both opposing triggermen or even distinct offensive attacks every outing; Auburn only used one quarterback all game, and while Georgia Tech was forced to change by an early injury they kept running the same plays. Still just about every foe State has faced has boasted two distinct styles of quarterbacks, and the Dog defense has schemed and practiced for each. In the Kentucky case, Hartline is more experienced in the pocket, while Cobb puts his receiver speed and footwork to best use getting outside to run, or throw, or run around and throw.
Croom sees similarities with State's own Chris Relf, himself a prep wideout who turned quarterback full-time only as a senior and is still learning how to run a college scheme. "Cobb's ability to pull the ball down and run is scary," Croom said. All the more so because Kentucky's receiver routes tend to create creases around the line of scrimmage a running quarterback can exploit. And those wideouts also specialize in ‘cut' blocking corners and safeties before they can run in for support.
"We've got to figure out how to practice that without our own players getting hurt," Croom said. This is comparable to all the work State did the week prior to Georgia Tech, with defensive backs trying to shed low blocks out on option plays. As it turned out, the Yellow Jacket receivers did more straight-up blocking that Bulldog corners and safeties struggled to shed anyway. So this area is getting that much more attention this week in unit drills, regardless of the injury risks involved.
Then there is just the change-of-pace distinct quarterbacks present. It sounds obvious enough but actually changing play- and mind-sets during a game when the other man comes in can be challenging. "It just magnifies your preparation as far as having to lock-in exactly on what each one of them does," Croom said. "Even though they probably have the ability to run the entire gameplan, when you put a guy in you're probably asking him to do specific things. It's the responsibility of the (defense) to understand what they emphasize when that player is in the game. You try to eliminate possibilities in your own mind. Those are the kinds of things you have to know as soon as they break the huddle. If you're worrying about everything that can possibly happen, you're going to be paralyzed."
But State does hope to find one small advantage in Kentucky playing Cobb so much, so early, in their loss at Florida last week. The defense has at least gotten a good look at how Cobb runs, his tendencies, his tip-offs. Hopefully, that is. SS Keith Fitzhugh thinks it will be a plus. "Because they're both dangerous quarterbacks. At least we know what to do when either one is in the game. It was a plus getting to watch them both play last week."
"You could say it was an advantage," Brown said. "At the same time it probably wasn't how they wanted it to be so ain't no telling how they're going to come out this week and play." Nor does Brown expect the Wildcats to be hung-over from their blowout at Gainesville. "Everybody has their bad game, so we see it as they're mad about last week so they'll come back for revenge this week."
GET ‘EM DOWN, GET IT DONE: Fitzhugh had a key play in last year's 31-14 outcome at Lexington, falling on a Wildcat fumble early in the second half to set up a field goal as the Bulldogs took control of the win. An upset victory, too, as Kentucky was #14 at the time. The biggest names—Woodson, Tamme, Allen—from that UK offense are gone, and two more key veterans are done for this year with injuries. Yet Fitzhugh knows better than to take this matchup lightly.
"They've got two good quarterbacks. Very good receivers and good backs. They look better than they were last year, I'm not taking from them. We have to go out there and do it all."
What Mississippi State really has to do well this week is something that has been an unexpected problem lately. To wit, tackling. In both the Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State games, Bulldog defenders have been making good contact but not consistently putting down the ball-carrier. It especially hurt State in the second half at Knoxville when the UT quarterback, not noted for his scrambling skills, shed hand-tackles repeatedly to keep a touchdown drive going. Too many other times in other games, running backs have been able to finish ‘forward' after contact, Croom says.
"I'm disappointed in the way the secondary tackled," he said of the MTSU game. "It wasn't up-front, and our linebackers tackled very well. But we didn't use our techniques in our secondary."
Senior Fitzhugh thinks he knows part of the problem. "I think we're getting a little anxious sometimes, always going for the ‘kill' shots," he said. "We've got to know when to make the form tackles and just get somebody on the ground.
"Coach has been stressing that a lot and we've been practicing on it so we can make the sure plays. So we don't worry about making the kill-shot or the ‘ooh-aah' hits. But right now we just need to get everybody on the ground whenever we get to the ball. We know we're better than that, we're going to be alright and we've been practicing it whenever we go team-on-team." And again, disregarding the chance of practice hurts to get something corrected.
KICKING IT UP: And speaking of limiting contact… Croom has talked this week of trimming S Derek Pegues' work-load, either kickoff or punt return tasks. "Derek wants to continue to do both," Croom said. "But like the other night when he got hurt, we were going to have to relieve him of his return duties if that thumb continues to bother him." A MRI showed no real damage to the digit, and it doesn't affect Pegues' work as a safety…though picking off a pass could be tougher.
So freshman WR Arceto Clark was sharing more turns Wednesday with Pegues fielding kickoffs, while a variety of Dogs—such as WR Jamayel Smith, WR Delmon Robinson, and S Chris Nance—were also catching punts.
The grind of the season might be costing Pegues a bit of burst on kickoffs, because for the last month he has come close but not quite been able to maximize opportunities for really big returns. And video evaluation shows the chances were there to take a couple of kickoffs all the way back. Croom likes how the front line is re-directing coverage at first, then the ‘wedge' is taking out the specific opponent that every return plan centers on. "Everything else is left to the return guy. How good you are on kickoff return, I've always believed, is up to the returner. You get to a point you have to beat one guy.
"We've had some good returns but we haven't beaten that last guy, one of them was a kicker! And it's up to the return guy to get that done."
Also regarding special teams, these Bulldogs are getting good at pressuring placekickers and punters and nearly got to a couple of MTSU boots. They did it without the services that night of Tay Bowser, who did not dress for Homecoming or the Tennessee trip. All Croom has said about this was that Bowser was "Just trying to figure out how he wants to approach things" and that there were decisions to make. This week, the joint decision was for Bowser to move across the line and back to his original college position of wide receiver.
"With the loss of guys we're going to have next year I decided to go ahead and put him there," Croom said. "He asked me how much playing time we'd get him at corner, I said you're not, we can't afford to take those (starters) off the field that much. So he wanted to look at being a wide receiver again." Bowser had struggled in some games, particularly Auburn and LSU, with man coverage and was beaten on near-identical post routes.
State signed Bowser as a wideout, but "he's the one that talked me into letting him go to defensive back," Croom explained. Now Bowser will have to battle young wideouts like Robinson, Clark, and redshirts Charles Bailey, Terrance Davis, and O'Neal Wilder come spring.
But the Bulldogs want him to stay for one thing Bowser does very well. He has a knack for coming off the right (opponents' left) end on placekicks, and blocked one at Louisiana Tech. This is something that can't be coached. "We've got to still have him helping us on special teams," Croom said.