From The Dawghouse

It's a ritual—superstition?—of sorts, but upon arriving field-side in fourth quarters as we media jackals do I look for a more dignified species of canine. Tonka, specifically, for a quick lucky rub of his head. Bless that Bulldog, easily the most affable MSU mascot in my memory, but last night he shot me a look as if to say ‘hey, fellow, looks like you could use a pat on that thinning scalp.'

Well, that or a swift slap to the face. Either approach might've shaken yer editer from a profound fourth-quarter funk that, I haste to add, didn't directly reflect the specific outcome of Mississippi State's latest loss. Objectively, the Bulldogs put in a solid first half and when Tyson Lee was breaking contain (and thanks to a personal foul, netting a first down) on the opening series of the third period Jamayel Smith was breaking free at mid-field for another big-strike touchdown.

Of course it was much easier for me to see that opportunity from my press box perch than for the guy scrambling for his health. And it's an axiom of the game that rolling or running to one side of the field geometrically restricts the range of both vision and arm, kinda like those ‘I can't see you' diagrams on the backs of OTR haulers. And boy was that one big rig bearing down on Tyson. Still I bring it up as emblematic of the larger issue to last night and symptomatic of the 2008 season's results. The really big chance was overlooked and what old Kraut generals called the ‘small solution' seized instead.

Would it have ultimately mattered, assuming completion of course? Well, State certainly wouldn't have been punting a few snaps later with all that room for Javier Arenas to run back the game-breaking touchdown. Even then Alabama would almost surely have succeeded some other way. From what I've seen on the tube this fall, Florida has the better roster overall. But upon in-person review the Tide might just be the better team, and if the Gators don't get their punches in quickly in Atlanta next month, well, South Beach hot spots will be cheering the arrival of Ian Rapoport and his expense account.

Back to last night, Tonka might've done better psychological service by taking a chomp. In fact one of his predecessors did have a snap at me way back when I was a photo-snapper, at a Jackson game. That Bully missed, not that I'd have noticed missing flesh nor blood during another loss to the Non-SEC Foe That Will Never Be Named Herein. Hmm, ain't it more painful how the decades and names change but our MSU angst rarely recedes for very long?

Still I oughtn't have let this one get to me so, and I re-apologize to a press-row cohort I (verbally) snapped at in the third period. At least I waited until a sunny Sunday to begin opinionating. It says way too much about my scrambled state of mind that on the return trip I played, consecutively, Meat Loaf's ‘Bat Out of Hell' and a Gordon Lightfoot track. HELLLLP!

Then again I reckon few State supporters who preceded me homeward, or who stayed at a safe ESPN-distance, were so much calmer. In fact the most level-headed folk to be found last night, or today, or all season for that matter, are those who wear the uniform. Whatever else we can and should say about the 2008 Bulldogs, they have proven something vital for the long-term health of this program. Where all around them are losing their heads, their tongues, and maybe their jobs, State's players have demonstrated a degree of poise and pride—not chest-pounding bravado but an honorable assurance—I've rarely seen from good Bulldog teams of any sort, any sport; and never ever from one that has faced the temptations to trauma this team has been confronted with. Say what we will about the record, and there's a lot to say. But trust this opinion cross-checked with a graduated Dog who endured trying-tough times himself. In five frantic falls Mississippi State's roster has been transformed into young men worthy to represent our University.

Well and good, but…when will they begin winning? Class and character are well and good but an increasingly frustrated fan base is demanding tangible successes to cheer, never mind that the c&c unfortunately but obviously required so much labor first. It's easy to forget, even ignore now when Bulldog football seemingly keeps falling farther behind the SEC pack.

Or…is it really so dire for the Dogs? Insane as it sounds, and as nightmarish as the scoreboards and (especially) the stat sheets are looking in another November, there are clues, hints, signals that Mississippi State is not terribly far from competitiveness. Note, competitiveness, which I define as breaking even in SEC season and regularly beating lesser-league foes. Others who define it as playing for titles, well, that's another issue once the essentials preceding steps are taken.

Which is why I go on-record now stating it is essential Mississippi State defeat Arkansas this weekend.

This isn't a ‘one at a time' sort of situation, either. This really does appear a, oh, it's a strong way to put it but we'll go ahead. It's down to make-or-break now, not so much for a season but for a staff to support their contention that progress is still being made behind-the-scenes. They're right of course, it is, at practices and in the locker room and around campus and town. But it has to show on the scoreboard to encourage a paying public for 2009, which is already on a lot of minds.

Interestingly, and tellingly, another group appears sold on the system. My partners who deal with committed prospects report a stay-the-course theme going into winter, which says much about the relationships developed by this staff over the course of the last two, three or more years. Those camps and calls and visits have been worth the effort, it seems. And I find this fascinating for a not-so-obvious aspect, because most of these potential signees are not assured of instant playing time, the typical enticement for a struggling program. They're signing on, or at least intend to as of now, knowing the roster they're joining and how they fit into the larger scheme of things. I have to give a fair portion of the credit to the current Dogs, really, as they've done as much to sell State as their coaches. Maybe more, which after all is how it ought to be.

But, still…there has to be more than good vibrations and budding camaraderie and suchlike for the rest of us, as well as for any teetering prospects yet to commit. Only a win will work, and this weekend is State's final 2008 opportunity to make the right sort of home-field impression. In the aftermath of the Kentucky fiasco, this really is a last chance to show things are heading in the right direction. And without implying any inside info, which I've not sought so far, to prove the right people are making the calls.

I just spent way too much time perusing the last five game-books while waiting for the fire-‘em-up call at Homestead. And I was a statistician myself long enough to know the risk of over-analyzing pure numbers, since only the coaches and players really know why what was called when and how it did or didn't work. It's kind of like the classic Jewish allegory of the man who, at each twist of luck, asked his praising or empathizing neighbors how they knew somewhat really was either for good or bad. But the digits are all we non-coaches can go by.

And what they show is…what we already knew about this offense. State starts well, moving the ball and gaining ground—though pointedly without putting up many pointeds—for the first quarter and sometimes into the second. Then the pace slacks, the squad sputters into halftime. Third quarters are a mixed bag but more struggle than success, and by the fourth period it's all fallen apart, barring a gift turnover or one big break.

The popular opinion of the moment is to credit, or blame, the ‘script' that State begins games with, but that's also misleading in that the scripted plays are hardly set in stone. Not hardly, there's a lot more flexibility in play selection than ‘scripted' indicates. By the way, in this five-game stretch State has been 50/50 in run/pass the first period, but there's no rhyme or reason after halftime which I guess reflects the degree of concern as the games get away.

Look a degree deeper for the crucial clue. While all offensive repertoires diminish by intermission, State just seems to settle too easily for the safer stuff with a sprinkling of low-percentage shots…too low percentage. It's an odd mix of don't-lose caution and big-shot risks. It reminds me of back when I'd play poker with dorm pals, in fact. I stayed safe mostly but when I took a chance, it was the wrong one at the wrong times. Is there a gridiron equivalent of drawing to an inside straight?

You'll notice no commentary on special teams. Because there's no point other than to note the trend of getting most of the aspects right each week, and sometimes very right, with a crucial exception. I guess it was the turn of punt coverage, which actually had been fine all year considering who State had kicked to before. Much will be made of Coach Sylvester Croom's terse and repeated response to queries about punting plans. I'll offer this coverage, so to speak; saying any more in that regard was risking saying much too much, making it seem personal instead of tactical. It's a bitter irony that this coach has often gone out of his way to offer actual, technical reasons for what went wrong only to be accused of ‘blaming the players.' Now reticence is seen as antagonism. You can't win…unless you do.

And Mississippi State just about must win this home game. If this comes across as adding intensity to a staff that's been working and living in a pressure-chamber since halftime at Louisiana Tech, well, so be it. The staff veterans went through much the same from August 2004 through October 2007. This is a different sort of pressure, though, partly because of how last season played out. Another by-the-way; has anyone else been struck at how many of the things that went right last fall have turned the other way this year, for no obvious reason? I'm utterly convinced that the field goal which clanked two weeks ago would have somehow caromed through last season. Or the first-start frenzy snap D.J. Looney made last night when Lee was only trying to make a call? I'd wager the expected bill Ahmed at A&R Auto will hand me this week, after a check of the cooling system and grumbling left-rear axle, that had such happened in November '07 the quarterback not only would have snagged it but gained a few yards in the unplanned process.

Yet this time around the bounces, all sorts of ‘em, are going much as they did in 2006 when State was all those ‘one plays' from several victories. Going wrong. And it's not some sort of karmic payback for a lot of good '07 luck. Yes, several foes who self-destructed on State last year aren't handing games over now. But I think it goes deeper, to a degree of, oh, let's call it indecisiveness at what prove to be crucial junctures against teams that already have at least some and often lots of advantages over the '08 Bulldog lineups. Or of not indecisiveness, then making the wrong decisions at the right times and vice-versa.

Which actually is somewhat encouraging because it implies things are done half-right. We can see plays setting up and even developing nicely right up to the moment of on-field decision, and that means everyone—running, blocking, reading, throwing, everyone. My complaint in the past of an overly-complex offensive system, easily beaten by one single piece failing to execute, has actually diminished greatly this season. The staff has adjusted to the talent, experience, and depth in most aspects, and not grudgingly either no matter what we might like to think.

But of course they still aren't winning winnable games nor staying competitive after 2.5 quarters in mis-matches, at least not since LSU and that's not exactly any great feat any more either. Which is again why I'm putting so much stock in what we see, or not, this Saturday afternoon. Heck yeah, I'll take a win on luck. Yet that wouldn't prove enough about what this staff will, or wants to, do with what they've got to work with in 2009. No, I don't mean show all sorts of plays and sets and schemes; we've seen more than enough of all that to know these coaches have good and even interesting ideas. And whatever the above info implied, stats aren't my concern either.

I mean do what the Dogs can do well, do it well from start-to-finish, and win the way a team that has a chance to become legitimately competitive should. It was fun last year taking advantage of opposing gaffes and a handful of well-, if unintentionally-time scoring drives. State now must know we can't count on that sort of thing, much less season, again. The Bulldogs have to be able to make the other team react to them if competitiveness is the goal.

And it is. Not just of the coaches and players, but of an administration that is looking very thoughtful and saying very little these days. Wisely, because they see and know more than we can about the larger situation. Yet ultimately it really is the scoreboard and record which makes decisions for everyone involved. Especially when the foundation work appears complete enough that observers reasonably wonder how much longer before the building begins taking shape.

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