Now, though, "We need to take a look at him some in this ball game," Croom said. "He's done some good things in practice but that's practice and games are games; we need to see how he's going to react under the lights. (We'll) pick a spot somewhere in the game this week to give him some game experience and see if he can help us."
In 2009, that is. It's a gamble of course playing Relf, or for that matter any reserve, in games this staff badly needs to win, and in the crunch the offensive coaches might be loathe to make such a mid-game change. Yet staff and players alike need to know how they, and Relf more than any, perform under real in-the-balance game pressures before making firm spring plans about the entire position's depth chart.
Relf isn't the only one Croom hopes to put in real play Saturday, too. "We need to see (HB) Wade Bonner in action some so we can know exactly how he's going to perform in the offense, see where we are there." Then it will be easier to decide if, say, redshirt frosh Bonner stays at running back or moves back to safety. Of course that, and how current redshirting rookie T.J. Patterson lines up in '09, will also be impacted by how HB Robert Elliot comes back from knee surgery following his September 27 ligament injuries.
And while not involving redshirts or rookies, Croom is planning on having WR Delmon Robinson return kickoffs this week as program all-time return leader Derek Pegues suffered a concussion at Alabama and has missed practices this week.
"I'll probably use Delmon as the kickoff return guy," Croom said. "Because we have to have Derek as the punt catcher. He's taken a lot of hits returning kicks and punts and then playing defense, we don't take him off the field very much. Delmon is at a point now where we can let him return kickoffs and take a little off Derek."
TRIGGER MEN: Where, or whether, Relf gets Saturday snaps, the offensive approach to these end-of-season games does work with both veteran quarterbacks. At Alabama, soph Wesley Carroll took over for one series and ran an option-type keeper similar to his fourth-quarter carries in the Liberty Bowl. With State struggling to make the basic ground game go out of a two-back set (see Tuesday Notebook), called quarterback keepers are one way to keep defenses loose at the line of scrimmage.
And while QB Tyson Lee is certainly the superior scrambler, Carroll is the better pure runner whether on the direct snap or regular exchange. "I certainly have a good comfort level running those types of plays," Carroll said. "Not only does it make a defense have to prepare for multiple quarterbacks, it makes a defense play assignment football. They can't come with maybe the same blitzes they would if we were running a play from under-center with two backs. They have to play assignment football and make sure they're covering all their bases. And we'll probably look to run some of that and keep defenses on their toes."
For his part Lee's runs are usually forced after the snap, and his escape skills have produced a fair percentage of third-down conversions. An area, incidentally, where Arkansas' defense ranks last in the SEC at 41.8%, but State's own offense only makes good 34% of the time. Too many of these failures have been much more frustrating as they were in running situations; and either the blocking, the backs, or all failed to gain the needed ground.
It aggravates a perceived trend in State's 2008 games of moving the ball well in first and second quarters only to come up short after halftime and let the contest get out of control. Lee denies it is a trend. "Or even a common theme," he said. Yet the starting quarterback agrees the offense hasn't sustained enough drives in any period to put up enough points.
"I think sustain is a good word. We sustain it sometimes but not enough. That's one of the biggest things, if we have a drive going so don't beat yourself and hurt yourself. And we've done that a lot. When we do move the ball we're very efficient in what we do, but we haven't been able to do that enough. Hopefully this week we'll get back on track and do it for four quarters."
Of course Carroll was quarterbacking in 2007 when the Dogs did sustain drives, at least some in the last month of the schedule, that combined with big defensive plays State won SEC games. The core was controlling the ground game both ways, he said. "The difference is last year it seemed we could run the ball maybe a little more. I think we got away from that too much, and that's why we're coming back to it. Because if you can run the ball you can pass the ball and it sets up the whole offensive gameplan."
Which signals an intention to run the football the rest of this season, whatever the set and whoever gets handed the ball. Or, keeps it from the snap. Either way, Carroll said, ""We're going back to more basic football, trying to get back into a game controlling mode instead of playing from behind. If we do that against the next two opponents we have a good shot of winning."
GOALS, AND GOAL LINES, WITHIN REACH: Motivation is not going to be a late-year issue for these Bulldogs either, even if they know the season ends with the regular schedule. Lee calls it "play to finish" and adds that this weekend's home finale offers a bit of extra incentive. "Arkansas has beaten State the last nine years," he noted. "They know that and we know that, and they're looking to come in and get a win."
Besides, Lee said, "You owe it to yourself, you owe it to the program, and you owe it to each guy on this team just to play out. Whether for a national championship or not, we've been given ability and just play to the best of your ability and try to win-out."
THIS LITTLE PIGGIE: Where the Bulldogs want to run the football productively, Arkansas does. Or specifically, Michael Smith does, netting 112 yards per game to rank 2nd in the SEC and 14th in NCAA stats this week. How big a part does the junior play in the UA ground attack? Arkansas nets 113.5 rushing yards per-game. While that takes into account yards lost to sacks and such, it still means Smith IS the Razorback ground game.
All the more impressive given his listed 5-7, 173-pound stature. "He reminds me of Mighty Mouse!" said MLB Dominic Douglas, who wasn't making fun either. "I mean, he's a real good guy and a real good running back. He's athletic, he's jitterish, he has the speed. I saw him against Florida hit the sideline and he took it to the house."
Since the Georgia Tech game, State's defense has managed to prevent most really big runs by big and medium-sized backs. Pure speed guys are a serious threat, though, and Smith may be the most dangerous runner the Dogs have dealt with to-date. Especially if he gets past first contact and turns a corner, because State has also shown some previously-uncharacteristic problems in finishing off tackles.
"We know we've got to keep contain on the outside," Douglas said. "Knowing most of their runs come from the outside." Most of Smith's runs, that is. And until the whistle sounds the Dog defense can't be certain Mighty Mouse is down.
"He can go by you in a hurry. We just have to keep him in front of us at all times, and come up with the big play in the end. And when we hit, make they go backwards."
INJURY UPDATES: TE Brandon Henderson (hamstring) returned to practice today with a heavy wrap on the left thigh. He played at Alabama with the injury and will continue, though his starting job went to freshman Kendrick Cook last week.
S Derek Pegues is back practicing at safety.
But another Dog is done for the year, as WR Tay Bowser was found to have a hairline fracture in a leg today following a practice collision Tuesday. Though not a serious break, Bowser—who was the placekick-rush specialist off MSU's right end—will miss the remaining games.
Freshman WR O'Neal Wilder has spent most of the fall rehabbing a knee problem. He has practiced some lately with the scout team while redshirting.
CRANK IT UP: Midway of Wednesday's practice, the Bulldogs could hear the sound system on the new Davis Wade Stadium video board/message center crank up. The system was delayed as work crews hurried to get the video screen operating for the Kentucky game, but will be in operation for the final home date of 2008.