Defense Dominates Second Spring Scrimmage

Well, the Bulldog offense can't say it wasn't warned. Even those wearing do-not-touch red jerseys got a heads-up from the defensive team prior to Saturday's scrimmage practice. "They told me in the locker room they were going to eat me for lunch," quarterback Tyson Lee said, adding "They're full today!"

Indeed, the Mississippi State defense feasted early and often on their counterparts to conclude the second week of spring camp with what Coach Dan Mullen called "A big win. Not even close today." This was one week after the offense rallied late last Saturday to pull off a close win based on how the Bulldog staff scores their scrimmages. Not by touchdowns per se, but by which side succeeds in moving the ball—or stopping it—in set situations.

But if the camp ‘record' is even now at one win apiece for the respective units, today's final result was a real romp by the stopper-squad. Whether in open-field or red-zone work, the first and second defenses set the tone. The offense(s) only posted two touchdowns between them and not many more first downs until Mullen lined them up in first-and-goals from the two-yard line. Even then it usually took all four downs to break the goal. Which produced Mullen's only issue with the overall defensive day.

"I was happy with our defense, they came out and played hard. At the end we called out the score and they were up big, I think they slacked off a little bit and the offense got to punch a couple in. It's a good lesson for them to learn about that, when you have somebody on the ropes you have to put them away, don't give them any breathing room."

"A good defense has to shut them down and then keep them down," said first MLB Jamar Chaney. "We didn't do that. We showed some good things but we also did some bad things." True…but not nearly enough bad things for either offensive unit to feel good about themselves.

"They played extremely well," #1 quarterback Lee said of the defense. "Offensively we didn't execute when we needed to. I think we had good schemes and good play calls."

What the offense did not have Saturday was the full roster to work with. Just as on Friday, the backfield was down to one full-speed halfback in Anthony Dixon and a trio of walk-on fullbacks who doubled their duties out of scrimmage need. It meant FB Sylvester Hemphill spent a lot more time as a half- or tailback than his normal job. He also got the most carries of the nearly three-hour session, running 17 times for 58 total yards. Dixon ran ten times for 64 yards. Patrick Hanrahan did the rest of the dirty work, 12 for 28; all three paid for their pains with, well, a lot of pain as the defense tackled with efficiency and enjoyment. The extra work was required as veteran RB Christian Ducre was sidelined another day with a sore shoulder, RB Robert Elliot held out for his rehabbing knee, and RB Arnil Stallworth's spring ended on a knee ligament tear. Both were dressed for drills but not practicing, and Stallworth will have surgery next Thursday. Mullen hopes to have Ducre back for next week's four practice days.

Otherwise it is going to be a grind for the healthy backs. Even the ever-ebullient Dixon was a bit downcast with the final outcome Saturday…which he disputed anyway. "It was kind of depressing, but they called it a defensive win so we've got to go with that. He's the boss!"

The receiver group isn't in much better shape, though WR Delmon Robinson did get in his most work all week after a couple of easy days to rest his right hamstring. Terrance Davis (hamstring) and Brandon McRae (leg rehab) did not practice at all. The need for scrimmage bodies was so great that despite a sore shoulder Leon Berry ran with the first team anyway, wearing no-contact yellow. Though the defense did give him a few bumps anyway when the ball came that way.

The limited roster did produce an amusing moment in the only #3s-vs.-3s scrimmaging, as quarterback Riley Saunders threw to his fellow walk-on Todd Kilpatrick (now moved to wideout for numbers) for a short gainer. A new walk-on, juco Kyle Roberts, was up in the second rotation already and caught two passes (as much as anybody else all day) for a dozen yards. Berry had a couple of grabs for 25 yards, Charles Bailey two for 12, and Wilder two for 11.

Lee completed nine of 19 passes for 91 yards with two scores and one interception. Relf was 5-of-18 for 29 yards with a couple of picks. And each had some balls batted away at the line of scrimmage by the hard pass rush.

Mullen acknowledged that the lack of healthy runners and catchers was at least some factor in how the day was won, and lost. At the same time he wanted more from the offense even under the circumstances. "I'm real disappointed with the offense's performance today. Right from front-to-back. The offensive line has been looking solid, they were turning guys free in protection today, going the wrong way. That was disappointing. I thought our backs ran hard, but you could see the obvious lack of play-makers. We just need to get some play-makers here."

Mullen's criticism of the blocking actually was an indication of how well that group had performed in the first five practices, contact or not. But in the last two rounds the line has been pushed harder by a more aggressive defensive. Today if not for their no-touch colors and helpful whistles, Lee and #2 QB Chris Relf would have spent time on the turf. Even with their protected status the passing game sputtered more often than not regardless of who lined up on offense or defense.

"Our defense did a real good job on that stuff today, getting some pressure," Mullen said. "In the first half (the mid-field situations) we got some real good pressure on the quarterback, I was happy with the guys up front. And the guys in the secondary were making some real good plays." This included forcing some turnovers, as on the opening ones-against-ones series Lee had a pass meant for TE Kendrick Cook tipped and picked by S Zach Smith. Later in seconds-on-seconds Relf tried to hook up with Berry in traffic; this too was deflected and caught MLB Bo Walters. And in goal-line-out offense, starting from their own two-yard line, Relf threw a bullet right into the chest of backup MLB Jamie Jones for an easy pickoff.

And not all turnovers were forced; in red zone period Lee simply pitched too high for Dixon. CB Damein Anderson finally came up with the loose ball around the 30-yard line and was gone the other way for a defensive touchdown.

The initial offensive spark came starting at the 50 with 1s-on-1s. After a first-down pickup to the12-yard line Lee rolled right and found Robinson running to the right side of the end zone for a tightrope touchdown. On their next turn the second offense moved the chains as Relf laid it in nicely for TE Brandon Henderson on a downfield strike over S Wade Bonner. The twos had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Sean Brauchle.

Moving into red zone offense—which Mullen starts at the 25-yard line—made it a little bit easier to score with Dixon doing the job. He started right, countered left and got to the pylon to cover all 25 yards. The second offense should have scored in their turn but Relf's throw was dropped by Berry in the end zone.

In goal-line-in settings the first defense still made the offense use lots of snaps to cover just two yards, even stopping them short on a 4th-and-1 as Hemphill was strung out on a sweep and dropped. He would still break the goal twice as the defense did slack-up at the end, on near-identical five-yard bursts at left end. Hanrahan punched it over from the one himself on the second team. And on a first down Lee caught the #1 defense napping with a rollout that found Henderson open on the back line for the last TD of the day.

Though only two tosses produced touchdowns and no single receiver had a big day, the throws attempted showed how varied the attack intends to be as State progresses in Mullen's system. "We've got to try to use those guys, all of them," Mullen said. The coach pointed out a few individual plays made; Henderson's catch, Dixon's run, and the like as positive signs. "We just didn't see many of them. Not many of them. We need some guys that can make something happen once they get the ball in their hands."

As quarterback, Lee could see the more positive point of view even in the lack of play-making bodies available this time. "The biggest thing is giving the opportunity to guys to run different positions. In this offense the biggest thing is knowing what everybody does, if you just know one position you don't really understand the whole scheme. So overall it's helping us understand the offense."

The first offense was unchanged from Friday, with Craig Jenkins having moved over from backup right guard to first left guard after six-day starter Tobias Smith was bumped down to the second team. The defense had also seen one starting change Friday as Louis Watson took over left cornerback from Anderson. But Watson also suffered a concussion during drills and did not practice today; Marvin Bure began as the first LCB until the last hour when Anderson resumed his first-team status.

And after six days as the first left defensive tackle, Pernell McPhee flipped to the right side with Charles Burns going left. For that matter there were series where Friday's right ends lined up on the left side, and vice-versa, which made updating unofficial depth charts a challenge. Today's scrimmage began with Brandon Cooper restored to first team at left defensive end; only two plays in he suffered an elbow injury. Devin Jones ran first team for one hour, and then Trevor Stigers took over for most of the red zone and goal-line work.

The only other casualty noted, besides Cooper, was when S Bonner got the worse of a collision with Hanrahan on an option-pitch play. Though he made the stop the safety had to be helped to the side shaking his rattled head clear. Maybe a closer call came in pre-scrimmage kicking warm-ups as a low line drive by PK Brauchle sailed past Mullen's head. He promptly shouted back "Brauchle, you're gonna kill somebody!" Brauchle still did well on short and medium field goals later in the day, consistently hitting his attempts from 20-to-40 yards. He also took care of kicking off for the first unit.

The deep return men were S Wade Bonner and Berry as the first duo; O'Neal Wilder and Bure as the second. Robinson and Roberts fielded punts with no return attempts. Heath Hutchins did the primary punting though no stats were recorded.

As the whole team left for a real lunch—where the defense likely was just as ravenous following over three hours of on-field time—the staff began individual and unit evaluations that will continue through the weekend and right up to resumption of spring practices Tuesday. The Bulldogs will have another four-workout week with consecutive sessions Thursday-Friday-Saturday. This doesn't allow much time for today's scrimmage bruises to heal, but on the whole State players are holding up under the pressures of both learning and performing their new systems. Though, Chaney admits, his sides has something of an advantage.

"The offense, they've got a whole new scheme. Defense, all you have to do is give great effort and you look good out there!"

Still the offense hopes to be looking better after the third week of work…if they can get enough able bodies back to scrimmage again with. Then come Saturday they'll try to break the tied record in a third scrimmage session.


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