Yes, those four plays were analyzed in detail during said review, and hurt the most. "The last series is the hardest one, obviously," said Lee, quarterback for that entire drive. "But even throughout the game, just the first three quarters we had drives, we had plays if we had just executed a little more, done this just a little bit more, I don't think it would have come down to the last drive in the fourth quarter."
It's an accurate appraisal. Because against a Western Division foe that had completely throttled State offenses in recent years, the Dogs were able to muster 374 yards and earn 21 first downs. They also had eight more minutes possession time, improvement unimaginable based on the previous encounters.
And it still wasn't quite enough to win, with a list of what-ifs Lee and teammates could see for themselves after-the-fact. "Just a few plays here, a few plays there," Lee said. "If you do one more step here, or just make this throw a little bit more or less here, it's a totally different ball game. Especially after a loss it's harder. But when you see how close it was, it hurts."
All the more so because in almost all the close offensive calls Lee had the ball in his hand first. His 172 passing yards were more than any two other 2009 games combined, and Lee did hook up with TE Marcus Green for a 50-yard touchdown play in the third quarter. But he also had three of his throws picked off, his first intercepts of the season, one for a touchdown return and all in the first half. So it was interesting, based on prior games, that alternate QB Chris Relf still didn't get as many snaps as usual this time; and none at all in the third period.
Mullen explained it was partly because Relf took a hard shot in the first half and was not sharp upon second-quarter return. A bigger and better reason though was how Lee bounced back from the early miscues and made the Bulldog offense produce against their typical tormentors.
"I guess it was I was able to create some rhythms," said Lee. "And a little bit of motivation, I guess. But throughout the game I was able to get a feel for what they were doing, because you were out there more. Going into the game not knowing how much (State would alternate) didn't matter, but once I got on the field and got things going I think it got some momentum going in different drives."
One boost to Bulldog momentum was the appearance of something missing from the first three games: true downfield throwing-and-catching. The strike to Green was somewhat impromptu as Lee was scrambling and found his tight end drifting open 25 yards away; but the throw was made, caught, and Green did the rest. Relf's only pass play, also after being flushed, was a sidearm sling that evaded deflection and was caught by WR O'Neal Wilder for a net 46-yard gainer. Lee also fired more balls at or between the hashmarks this time, compared to the out-routes and sideline patterns used previously.
Lee said going longer against LSU was partly due to Tiger defensive schemes. "We knew we would get some man-to-man matchups and we had to find a way to get the ball downfield, on first down especially to create and second-and-shorts. We were able to do that a couple of times but not enough." But, he added, the downfield strikes are increasingly part of the gameplan. "Going into this week, or any game the rest of the season, that's something we really have to do. Is be able to throw some balls downfield and have defenses at least respect that."
"I think we've gotten better. Last week we got a good idea of what LSU was going to do defensively and this week we hopefully will get a great idea of what Georgia Tech will do and based on that have a good passing game."
Georgia Tech probably has more respect for State's passing abilities than anyone in the SEC, because a year ago at Atlanta the Dogs—having fallen behind far and fast—put the ball up a lot. And between Lee and Wesley Carroll the result was 299 passing yards. Lee was 17-of-27 for 179 of that with no picks, though he and Carroll took plenty of contact from a relentless Yellow Jacket pass-rush. Some of the stars have moved on but Lee says Tech's front-four is still a strong point on tape. "I saw a lot of pressure, especially in the passing game which makes their defense look really good."
At the same time Georgia Tech has allowed nine passing touchdowns already, and 57% completions. So the opportunity would appear to be there for Bulldog quarterbacks to make more things happen, whether on ground or in air. Or both, since Relf is a productive runner and Lee can make gains afoot as well. The key is reading opportunities rightly, he says, having gotten those painful reminders from LSU about failing to fully execute.
"It's all about finishing," said Lee. "Last year we couldn't finish drives, I remember we got down inside the five one time and couldn't finish it. It will be the same this week: execution and most of all finishing drives when we get something established."
ON THE LINE: Speaking of getting established, for a second time this season the five starting offensive linemen handled every snap; 86 of them in this case. These blockers went the distance at Auburn, too, but for just 59 snaps. At Vanderbilt there was a lone substitution when RG Craig Jenkins had to have an ankle checked in the last period, but he returned to action soon enough to complete a 74-snap evening for the other four starters.
OC J. C. Brignone gives plenty credit to Coach Matt Balis and how he prepped these big Dogs over the summer for fall duty. But, the center adds, "We did a lot more conditioning for ourselves." So now the results are showing in a group able to not just be on the field longer but stronger as well. "And that's the thing, you never know, you might have a game with 50 plays or a game with 80 plays like we did. You just have to be ready. It's how much you can dig deep-down inside and really push yourself."
The most recent game was a particularly good, or bad depending on viewpoint, test of this attitude. Not only was it LSU the Bulldogs were blocking, but in humid conditions that should have sapped strength while also making footing iffy. And, Brignone noted, "It was a no-huddle offense where we try to get on the ball so we can see what LSU is doing. It's a tough thing for us but we have to handle it."
Which they did, with efficiency and without injury. Mullen is delighted by the progress this group has made since spring. "What I like is seeing the improvement as a unit game-to-game. They're settling into it and seeing things, understanding what's going on in our schemes and how the defenses are going to react. There's always room for improvement but I've been pleased with their development from game to game to game."
But then the biggest development would be beating the LSU's on the schedule, something State came so painfully close to. Two days later Brignone called it "devastating" to have fallen so short. Even so there was no commiserating allowed in Sunday's session, much less relaxing either hearts or bodies.
"We came out yesterday and had a tough practice," Brignone reported, "the coaches drilled us pretty hard. And it's what we deserved, we lost the game. No matter by one point or 50 points we lost the game. We're not here to lose, we're here to go and play football, we're not here to get patted on the back."
Not after a defeat, anyway. This is the first season in most MSU memories that, other than short weeks, the Bulldogs have scheduled regular Sunday practices. Mullen has his own reasons for getting the next game-week underway as soon as possible, and Brignone has bought into the idea.
"I think the main thing about practicing on Sunday is everything that happens on Saturday is over, you start preparing for that next week." And this is a particularly good week to get things going early because Georgia Tech is a very different sort of opponent. Not just on offense, where their option attack is a real change of preparation pace; but their defensive ideas are a bit unique as well. Brignone had his hands full last year in Atlanta and expected a similar approach when he reported Monday for the first true scouting report on Tech's defensive front.
"It's really kind of a mish-mash," he said. "They play that tight-shade, it's almost a head-up guy on a back side. It's kind of an overloaded front, you could say." Well, easier for him to say it. In less technical terms, "It will be a big game for me trying to block their guy."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: Mullen reported no significant injuries from the LSU game, though WR Brandon Heavens has been hobbled by a toe. He's expected to play this week as usual. OG Tobias Smith has not played in either game since returning from August ankle surgery but was available for LSU. He has been getting enough practice snaps these past two weeks that a return to the starting lineup at right guard is expected soon…Mike Richey of the Bulldog Club reported that some 4,000 tickets to this weekend's game are available for public sale, all returned from Georgia Tech's unsold allotment. They can be ordered at 1-888-GODAWGS…The SEC today said the October 10 game with Houston is now subject to the six-day selection period process. The game will be one of four televised by a network partner to be determined as early as Oct. 3 or as late as the 5th. But it will be in one of the four remaining daytime slots for ESPN, CBS, or the SEC Network.