Yet on this day-after there's something more fundamental on Mullen's mind that has little to do with Xing-and-Oing for the Cougars or much anyone else left on the slate. When the Bulldog staff got together today to begin another week, this boss has something to say about, well, about Failure To Communicate.
Oh, those sideline headsets were working just fine yesterday; all connections to the press box were clean and clear. That isn't what Mullen is so frustrated with. To risk my own interpretation of some pretty intense comments Mullen made both following the game and then again this morning to media, he's discovering some static on the coaching lines. Which, Mullen also acknowledges, is likely inevitable with a still-new network, so to speak.
"A lot too has to do with a first-year coaching staff, everybody getting comfortable with each other and how to communicate. Making sure we have the right communication on the sideline." Mullen just seems convinced something, somewhere, is being lost in the translations along the wired-way from coaching box to sidelines, and thence to the on-field personnel. That last leg, I have to note, actually has been pretty successful so far; particularly with the offense where so much has to be signaled by so many, so quickly. Look for yourself next time at all the arm-waving and board-flashing and wonder anew at how anyone can figure out what is being said to who.
Then factor in that State has taken a no-huddle approach, with a couple of quarterbacks still very new to the gameplan, and you tell me: what are the odds that the Bulldog offense STILL has yet to draw a flag for delay-of-game? Even more than the increased scoring that fans rightly celebrate, this is by far the most impressive offensive improvement to me in 2009 from…heck from the last 20, 30 years of MSU football. Heck, in previous regimes if State's offense still had a timeout left five minutes before halftime it was newsworthy. Yet through five games in an unfamiliar system we're yet to run afoul of the play clock. Yeah, I know, I just jinxed the Dogs reeeeeal good on that and Les Koenning will rightfully thwack my silly skull for it this week.
No, that cannot be the communication breakdown (what, you thought I'd pass on the chance for a Led Zeppelin reference?) Mullen implies. Nor did the head coach offer any specific issues, areas, or position coaches involved, which shouldn't surprise. Though, last night his opening comment did begin with expressing disappointment with the defensive coaching; before Mullen altered course to include the entire staff. Safe to say that fans are more focused today on the D, most obviously downfield coverage or glaring lack thereof, and I'm not about to rise to their, umm, defense today. But let's be equally clear: all the ground-gaining in the game matters little when an offense freely hands the ball over to the opposition. If State protects the pigskin last night, maybe they still lose in the long run (or more likely on the long pass) but the game almost surely comes down to which side has last turn with the ball. Hey, like we wrote last week, Mullen wasn't exaggerating when he said this was gonna be exciting.
But neither was he offering coach-speak when, asked about offensive production, he hewed to the same blunt theme that nothing good comes from a loss. Makes one wonder, what does Mullen privately think of our MSU pleasure in simply seeing points put on the scoreboard for a welcome change? At least the Dogs know better than to show any satisfaction about anything they did in a defeated cause. Ditto an assistant staff that got a verbal lashing last night, and again today.
Thing is, Mullen's annoyances about Failure to Communicate are inspired not so much by the loss itself as the impression the coaches are letting down the players in some unspecified fashion. Or as Mullen put it today, "If we have a team that plays with great effort, which we have, we've got to make sure we're communicating to get them in the right situation at the right time. To me that's a fixable thing."
Naturally we media and fans would love to know details. No luck there, at least not on-record. All Mullen offers is the need for "a cleaner way of getting adjustments to our players, to get them in position to stop (the opponent) from having success at what they're doing." And yes, if any wonder, the head coach includes himself in such criticism. In fact…
"I'm harder on myself probably than any of the assistants," he said today. "I'm very, very hard on myself. Because if our kids give a great effort they deserve to be in position to win the game. That's how we do it." It's just that the boss's privilege is he gets to do the yelling. And, the adjusting.
Of which there has to be a whole lot this week. For all the passing production Georgia Tech got at State's expense, that throwing was still essentially set up by the run-option that demanded Dogs stay spread along the line of scrimmage. Had they dropped more guys downfield to cover, the Yellow Jackets would happily have stayed on the grass and kept rolling. This in no way is meant to diminish issues State has in defending receivers, which have been consistently exposed for four weekends. But, let's also not overlook another fact Mullen reminded today: that we've been facing some darn good offenses too. "When you play top-25 teams every week they're going to have some talented players that make plays. And some guys have made some plays on our secondary." Which is stating things mildly. As one veteran observer of all things State said to me last week, had we scored the touchdown against LSU there was still most of a minute left for the Tigers to chuck a few deep strikes and get in field goal range anyway. Harsh, but true. Yet Mullen isn't so frustrated that he's giving up on what tools he and the staff have to work with for 2009.
Besides, Houston (which just fell from the Top 25 after losing to UTEP by the way, so there's that) is so radically different in aerial approach that nothing from Tech's success will be thrown in Dog defenders' faces during this week's preparation. "Zero carry-over," as Mullen said. Yet for all the dour tone taken about staff communications and adjustments, and Failure to Cover-icate if you will, the head coach is actually taking an optimistic tone today. No, as of our interview time he'd not begun in-depth study of the Cougar air attack; that's for later today and Monday.
"But our guys will be up to that challenge," Mullen said. Yes, folks, he was referring to his defensive team in general and the defensive backs in particular. Now that is a bold comment to communicate indeed, but Mullen does offer evidence that he has seen, at least, even to the extent of stating "Our secondary has made a bunch of big plays this season so far." Interesting evaluation, eh?
Or as expounded, "I think we've gotten ourselves out of position at times to make plays, other times we've been in position and not made the play. We've got to makes sure we're practicing enough looks, so they not only get in position but have the practice and reps to make the play." Which, Mullen added,"We've got to make sure we have the right guys in the right positions as a staff." Yes, back to the staff stuff again.
Now to their credit the defensive staff did make some significant adjustments after LSU. Such as starting redshirt frosh Louis Watson in place of veteran Damein Anderson at one corner against Tech, something noticed during Tuesday's limited media access to practice but not confirmed until game-time. Tech didn't take long to notice and went at Watson's side immediately and successfully, though not so much with downfield throws as lateral tosses to a big, fast receiver who could make the younger corner miss tackles. As the game went on Anderson returned to one side with Watson playing either the other in place of Marcus Washington, lone senior in this group, or as an extra safety. So we've seen the first attempts at lineup adjustments here and more would seem in store…particularly if transfer Maurice Langston can get up to college speed and into the rotation.
Naturally the safeties come in for even greater fan ire since, as their position implies, those guys typically end up trying to save a situation that only developed because a corner lost his wide receiver or a linebacker let the tight target slip past. Not that these guys have played flawless football by any measure either. But I can only expect to see greater use of Zach Smith and Charles Mitchell in close-support roles, especially the blitzing they are so effective at. No, I have no clue either about the gameplan for Houston, but I can't help thinking State will have to take the fight to the Cougar passer first and not just with three or four defensive linemen. Oh, for those who claim MSU wasn't ‘aggressive' enough yesterday, please. Unless you have fabulous athletes all across, playing an option game aggressively is as good as telling Tech go ahead, run along the line until you find that inevitable open lane for a long gain…just like last year at Atlanta. I consider it somewhat of a success that the longest gainer by a Jacket back (not quarterback) was 13 yards this time, unlike those 25, 40, and 80 yard jaunts of '08. You take progress where you find it.
Now if I was asked to scheme something up for Houston, I'd go really old-school and say just hit the passer early and often until the officials get tennis elbow from tossing flags. OK, OK, not really. But wouldn't it be fun if Carl Torbush, who has seen every scheme college football has designed, put say three big guys on the front, a lone linebacker to cover the keeper, and spread safeties all across the field? Heck, Joe Lee Dunn tried something similar for Kentucky a decade ago…for the first three plays anyway, until the Kats got a first down. Oh, well, it was fun to see.
And goodness knows this weekend will be fun for fans of offense. I'll be surprised if the respective scores don't top some finals from this winter's basketball season…hey, wonder if we could stick Jarvis Varnado at the line of scrimmage to swat Cougar passes? But for those of us who favor good, sound defense, not to mention those charged with coaching it, this is going to be an intense week. No, I was not at that legendary 74-0 thrashing that happened in Houston 40 falls ago. I was at the 2005 game here at Scott Field where Jerious Norwood ran for a country mile and it still wasn't enough to offset Kevin Kolb's aerial expertise. I even got to write the game story for the Houston paper as their staff were busy at the National League title series, and the $150 free-lance fee made Dog defeat at least personally profitable.
To the present, now, it will be very much to State's profit if the other issue arising from last night is taken care of. How ironic to have two normally-secure sets of hands, Tyson Lee and Anthony Dixon, lose the proverbial handle twice each. Yes, there was contact every time, but nothing like the sort of slugging we see weekly in the SEC, which make it all the more annoying. Neither Dog made any excuses last night, by the way, and Boobie was even able to offer an exact description of what he himself did wrong each time. He also used an adjective repeatedly that in the post-game quotes I changed to ‘stinks' each time. Old-fashioned, yes, I am on printed vulgar verbiage. The meaning was the same anyway.
So is Mullen's prescribed fix, trying to take the blame for player fumbling. "It's my fault," he said, promising a better job this week of addressing the issue with Dixon and all backs. "We'll have extra guys on the field to strip the ball," he said. "Our guys were straining and giving great effort, sometimes doing that they were losing some of their fundamentals. We let that slide a little bit, and you saw that." Which is a fair encapsulation of Mullen's overall theme: the Bulldogs are doing what he demands in terms of giving effort, so the emphasis can be put on actual execution.
Or as he said today, "I'm proud of the effort, they've done what we asked them to do. We've got to do a much better ob not turning the ball over and giving up big plays on defense, making plays when they are there to be made. And as coaches making sure the right guys are coached-up and in position to make plays."
Ol' Strother couldn't have communicated it any clearer, eh?