"We're going to have our hands full playing one of the top-ranked passing teams in the country. On two consecutive weeks we've been put in unique challenges to both the defense and to the kicking game."
The greatest challenge is to the Dog defensive secondary which has been signed the last two outings. LSU threw for 233 yards and a pair of touchdowns; Tech 266 more with a score. And those were not foes designed entirely around airing the ball out like Houston is. The Cougars are netting 446 yards each week throwing, as quarterback Case Keenum is a 69% passer with 13 touchdowns already. And, just two interceptions.
Does this worry Bulldog d-backs? Not senior Washington or his cohorts. "I'm licking my chops right now," the cornerback said. "These are the games that you live for, teams that challenge you throwing the ball."
Challenge, indeed. The Cougars did put up 75 passes against UTEP, and if the loss cost them the perfect record, CUSA lead, and national ranking, it won't affect Houston's gameplan an atom. Or their attitude, Mullen thinks. "They're coming off a tough loss, but the week before people were talking how they should be a top-ten team. I imagine in their minds they still are."
For sure Houston is the nation's undisputed passing attack this fall, though the Cougars aren't entirely impotent on the ground either with a total-offense of 573 yards. They throw the ball on average 56 times, which is as many total plays as some squads get to run. And still Washington sees a dream matchup.
"This is something definitely you live for," he repeated. "That you can try to get your hands on a few balls." Which the Dogs haven't done enough of this fall with three picks in five games, and only one interception of a I-A foe throw (at Vanderbilt). But then chances will come frequently this week. Fast, too, which is another factor to prepare for. "Especially with that no-huddle offense and then throwing the deep ball," Mitchell said. "We've got to run back, get lined up and get the call. And communication will be a big factor this week."
Maybe a decisive factor. Mullen has fretted openly about inconsistencies in game-communications this season, whether among the staff on the sideline or players on the field. Neither should be a surprise, especially with three new starters in the secondary working within new overall schemes. Playing a string of ranked, to-be-ranked or recently-ranked opponents hasn't made the process any easier. But the Bulldogs do understand now how vital it is that everyone gets the right messages, every time.
"You know, the biggest thing back there is communication," said Washington. "All of us being on the same page every play. That's the biggest thing for the secondary. And just making the play when it presents itself."
It's not giving away any inside info of course when Mitchell notes that the week's practice schedule for he and FS Zach Smith is heavier than usual on coverage drills and situations. "We'll probably do a lot more man-to-man, one-on-ones with the receivers. Because we're usually down there nine-on-seven for run stop. So we'll probably work a lot more on defending the deep ball, and individual work as well. They've got a couple or three runs but they're mainly a passing team."
However, even against run-based Tech the Bulldogs made extensive use of a nickel package. State had showed this look often enough both against Auburn for run-support and at Vanderbilt to cover downfield. S Wade Bonner was the primary nickel safety but a knee problem kept him out of the Tech contest. So Washington, who started at right cornerback, ended up playing almost as many snaps as an extra safety; as did first-time-starter LCB Louis Watson.
"It's something we've been working with," Washington said. "Wade couldn't play last week so I had to fill that role, he's doing OK now. It's something I took as a challenge, learning a new position since I'd been playing cornerback so long. The nickel spot is a little different, but I'm ready for it." Watson had a rough debut in both run- and pass-defense but will remain very much in the rotations at both secondary slots. For that matter the whole unit is being adjusted and tested in practices as coordinator Carl Torbush looks for combinations to better-suit situations.
And if any wonder, these Dogs have heard fan critiques and concerns about their performances. "Yeah, that's something we talk about," admitted Washington. Especially because they also recognize the secondary is primary target for Houston's playmakers this week. But instead of anxiety about such matchups, State's dbs are taking an opportunistic approach, because every time the ball goes up there's the chance to have some fun of their own.
"It's just a matter of execution, of making plays," said Mitchell. A lot of plays, too, given how often Houston snaps the pigskin. Yet even the prospect of covering the same ground back-and-forth, sprinting madly play after play, is just another challenge to prepare for. In fact, State already has this covered.
"These are the games you keep in mind during the summer with Coach Balis, all the conditioning," Washington said. "Sooner or later you knew that was going to come in handy!"
ON THE OTHER (THROWING) HAND: QB Tyson Lee has a professional admiration for how Houston's offense operates. That doesn't mean he plans on trying to play this game the Cougars' way, matching pass for pass, number for number. It'd be fun, sure, but not the best way to win.
"Oh, not at all. The biggest thing for us is to understand their offense moves the ball well and puts up a lot of points. We just have to stay on the field, keep our defense off the field but also when we're on the field finish drives and put points up ourselves."
Completing Bulldog drives has been a sore point, so to speak, of late. The most painful example of course was being stopped four times at the goal line by LSU a week ago. But against Georgia Tech this past Saturday there were five Dog drives of eight or more snaps and only one produced a touchdown; and that in the last quarter when State was repeatedly playing catch-up. They did put up points other ways, such as WR Leon Berry's kickoff return touchdown; or the 69-yard hookup from Lee to WR Chad Bumphis for six.
So the big, fast strike is back in the Bulldog repertoire after too many years' absence. In fact State rarely threw long in the first three games this season, but in the past two downfield passing has been increasingly featured. Lee says this isn't just to balance out the package but to use the tools at-hand.
"When you've got guys that can make plays you've got to get them the ball. By doing that it opens up the running game a lot, but it also presents opportunity to make some big plays down the field. We were able to do that this week and hopefully we'll do it this week against Houston."
At the same time, though, this offense is built first on big backs Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre. The trick, to Lee at least, is pounding the ground at a faster pace. This should not only help complete more drives, but get the offense off to a smoother start.
"When you get in a rhythm it makes things a lot easier. Lately we're getting in a rhythm but too late, we need to establish something early and get that rhythm going earlier and finish it off for four quarters. But you have to do that the first quarter, then you can move the ball and get confidence going and really put some points on the board. I don't know why we haven't been doing that, maybe it's not getting big-plays from the get-go. Maybe just being more focused, I'm not sure. But whatever it is we need to start the way we've been finishing."
NUMBER ONE: A good way to start might be getting the ball to Bumphis early and often. The rookie has taken the team receiving lead with 16 catches and 192 yards. He added his third touchdown of the campaign with that remarkable running grab and scamper for 69 yards, longest pass play of State's season.
Of course Bumphis, who played a good bit of quarterback in high school too, has thrown a couple of passes this year on a flanker-option play. Only one was completed, for five years, but he showed a good arm on the opening snap of 2009 when he went long against Jackson State. Lee suspects his young teammate wants another chance to let it fly, this time for a touchdown.
"I think he does. Now he's caught one, I think he wants to throw another one! Maybe this week he'll get the opportunity to do that." Perhaps, even, the opportunity to throw it back to Lee? The starting quarterback laughs that nothing like that is in the gameplan. "Not yet. But with Coach Mullen there's no telling what could happen!"
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: With campus quiet for a two-day student fall break, Mullen also gave the Bulldogs a free Sunday instead of the usual day-after-game practice. This call came even before Sunday rain settled in for the duration. "I'm not much of a weatherman," Mullen said, "but walking to team chapel I saw it was probably a good idea."
Thus State had a Monday practice, again a change in normal game-week procedure. It wasn't to be a long one for the varsity, not much over an hour, though they also had to invest time in unit meetings and game review as well as early scouting for Houston. "Hopefully we get more time with their not being in school, so more of a jump-start on Houston."
That's the varsity, he means. Dogs who have yet to play this fall have their own competition today with what Mullen called ‘Monday Night Football.' As in a game-type practice after the regulars are excused. It isn't broadcast but the coach calls these sessions "great in two ways."
First, "They get to play some football. A lot of times they're doing scout-team work, this gives them the opportunity to run our offense and defense. And, it gives them an opportunity to go play the game, so it is a mental relief from other things they have to do. And you see it keeps their minds alive in development."
But just because these pups are playing their version of MNF does not absolutely indicate redshirting. At least Mullen won't say so. "We're getting there," he did say about decisions on who is definitely going to sit out the rookie year. "But it's still a long season, we still have seven games ahead of us, a lot of that might depend on some injuries and other things that might come up."
EARLY RISERS: Mississippi State and Middle Tennessee State were notified that next week's gametime has been changed from 2:30 to 11:30am. The game had originally been tabbed for CSS broadcast on the SEC partnership plan, but ESPNU exercised their option to take this inter-conference contest. So for consecutive weekends the Bulldogs will play the morning timeslot.