"We'll have our hands full but it's a great challenge and I think the kids are looking forward to it. Hopefully we can keep them off-balance and get ourselves off the field."
Easier said than schemed, of course. Torbush hasn't coached against UH boss Kevin Sumlin but knows him, and has watched enough scouting tape to see how the Cougars have earned their lofty statistical status. It begins with Keenum, whose lowest passing output this year is 366 yards…or more than State has managed run-and-throw in a couple of complete games. And he's coming off a 536-yard evening at UTEP where 51 of his 76 tosses were caught by teammates; none by opponents.
And according to Torbush, this triggerman really is in charge. "He's making all their checks, I don't see anybody from the sideline helping him out." In fact Keenum helps himself out, whether evading pressure (the only sacks Torbush have seen came from behind) or unloading legally to the bench. "He does not take a sack," State's coordinator said. And even good coverage is often not good enough. "I've seen him throw balls right over a linebacker's earhole, and I'm talking about that far away," said Torbush, holding hands less than a foot apart. "Right by the head." For catches, at that. So this isn't just some slinger putting up poor passes but "a coach on the field" as Torbush said.
Then there are the receivers; some are true down-the-field wideouts but others are natural backs who take shorter throws and go from there. "They don't have many run plays, they have the zone-play and then their running plays are really screens to throw you off-balance and keep you waiting around there."
In summary, "It's the type of offense you have to keep off-balance the best you can, and realize they are going to make some plays. But you have to limit those plays."
Which of course has been State's big issue the past two weeks. Memories of Georgia Tech running, and passing, up 479 yards at Scott Field are still bitterly fresh; particularly how an option-based attack was able to toss the ball around with maddening efficiency. But in the previous game the Bulldog defense limited LSU to 263 yards and still lost. It's not about the totals to Torbush, as much as it is about the timing. The single snap that negates any and all good defensive work done before.
"Last week we played a lot of great defensive snaps, but there are eight or ten that get you beat. And you can't give up the number of big plays we gave, especially in the passing game, and expect to beat a team like Georgia Tech was. Same thing this week. We can let them have a ten or 15 yards, but if they get a bunch of 25s and 30s we've got some problems."
But of course State has had plenty problems already with defending the downfield. And against an opponent that doesn't get sacked or hurried into bad throws, the coverage challenge is magnified. Interestingly, the Dogs don't rank all that poorly in SEC terms in sheer yards or points allowed passing; but an average gain of over eight yards per caught ball reflects what Torbush said, about the plays that get you beat.
"Right now we have so many young kids back there in the secondary. And it's obvious, y'all can see and people in the stands can see they make some mistakes that get us in trouble at times. But we've got to do a better job of coaching and getting them in best position, and that's nobody's responsibility but mine."
Though, the coordinator can't be responsible for health. Against Tech, the Dogs had to go without nickel safety Wade Bonner who was held out with a knee issue. Coach Dan Mullen said today Bonner could have played but did not feel 100%. "And we didn't want to put him in a bad situation and make a two-week injury a five-week injury. But he was full-go at practice yesterday and we expect him to go Saturday."
More uncertain as of today is starting FS Zach Smith, who missed practice Tuesday with what his coach only called sickness. "He's day to day right now," said Mullen. "I'm not going to go into it more than that, we're just trying to get him back healthy." Bonner is officially listed as Smith's backup, though he has not played free safety yet this year. SS Charles Mitchell could certainly step into that role if needed, as the jobs are often identical in many State schemes. And first CB Marcus Washington has played nickel safety this season. In fact he spent as much time there in the Tech game as at his right corner, with first-game starting LCB Louis Watson taking that side after Washington slid inside.
Neither head coach nor coordinator would say if further changes are being planned for the secondary, beyond Mullen's comment "They're going to have their work cut out for them, obviously. We still have a lot of work with the secondary just getting them in position and making plays with the ball in the air."
Besides, any statements about one area of a unit applies to the whole side of the ball in Mullen's mind. For that matter, the entire team. In this weekend's case the truism of ‘best defense is a good offense' is really truth. "It's talking to the offense about time of possession, not turning the ball over, scoring points or punting the ball," Torbush said. "Along with the defense getting ourselves off the field, and the kicking game.
"This day and time unless you're doing it in all three phases of the game, it's really hard to win a ball game. You have to go help each other out."
WELCOME TO HIS HOUSE: It's Homecoming weekend for Mississippi State. For Brandon Cooper, now, it's something of an Old Home Week as well since he will literally be seeing familiar faces when lining up at defensive end Saturday. "It's going to be an interesting game for me. I know both offensive tackles," said the Missouri City, Texas native. "And quite a few of the d-linemen." Along with several other Cougars he met along the high school and recruiting paths. For that matter Cooper was actually born in the city of Houston, and his Fort Bend Marshall HS is part of the city's extensive suburbs. The only FBMHS player on UH's roster, lineman Ralph Oragwu, is a true freshman and thus was years behind Cooper's class.
"It's going to be good to see those guys, but it's going to be a tough game," Cooper said. "I'm looking forward to it."
But is he, really? At least from the standpoint of trying to slow the Cougar's offensive assault snap after snap after snap? Sure, because as frustrating as chasing an almost-unsackable passer around for four quarters might be this is still the sort of game an athletic lineman loves. At least, Cooper does.
"The Georgia Tech game was assignment football, do your job and your job only. This week flip the script, a totally different game. This is just paying football, basically. You give a good pass rush when you see pass, when you see run get up under his pads."
OK, so it's a little more technical and complicated than this. Still Cooper makes his point; that schemes and sets ultimately come down to separate players making something happen that the other side isn't in position to prevent. Mississippi State's difficulty of late has been making good things happen often enough. And whether it's a Georgia Tech option run or Houston deep ball, the fundamentals still apply.
"We think we have the same basic philosophy as last week, being we need to get off the field on third down. Getting them in second-and-long and giving them hard third downs to convert. Our focus is on getting a good rush and giving them trouble." Even then Cooper acknowledges that Houston is going to make plays and move the chains, so endurance and depth will be at a Bulldog-premium this week.
Though, "I don't plan on being out there 100 plays this game!" Cooper jokes, referring to Houston's marathon shootout at UTEP where nobody left the field until the other side scored. But he believes Coach Matt Balis has trained the team to hold up as long as necessary; now it is their job to execute, not take any plays off, and get the ball back to the offense…preferably without a kickoff involved. It's closer than most observers think, this Bulldog believes.
"I understand the points we're giving up. But we watch film, we see things we can improve on. I mean we're good on some plays but everybody can see at least one play and one thing they could have done better, that we could turn a five-yard gain into a two-yard gain. We're making improvements week by week, it's not going to happen overnight, we all know that. It's going to take a lot of practice and dedication. I do see a lot of improvement going into the sixth game of the season, in my eyes it's looking real good."
Of course everything will look that much better if Cooper is the smiling one in post-game hand shaking with the other hometown boys. That alone offers plenty practice motivation. "I always have a chip on my shoulder; I have an extra chip today knowing this is the week. I haven't got to play Houston before and coming from Houston this is an exciting game for me, I'm looking forward to it."