Lining Up For An Old-School Trench Fight

One might imagine Mississippi State's offensive linemen would be anxious about the impending matchup with the consensus best defensive front in the college game. One would be incorrect. "That's what the trenches is all about," center J.C. Brignone said. "Big, 300-pound guys just going all at it."

Yes, Brignone and his fellow Bulldog blockers are genuinely eager to get it on Saturday night against the top-ranked Gators in general and the justly-famed Florida defensive line. Not because they are downplaying the matchup, or for that matter perceived miss-matchup in terms of experience and success over recent seasons. Mississippi State linemen know very well who and what awaits them the other side of the football.

"They've got real good defensive linemen, real good hands and real athletic," said Brignone. By the same token this will be the best test yet of how far a still-maturing Bulldog offensive front has come. "It's the SEC, it's always going to be tough, but we're going to do the same thing we've been doing. Come off the ball as hard as we can and try to knock people off the line."

Notice Brignone, a junior and two-season starter, didn't get into technical aspects. This in fact is the real reason he and line-mates are particularly eager to match muscle with the Gators. Sure, Florida can come with the usual variety of alignments, working from either base four-man or special odd-front depending on situation. And for that matter this week health, as a couple of Gator linemen are gimpy at the moment. Yet what appeals to a big Dog like Brignone is simply that Florida does not need to rely on trickery or for that matter technique when the ball is snapped.

This, he said, is good fundamental football.

"The thing I like about games like this is most of the time guys try to hit you in the mouth. So that's the thing you do right back to them. Offensive linemen aren't the most athletic people in the world so when people start flying around you have to slow down. But if somebody hits in the mouth you can hit them right back." And that, Brignone notes, is how Florida favors playing the game; line up and whup the fellow opposite your position wearing the different headgear.

"This is when the trench war happens," Brignone said.

Too often in preceeding seasons the Bulldog offensive line, and thus the offense, lost most such confrontations. Here in 2009 the results have been more encouraging, certainly on the scoreboard and stats sheet. Few categories reflect progress better in this league than scoring and rushing, where seven games into the campaign State ranks 7th and 4th respectively. It bears reminding that for 2008 the Bulldog offense finished 115th and 105th nationally in those columns.

‘Improved' barely begins to cover these upgrades. And for all the fan focus on an entirely different system brought to town by Coach Dan Mullen, the big Dogs understand where this starts. These guys have gotten bigger, better…and older. Maturity makes all the difference in MSU's world here in 2009 to Brignone.

"The thing is, you look at offensive lines that have played together for so long. We've got a lot of guys that have played together. You look at last year and ask what's going on with the offensive linemen? Nobody had played together, we were still gelling and still learning. As I think a lot of people can see, this week we're 11th in the country in rushing and that says something."

One Bulldog actually is saying something about it. RB Anthony Dixon is quick to share credit for now owing program records for career rushing yardage and touchdowns to ever-improving efforts by the guys in front of him. Brignone recriprocates. "Anthony Dixon is an amazing back and when he says stuff like that it makes us feel good."

At the same time the most encouraging words State linemen could hear come from their coach. And midway of his first season in Starkville, John Hevesy is saying nicer things about his charges. At least, as nice as the demanding line boss is capable of at the moment.

"They've all improved. Every one of them has improved here and there and each week we've gotten better. And each week there are still corrections we have to make with all of them. I think as a group we have to keep working on all the little things."

Now if that comes across as a bit less-than-glowing praise, well, Brignone explains this is just his coach's way of saying good job. And that isn't heard real often this first season together. "When I first met him he told me he was an equal-opportunity guy: he'd get on when he has to and praise you when you need it," the center said. "And that's what he does." If the line Dogs have heard more of the getting-on, that's simply a reflection that the improving process is barely begun.

Though, Brignone grinned, "After a while of getting burned and burned you get burned out! That's when he comes in and tells you what you did right." But only when there is right to be rightly praised. The positive point is that at least now Hevesy has reason to offer the occasional compliment. His players are not so reserved.

"He's really helped us a lot as offensive linemen, as a whole," Brignone said. "Besides just technique-wise, he's come with a different attitude. I guess more meaner! A lot of people ask me how I play like that, it's kind of being brought to the whole offensive line. That's been a big thing for us is Coach Hevesy bringing that attitude."

This attitude-adjusting continues. Typically, Hevesy nods first at "the liabilities you just keep working with." As in, a group of mostly-underclassmen still learning on the job as well as those even younger blockers just starting to stack up behind them. Injuries have been avoided so far save for camp-opening starting right guard Tobias Smith, who only in the last three weeks has returned to action following August ankle surgery. Hevesy wants to send the redshirt frosh back on the field. "We just have to get him healthy. That ankle has been nagging on since the surgery. The Georgia Tech game he got in, the Houston game he got in and kind of aggravated it again and didn't get a chance to play last week. But as soon I can get him I'm going to get him in."

Hevesy does praise, at a safe distance from any lineman's hearing that is, the way his players have dug into fundamental aspects as well as their motivation and even toughness. Otherwise, "You just have to keep grinding and pushing through," he said.

"But I'm impressed with all the kids. And the younger kids are coming along and getting better each week. in a perfect world we'd have them ready by the end of the season, but I'm looking for guys like Gabe Jackson and Templeton Hardy to improve each week. Would I like to play them? It would be great to play them but I'm not going to put them in a game against somebody else if they're not 100% playing."

For that matter the Bulldog blocking bunch doesn't claim to be a 100% product yet. But they can see how far everyone has come since last November, and turn to face an even more optimistic future. "When you start coming together as an offensive line and start knocking people off the ball…" Brignone mused. "It's like I said in the beginning, we're going to be one of the best in the SEC and that's our plan."

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