Not that Mississippi State's defensive approach this season has lapsed too often into individual ideas. On the whole the Dogs have kept to their collective tasks…no mean feat for a unit that often features three junior college transfers and three true freshmen in the lineup. Still the statistical standings are inevitably skewed by the murderer's row of offenses State has faced all this season. And worryingly, after seeing the likes of Tim Tebow and Case Keenum across the line of scrimmage already, the Bulldogs have to take on the most productive quarterback on the 2009 slate this week in Arkansas' Ryan Mallet.
At least they've been seasoned by a similar sort of triggerman, Chaney said. "If anything it will probably help us to face a quarterback like that, like the Houston offense. He (Mallet) is real good, he's probably got a stronger arm than the quarterback from Houston. He rarely ever misses a target that's open, so we have to do a good job and stay in our lanes.
"And you talk about the passing game, but we can't forget about the run. They've got a lot of running backs, they play like five dudes so that will be a challenge too." So then how to handle such a late-season challenge? By treating it like any of the preceding others. "Basically just doing what the coaches ask them. We have a good gameplan every week and it's up to us to execute the gameplan. So watch a lot of film, see what their tendencies are, and know who they're going to get the ball to."
Meanwhile Chaney has a few weeks left to carry the ball, so to speak, as leader of the Bulldog defense. He returned for a second senior season after the 2008 ankle injury and has thrived, posting a squad-best 81 tackles this year and 35 in just the last three games. This fifth year also saw his first career interceptions (Houston, Kentucky). Besides the statistics, though, Chaney has found himself setting the pace for a lineup that often is over half-new for '09.
"Yeah, you want to be a leader out there. We've got a lot of guys its their first year playing big-time college football. For me it's making sure I know everything and know everybody's position just in case a situation happens and I know what they're supposed to do. And making sure they keep growing and keep getting better and better and not let them slack off."
Which this 2009 defense has done in spite of daunting challenges inherent to playing a steady string of ranked teams, or big-number offenses, or more often both at the same time. Besides, having so many fresh—and freshman—faces around hasn't made Chaney feel older; it's just made him better. "It's fun playing with guys like Pernell McPhee, Fletcher Cox, Johnathan Banks out there. They're young but they've got a lot of talent and are going to be good in the future. So it's good to coach them up and get them better."
Will State's defense improve quickly enough to handle Arkansas this Saturday and another explosive foe in Ole Miss next weekend? Well, it isn't as if there is any choice, Chaney notes. And if that's the ticket to post-season play, then that is what this ball club must do.
"We're real confident. We're not a team that's going to give up. We can still go to a bowl game, we've got to win these last two. Everybody is still focused on getting to a bowl game, that's one of our goals this year and it would be a big accomplishment not only for this year's team but next year's team as well."
PLAYING CATCH-UP: Another State senior who understands the value or post-season play, as well as the preceding practice, is WR Brandon McRae, who drew a starting job for the 2007 Liberty Bowl. He didn't make any catches that game; in fact he had just two grabs all season. But the next year McRae led the wideouts with 51 receptions and three touchdowns.
This finals season hasn't been nearly so productive for McRae; in ten games he has a dozen catches and no scores. There are understandable reasons though, as younger wideouts like Chad Bumphis and O'Neal Wilder have come to the fore; as well as State making much more use of TE Marcus Green and now lately of RB Anthony Dixon in the air game. So opportunities are down, even as defensive pressure on McRae and Leon Berry has increased.
The Alabama was really frustrating, McRae said, for all State wideouts. "It was a tough night," he said. "We have to get more physical." Because a series of on-target throws by Tyson Lee and Chris Relf were knocked aside or disrupted in the literal reach of Bulldog receivers.
"But there were some catches we should have come up with," said McRae. "Especially I was mad at myself, and I didn't come down with it." He meant a fourth-quarter throw from Relf that McRae ought to have snared at the one-yard line and fallen across the goal for touchdown. Earlier the senior did put up a real fight with two Tide defenders on a heave from Lee that was a bit wide of the mark. "I thought I scored, went to put my hands up and the ref was like son, you were way out of bounds." Which everyone indeed was.
The fact is these older wideouts need to maximize all opportunities these remaining two regular-season dates. For half-a-season the offensive staff rarely attempted throws more than ten or so yards beyond the line of scrimmage, albeit many of the out-patterns used required the ball go as much as twice that far sideways. Now however State is serious about stretching out the air game. Wilder has been the main deep-threat, and McRae understands. "O'Neal if he wants I think can blow by any cornerback in the SEC," he says of his track-sprinter cohort.
Still it takes more than one Dog to extend coverage and remove support from the line of scrimmage. So it will take more than square-outs and quick slants; State's offense wants to strike paydirt farther downfield. "We've been throwing a lot of short passes and teams have been sitting on our routes and stuff," said McRae. "So we decided to sling it deep a couple of times and get them off us."
Presumably the main beneficiary would be Dixon with, the idea being, one or two fewer safeties coming up in the box. Though, "Dixon is going to make something happen no matter what," said McRae. "We just have to do our part." A part that will only increase as Mississippi State seeks to open up the complete playbook; if not in what is left of 2009, then in '10 and beyond. McRae can wish he'd be around to help.
"I know in years to come it's going to be a high-powered offense and great to watch."
INJURY UPDATE: RB Christian Ducre began Tuesday's practice in the ‘pit' riding the exer-bike, then ran some agility sprints and other training drills. "But we didn't have him do any live stuff," Mullen said. FB Patrick Hanrahan went "full go today" according to the coach, only a day after surgery on the hand broken in the first quarter of the Alabama game. Hanrahan played with the injury and practiced normally Sunday before the operation. PK Sean Brauchle was limited again Tuesday. "I didn't let him kick much today," Mullen said. "He said he could kick, but…kickers are kickers!"
OG Tobias Smith returned to his first live action since the Houston game with a few snaps against Alabama and Mullen wants the second-year freshman to get more work before the season ends. "He's back, he's healthy, he's practicing. We'd like to get him in there and really start slowly breaking him in to get back on playing speed. He played a little bit the other night."