Nope, this is about the top topic of the hour, of the week, and for that matter the foreseeable future of Bulldog football. Who will Dan Mullen put under-center, or often as not in direct-snap stance, for the Egg Bowl; as well as when and thus why? And if any of us think today we ‘know' the answer to all three Ws we're almost certain to be Wrong; save of course via the Blind Squirrel Theory. How do I figure this?
Because going into their Sunday afternoon practice to open Egg Week, the coaches don't have the answer(s) either. Oh I'm sure they've reasonably clear ideas of how the week should work out. They might even opt to name a ‘starter' at some point just to settle some talk, though given fan passions that might merely multiply the volume. But the fact is Mullen intends to go about the week much like any other in his first Mississippi State season in terms of technical game-prep. Or that's what he said today to the direct question: would yesterday's results in Little Rock influence quarterback status going into the week or would they follow the same approach as all season?
"It's like all year," said Mullen. "We'll utilize the guys that are going to give us the best opportunity to score points as well as manage the football game and win the football game."
Easy for him to say. The harder part is deciding the who/when/whys of how to utilize best both Tyson Lee and Chris Relf. And don't imagine that such choosing doesn't occur on a series-by-series, for that matter snap-by-snap basis here at the Dog-tail end of the year just as it's been through most of the entire season. Those who bothered to read the entire post-game interview with Mullen outside the locker room yesterday might have picked up just how in-flux the quarterback situation remains here for game-12; and realized that riding Relf the whole second half was not a locker-room adjustment per se. It was based on what happened the first drive of the new period. Let's see, what was that Saturday quote: "We weren't doing a great job the first half at quarterback. We just tried to mix it up. And Chris' first drive he did a really nice job, at that point we said hey, we're going to give him a chance to keep sticking with it to see if he could make those same things happen."
Thus any who imagine that the starting job was handed-off (certainly not passed) yesterday should think again. New week, next game, different foe; same process. What, you expect the boss to take a radical detour in long-term course just for this rivalry week's extra-special circumstances? Well, maybe yeah, because this first-year coach appreciates what a kick in the proverbial tail an upset win would mean toward kick-starting State into 2010 and beyond. Still there are no new tools to pull out for end-of-year use. Thus Mullen will stick to S.O.P. both in game-week and the game itself. The first is pretty well structured in prepping two quarterbacks for action; the second completely flexible to circumstances.
Now I'm not going to invest much more Sunday time opining on which guy to go with first and most. Y'all could state either the same case or the complete opposite as I and all be equally valid. I will remind though that Mullin inevitably has leaned on senior Lee for good reasons: age, wider experience, greater grasp of the complete gameplan, and vastly better recognition of what defenses have in mind. Relf has the superior physical skills and, much like a basketball shooter who immediately forgets his seven-straight misses, no perceivable hangover from mistakes made. Plus, and perhaps related to that, a wild-card mobility that to some extent keeps defenses guessing moreso than when Lee lines up.
Which only repeats for the final time this season what all have recognized since January: that Mullen does not have His Quarterback available for 2009. Maybe if Relf had more true quarterback experience in high school; or if Nature hadn't short-changed Lee on stature. But neither fact is gonna change between now and Saturday morning so Mullen and Les Koenning will hone their two triggermen for last-game duties as circumstances dictate.
Nor will the fact change that State will have to throw the football well to have a winning chance. Did anyone else take a hint from the fourth quarter when, after falling behind two scores, on the ensuing series State ran it all three plays before punting? Certainly the best offensive threat was Anthony Dixon, even starting 75 yards away. But that's all the more indictment of how difficult the Dogs can find it to throw the ball against a defense determined to stop same even at the risk of giving up big ground-gains. Though it's worth a parenthetical comment here that the first-half play selections left me somewhat confused, especially once it was apparent Arkansas wanted to blitz often and State wasn't leaving Lee any extra blockers. Related to that, I will accept blame for jinxing the offensive line by writing nice things about them last week, how they'd cut sacks in-half this season and such. Sorry guys, my bad.
Yet I'm convinced that if doing it over today, the offensive staff would have attacked the first half as they did the third quarter and just pounded away. If we extrapolate it might have become a 250-yard day for Boobie and, possibly, a win to keep State's bowl hopes viable. Or maybe not given that Dixon wasn't playing defense. Perhaps he could have beat Razorback heavy-handed (so to speak) pass protection, though I'm also wondering if that really wasn't a Mountain West league crew on the field. You know, from a conference where only defensive holding is a penalty.
Candor requires confession though that expecting Dixon to run through or over a justly-regarded Rebel defensive front is a stretch. I absolutely expect a monumental effort from Boobie in his Bulldog farewell; I very much hope he gets chances to line up in wild-Dog and show off for the home folk. But I fear he might be called on to throw some balls himself, too.
Or Chad Bumphis, perhaps. Somehow, some way, some passer must deliver the goods. I'm not saying State has to win this game in the air as who knows, the Dogs might get unexpected gifts from the guests for cheap points that turn all gameplans entirely around. For sure if State gets an appropriate lead Mullen can do what was intended at year's start: do direct snaps and run-run-run both the ball and the clock. But then the Dogs haven't been in such happy position often this first season. Thus the need to make the most of what Lee and Relf separately have to offer one final time.
The problem simply is defenses can afford to blatantly alter their play-plan depending on whether they guy calling cadence wears 16 or 14. Or at least defenses backed up by an offense certain of scoring mucho points can, something we fans tend to forget when we demand our own defense gamble, take chances, risk lots of blitzes, etc. All well and good if you're reasonably assured the offense can cover for any error; not so much if points are precious to come by.
But there is one other intangible aspect fans also overlook. The trust factor. Who is less-likely to put his squad in and-long downs, or leave his defense a mess to clean up. If that sounds conservative, or too much like the previous regime, well, that's football folks. The Dan Mullen I've worked around this first fall came with a high-flying offensive reputation, but trust me: he'd celebrate a 3-0 victory as much and maybe more than a successful 48-45 shootout. The obvious holdup here in year-one is he has not had a lineup able to win either way. Vanderbilt and Kentucky were encouraging clues, though.
The main point being that Mullen wants to trust his triggerman to, as he said above, maintain the game and win the game. By that standard Lee is his man. But neither will the coach hesitate to take advantage, or try to, of Relf's more explosive potential as circumstances demand. Though I go back to October when every indication was Relf was going to maybe start and certainly get the bigger share of snaps for Houston, only to have him earn a suspension that naturally stole some trust. Who knows how the second half of this season might have developed if not for one wrong choice?
And, who knows how this off-season and the coming spring will play out as Lee graduates? That doesn't necessarily clean-up the picture at all. The inescapable overriding future fact remains that Boobie bows-out this weekend. The 2010-and-beyond offense has to re-build around someone or much more likely several someones. We've seen several showing their stuff this fall already, and any way or excuse to put the pigskin in Bumphis' hands is fine by me. What we don't get to see live is Montrell Conner running, for just one example. I like all do truly hope Rob Elliot regains his full running repertoire, and he looked fine straight-ahead yesterday against an admittedly poor rush defense. Side-to-side is still unproven though and Rob isn't stout enough to pound a la Dixon. Yes we'll be watching closely here in spring drills.
Naturally though the one watched-most will be Tyler Russell. Could the kid have helped this year? Yeah, some, maybe even one more W and that's precious for sure. But I agree with the offensive coaches I've talked with; that the downside of throwing Russell into instant action was just too risky to his confidence and even health. He will be much, much the better for waiting. And, it must be added, for competition. I don't merely mean Relf either. I'm not delving into recruiting coverage here, we have a much more capable commentator on that. Let's just say that Mississippi State has high hopes for a transfer triggerman. Let's also say that I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Egg Week-word came from that quarter.
Because Mullen is ready to really run—and throw—an offense his way in year-two. Not by relying on a ‘package' passer or rusher, but by having a truly rounded quarterback combo that isn't differentiated by contrasting strengths. To him a ‘package' quarterback should be one that has the whole darn package.
Which doesn't mean anyone here has consigned the Egg to another year's exile. Perish the thought. "I know our kids are all fired-up and I'll probably learn a little bit about the rivalry from our kids who have played in it," Mullen did say today. What we mean for the MSU-moment is Mullen & Co will stick to the system for the final week of 2009 and use the tools they've got. It might yet work well enough to bring the Egg home, and we've certainly seen the unexpected from this series. Maybe even to the point of expecting it.
But it's equally clear that as the shouting fades Saturday afternoon, thoughts will already be shifting to the second year and next phase of Mullen's big Bulldog job.
HERE AND THERE: It's going to be a more intense week than usual for J.C. Brignone and wife Blair as their first child is due just about any day now. Mullen, a proud pop himself since February, appreciates the pressures his junior center is dealing with. "He's been great," the coach said, noting that with no more road games that hurdle has been cleared. "Both families are coming this week so that makes it much easier on him."…
Mullen also said he and injured S Zach Smith talk often but nothing has been decided about the junior either continuing football or giving up the game due to a series of concussions; the latest in the Georgia Tech game. That will happen in a post-season discussion…
I was passing through the oddly-named Star City (‘taint much of either to it) when the phone beeped at 7:23 with Gregg Ellis' text that Jarvis Varnado had indeed reached the expected SEC record for blocked shots. Now it's on after that NCAA mark of 535 before Jarvis hangs up the uniform next March. Sure, there's a bit of regret at not having witnessed the Moment myself…but football is football and obviously claims priority in such conflicting-seasons cases. Besides, maybe a couple-dozen other folk can say they've seen in-person every touchdown scored by Anthony Dixon, and that's a bigger Bulldog record to my mind. Now if he can add several more this week, along with the 126 yards needed to claim the single-season record and round out his resume...
Before leaving for Little Rock Friday, I was able to spend an hour chatting with John Cohen about fall ball, this month's signing class, and outlooks for 2010. Most of it was for magazine-story purposes but I'll try to get some of it out on the site shortly, mostly about the recruiting results. And Gene has talked to the whole staff for positional breakdowns. John said at this point there are 37 players left on the tentative spring roster and that it does not have to be down to the 35-limit until the day before first pitch. Making the very last cuts was hard of course, but hard in a great way for a change because this time around State was cutting guys good enough to play in the SEC. The next stage comes in future years when he's cutting guys good enough to WIN in the SEC, because that means the program is all the way back where he and we expect to be.