First, Go Rangers! World Series, baby!
Now, about yesterday.
MSU lost a game they could have won against a better football team. There is both good and bad in that statement, but it is what it is. Tyler Russell had an okay game. Would Relf had done better? I don't know, probably not because Russell has a heck of an arm and good instincts.
I've said before that State's offensive problems don't begin nor end with the QB and I think yesterday proved my point. When Russell had time to throw he was spot on with most of his passes except for a few mis-thrown deep balls. The problem is, Russell rarely had time to throw. The kid was running for his life. Every snap seemed to be a South Carolina D-line jail break. Russell showed some mobility skills, and really showed his ability to take a hit. But, good grief, if that continues there won't be any debate about who should start because Russell won't be healthy enough for the job.
And even though the receivers were better than usual, there were still some big yards left on the field. There were some good catches and some drops, most notably Ricco Sanders not snagging a beautifully thrown deep pass down the sidelines that hit him in stride and would have been 6. We gotta have those.
So our offense remains plagued by the same problems despite the change at QB. Our O-Line isn't blocking and our receivers aren't making plays. That being said, I will tip my hat to Chris Smith for his TD catch (the EXACT same play that he deflected to a DB in Athens to swing the entire game) and a spectacular catch while being upended at midfield. Hopefully, it's a sign he is turning around and others will follow.
One thing is clear to me, Russell's mere ability to throw the ball well opens up the running game. That alone is probably enough in my opinion for Russell to be the starter from here on out. But we have to protect him or someone is gonna break him in half, and we have to give him time to throw or his confidence will wane quickly. Do those things, and Russell is our guy. I'm a Relf fan. But, sadly, he just wasn't getting it done and opposing defenses were cheating against the run way too much. Had Relf been able to burn them on it a few times and kept them honest I think he is still our starter.
A few observations:
-- Key Moment: State is up 7-0, SC shanks a punt and we get the ball at their 48. State calls three straight up-the-middle runs and punts. I don't get it.
-- Key Moment: Third and goal. SC down by three. Alshon Jeffrey has been shut down by Johnthan Banks the entire game and suddenly Jeffrey finds himself covered by Corey Broomfield, who is 6 inches shorter than Jeffrey. Fade pass, jump ball, TD South Carolina.
-- Key Moment: State has 1st and Goal at the SC 4. They have a 240 lb QB on the bench who is very good at executing the option and power running game. Yet, he never sees the field and State once again fails in the red zone and settles for three only to eventually lose on the aforementioned fade pass.
-- On just about every passing down the South Carolina D-Line comes after Russell with fury. Russell was hit a lot. The pursuit was relentless. And yet, not one RB screen was called. If anyone has an explanation for these things I am all ears.
The pundits are making a lot about Jeffrey having a bad game yesterday, yet no one is saying why. This is an All-American WR who will score a lot of TDs in the NFL and he was shut down by a relatively unknown and under-recognized CB. I praise Johnthan Banks a lot on this site because it is well-deserved. He is second in the nation in INTs and that doesn't include the spectacular play he made on the deep ball that was intercepted by Nickoe Whitley. I think he has All-American talent, that he's a shut-down corner who may not be here next year if this continues. Hopefully, he plans to be here next year and get another season under his belt. But, if I'm the defensive coach, I put him on their best WR and let the rest of the defense handle the rest of the offense. Yesterday's game was Banks' best, and I think he has many to give. Too bad he wasn't on Jeffrey for that last play. I think it would have made a difference.
Also, I watched the Texas game yesterday. I saw the highlights of their game with OU. It appears that we're doing just fine with our defensive coaches. My concerns about Manny Diaz were that he takes a lot of risks on defense. Yes, this leads to negative plays but also makes you prone to giving up the big play. It was big plays that killed us against Arky and Bama last year, and yesterday that Diaz defense gave up a lot of them.
Chris Wilson seems to bring a similar defensive strategy only he doesn't take those risks and doesn't seem to be nearly as vulnerable to the big play. We struggled early this season on D, mainly because we had some new guys stepping in who needed game-situation experience in order to grow. They had a tough time against Memphis and Auburn, but once those guys got comfortable in their positions they really blossomed. I couldn't be happier with our Defense. Wilson has done a great job and I think we're better off now than we would be had Diaz stayed.
Helmet Stickers: Chris Smith showed good hands and boy do we need that. Malcolm Johnson had a few big catches and his presence at TE is looking good. Fletcher Cox had 2 sacks and 2 other tackles for loss. Josh Boyd had 7 tackles, including one sack. Brandon Wilson had 8 tackles including many key stops on Lattimore. Cam Lawrence had 11 tackles. Banks had another pick, a brilliant deflection to Whitley for a pick and shut down Jeffrey. Whitley had a pick and some big negative tackles. Brian Egan is doing well on kickoffs, with two into the endzone.
As for the helmets, I don't really mind the matte finish. Either way, it doesn't matter. I just want them to win. Personally, I think the timing of these matte-finish helmets and Tex A&Ms entry in the SEC are related. The two teams have identical uniforms and maybe State is trying to distinguish itself.
Kentucky is next. It's a must win.
I'll get to the QB situation in a moment. First, a few things I want to point out.
Brandon Wilson really seems to be coming around. I think this is a testament not only to him as a player but also to the Wilson defense. Keep in mind, a good bit of Wilson's defense mimics Manny Diaz's schemes only without as much aggressive blitzing. This means that the Mike LB position will get to make a lot of plays. We saw it last year with Chris White and we're seeing it now with Wilson. Anyone wondering if CJ is second-guessing his Ole Miss career? Brandon Maye is gonna have a tough time wrestling that position away from Wilson. The only problem is that Wilson is a senior and next year we'll have to find another Mike LB to step in. But, hey, you gotta be impressed with Wilson's progress.
Same goes for the rest of the defense. Diaz built his defense on a "bend-dont-break" philosophy and I think Chris Wilson has adopted it. Yes, they give up some big yards but the only number that matters is the scoreboard. It seems a different player steps up and makes a big play the moment the opposing offense gets on a roll and they're momentum is shut down. We've seen it from Wilson, Lawrence, Broomfield, Banks, Whitley, Eulls and several other guys. So far I like what I see. This defense gets better every week and if the offense can fix their problems...look out.
And all the praise I heaped on Brandon Wilson I could ditto for Cam Lawrence. Has this guy become the biggest surprise for MSU fans or what? I don't think anyone saw it coming, but I like it. Lawrence seems to be everywhere. He reminds me a lot of Josh Morgan - the hard hitting safety that helped anchor the Bulldog secondary in the early 2000's. The difference is Lawrence is playing linebacker. He knows how to attack the football.
Nick Griffin played Saturday. Four carries for 25 yards. Think yall know my opinions on that. I would have pursued a medical redshirt. Maybe he wasn't eligible because the injury happened in the spring. I'm not sure about the rule specifics, but I think it's a shame to burn a year of eligibility for him. We're gonna need him big-time next year and I would have given him ample time to recover.
Once again, I say, do not throw at Johnthan Banks. This guy is a ball hawk. That INT was one of the most athletic plays made by this State team this year.
Now, the QB issue.
Again, like last week I didn't exactly see a mountain of mistakes made by Relf. So I agree with the coaches on that one. He seemed to make the right reads and made some decent throws (yes, some were off target) but he wasn't exactly all over the place. Again, he was rushed, didn't have time to set up, his receivers dropped some catchable balls and his O-Line couldn't get the RBs any running room. But football is a funny game. Russell comes in and the mood of the entire team changes. You could see it happening. Suddenly these guys start playing loose and start making plays. No more dropped balls. Not as many missed assignments. It was enough to open up the offense and force UAB to protect more against the pass. And when that happened it allowed MSU to run the ball effectively. And if State can be effective on the ground they're gonna win. Period.
So, the MSU quarterback has to be effective enough with the passing game to keep the defense honest and that opens up the running game. Relf just hasn't done it. I could list any number of reasons why but, bottom line, he hasn't done it. Again, I go back to that last play against Auburn. Since then, we have seen a different Chris Relf. He's just not the same player. So, because of that, I agree that Tyler Russell should be State's new starting QB. He earned it. Perhaps sitting for a game or two will be enough to slap Relf out of the funk that he's in.
My only concern is that Russell hasn't looked stellar against SEC defenses. Granted, he's seen limited time against those teams, but I'm not 100% convinced that he can do it. Yes, he's earned the position. We've seen him shred inferior secondaries. But, when facing SEC talent the game seems to get very fast for him and he looks nervous in the pocket. Perhaps that will change, and this game was what he needed to get in the zone. Time will tell.
Either way, no matter who starts, I think Mullen should be ready to use the other guy if things don't go well. Force South Carolina to defend two very different players. I like Russell and he no doubt is the future of this team. I'm just hesitant from what I've seen so far to annoint him as the savior of the 2011 season.
Helmet Stickers: Tyler Russell, heck he gets the game ball. Fletcher Cox had his first big game. Cam Lawrence and Brandon Wilson led the linebackers. Johnthan Banks gets his 4th pick of the season. Bumphis looked good on his routes and that TD play was lights out. Vick Ballard breaks 100 yds for the first time in a while, and it's a welcome sight. Malcolm Johnson gets his first TD catch and Marcus Green made a great play on his TD. James Carmon seemed to have a big impact on the O-Line once he entered the game.
First, that thing on the 50 yard line was thug. And it was stupid. This team should have more class than that. We're Mississippi State, not Miami. Hopefully Mullen will ensure it never happens again. Now to the game.
Well, the message boards are blowing up and they're all saying what I expected them to say after today's loss. Seems to be a consensus that Chris Relf needs to sit.
I've been saying for some time that if Relf continues to improve his game the way he improved it last year that he would be drafted as a QB. I saw a kid who went from a talented athlete playing QB to a true quarterback with great athletic skill. After Michigan, I was excited to see him grow more. Well, that's obviously not happening. In fact, I think it's safe to say he has regressed. This is not the same Chris Relf who shredded Arkansas, Ole Miss and Michigan last year. Some will say he's reached the height of his potential and simply can't get better. Some will say he's taken a lot of hits and his body is simply wearing down. Some (like me) will say that getting stopped at the 2 inch line at Auburn messed with the kid's psyche and he hasn't recovered. No matter the reason, our QB is struggling. But I don't believe he's the problem. I actually don't think Relf had that bad of a game. He made a few bad decisions (intentional grounding) and a few bad throws, but overall he wasn't that bad. Put it this way: changing quarterbacks won't make State a better team.
Yes, the offense is bad but that starts at the O-Line. And they got brutalized today. The UGA D-line dominated the line of scrimmage. There was nothing between the tackles and Relf was under constant pressure. The only time State had success moving the football was when they went outside the tackles with option plays and quick, short passes. Ballard and Perkins had a few decent runs but it was strictly their talent breaking tackles and avoiding opposing players in the backfield. There certainly weren't any holes available to run through. They rolled Relf out several times and he looked good doing it, but it wasn't a strategy they stayed with. Every time Relf tried to setup in the pocket he was quickly smothered by a Georgia D-lineman who'd beaten his man. Case in point: Third play of the game Addison Lawrence gets beaten badly by a bullrushing Georgia player and Relf gets a face full. That was a preview of things to come.
State's power running game is gone. And the deep passes they like to throw are gone as well because we can't protect our QB long enough for a receiver to get down field. This is the worst offensive line play I've seen in Starkville in a long time. And while I'd like to say that a lot of it is the competition, I have to remind myself that we played La Tech last weekend and it wasn't any better.
But this one wasn't just the O-line. Let's not forget the play of the game. Cam Lawrence had just made an amazing INT to setup the Dogs deep in UGA territory. Relf throws a perfect strike over the middle to Chris Smith and Smith deflects it right into the hands of a DB. Absurd. Catch that ball and it's probably a TD. It's not like Smith had a make an amazing catch. The ball hit him right in the hands.
Let's not forget about Arceto Clark. Once again, Relf delivers a perfect ball past a diving defender. Clark catches it then holds it like he's holding a briefcase. The ball is stripped, UGA recovers and kicks a field goal. That's two plays and 10 points that poor play at the receiver position cost us. That's not Relf's fault.
And what about special teams? After going three and out to start the game State's punt coverage flubs it. I counted at least 5 missed tackles as UGA returned it to the State 30, setting up a TD. Then, Swedenburg shanks one for eleven yards, setting up UGA at the State 22 for another easy TD. Then, Swedenburg drops a snap setting up UGA for an easy score but fortunately the State defense held. You have to get better execution from your punter and, for pete's sake, tackle the guy after he catches the punt!
And what about play calling? I haven't been too critical of Koenning's calls this year but now I'm concerned. State marches the ball down the field with quick-hit passing and running outside the tackles. They get in the red zone and run two straight up the middle for a total of 2 yards. They can't convert on third and settle for a FG. The option wasn't run at all until the third quarter. State was effective at rolling Relf out of the pocket but they only did it a few times, choosing instead to set him up in the pocket and try more downfield throws. It didn't work. We don't have the personnel on the O-line for that. If I can see it, surely Les Koenning can. The point is: this is much deeper than just a QB problem.
On a lighter note, congrats to the defense. They played an outstanding game. Yes, they gave up 24 points but 17 of those were after UGA started a possession deep in State territory. UGA moved it on Wilson's unit on ONLY ONE drive. The secondary looked good. Banks and Broomfield had blanket coverage most of the game but Murray was accurate and the UGA receivers wouldn't drop anything. They have a great TE that created some matchup problems for us. But overall the D looked good. They stuffed the UGA offense in the second half and were very effective at stopping the power running game that UGA wanted. This is a unit that gets better every week and that's good to see.
Helmet Stickers: Darius Slay had the play of the game for State. Brandon Wilson and Cam Lawrence were all over the field making plays. Kaleb Eulls had some big stops and so did Josh Boyd. Looks like the D-line is starting to gel. Nickoe Whitley had a big INT. I also saw Dontae Skinner and Charles Mitchell make some key stops. It's just defense getting stickers this week. No one on offense earned it.
Now for some optimism. Yes, State is more likely to go 6-6 than 8-4. But the defense is playing very well. The LBs are growing into their position and the secondary is a turnover machine. We have great skill players on offense with lots of speed and big play potential. We have a capable QB who just needs to get his mojo back after losing it on the plains. And we have a young and battered offensive line. Yes, 6-6 is likely, but suppose those young offensive linemen learn as the season goes. Suppose Carmon and Saulsberry mend a little. State's offense CAN improve as the season goes. They could be a better team later in the season than what we see now. 6-6 is likely, but who knows what can happen as this young O-line grows and our QB gains a little confidence.
Me and fellow blogger, Greg, over at Leather Helmet decided to swap Q&A prior to this weekend's showdown in Athens. It was fun and interesting. State fans should be aware that the Georgia faithful have their eyes on Mullen. First, here are my questions and Greg's answers, then Greg's questions with my answers.
1) We've seen the Georgia defense give up some big points early in the season, particulary against Boise and Carolina. Is there a defensive problem in Athens?
The short answer is, no. Boise was able to shut down the offense and kept the defense on the field all night. Late in the game the Georgia D was gassed and conditioning has been a problem for UGA in the past. The defense played well enough to win against South Carolina. In fact, the offense gave up 14 points directly with a pick six and a fumble that was recovered for a TD. Georgia fans would like to see a rock-ribbed defense harkening back to the Junkyard Dawgs days of Dooley and they may yet. Injuries at the inside linebacker position have taken a toll but defensive signal caller Christian Robinson may be back for Mississippi State.
2) We've seen the MSU defense have trouble defending the spread offense. With Murray's run-pass threat do you think Georgia may try to spread things out a little more against the Starkville Dogs?
Georgia's offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, started the year with a strong commitment to the spread. It was a miserable failure against Boise and, even though he (and Richt) defended the set vigorously, he has slowly moved away from the spread. Many UGA fans believe that Coach Richt has become much more active in play calling. Against Ole Miss the offense was much more reminiscent of Richt's early days in Athens when he was the play caller. I think you will see more of the Ole Miss game plan. Look for Georgia to do what it can to get the ball to Crowell in space and the traditional Richt passing game.
3) Georgia wins on Saturday if....? If the offensive line can give the backs a few holes and keep Murray upright. It has done neither of those things very well so far. There is a good bit of debate on the boards and in our comments about Murray's play. He has not made great strides over last year. Murray can not be careless with the ball either by starring down receivers or failing to tuck it away if sacked. Georgia has a lot of talented folks and are capable of performing at a very high level. We are waiting.
4) Mississippi State wins if....?
With all due respect to Mississippi State, there is no way that the western Dogs should win this game. Georgia simply has more players than MSU. I am not saying that MSU is a bad team - they are not. I'm saying that if UGA comes out and executes its game plan and does not give the ball away - they win. There is a huge "if" in that sentence. For the past couple of years Georgia has not played to the level of its talent. When I choose my teams in this weeks pick 'em, I'll be picking the Athens Dawgs but my confidence points will be low.
5) Does a loss on Saturday end Mark Richt's tenure at Georgia? And what does he have to do this season to keep his job?
No, Richt will not be fired immediately if he loses Saturday.
I have taken several minutes to form an answer to the second question. That should be a tell in itself. AD Greg McGarity has always said that there is no magic number of losses that will get Richt fired. A lot of folks will be very unhappy about a loss this Saturday.
Let's face it, a loss to MSU will not bode well for upcoming SEC games against Florida and Auburn. The fan base, already split, will be fractured and the boards will be ablaze. University officials always discount fan reaction but they hear it. I get the impression that McGarity is adept at holding a moistened finger to the wind.
Very interesting. And now Greg's questions with my answers. And if you get the chance swing over to his blog and check it out.
1) Why is Mississippi State less successful on offense than last year?
Two reasons: First is injuries. This is a team that put up nearly 1200 yards of offense in the first two games. They ran 97 plays against Auburn. Then they lose 3 starting O-Linemen (two seniors and a junior) and since have only managed 500 yards total. One of the three has played hurt, one is still recovering and the other is out for the season. State's offense has taken on a completely different character. They have struggled between the tackles and Relf has taken a lot of hits. Even more telling is Mullen's decision on Saturday to fake a punt on 4th & 1 with an end-around that failed and allowed Tech back into the ballgame. Last year against an inferior opponent State just lines up and knocks them off the ball to get that one yard. The O-Line struggles will plague all season unless the younger guys can mature really quick.
The other reason is just plain mental. State was heart-broken against Auburn and I don't think they've gotten over it, particularly Relf. That goal-line stop took something out of him and since then it seems he's had some strange mental block. He's not the same QB and since he's the team leader it's affecting the whole team. They're playing tight and no one is having fun. It's 22 guys afraid to make a mistake. I think there is a crisis of confidence on this team from Relf on down and the offense has struggled as a result.
2) How much is Manny Diaz missed?
I think what State misses more is their 3 starting linebackers and NFL defensive end from last year's team. This was a lot to replace and in the first two games it showed. But this defense has grown and seem to get better every week. Chris Wilson has done a good job with the D. He's not as aggressive as Diaz but he also doesn't take the same risks and State has been less vulnerable to the big play as a result.
3)Georgia wins if... if they score early and don't make mistakes. This State team is self-doubting right now and if Georgia can score a couple times in the first quarter this game will be over, and it may end up being a blowout. Murray and company need to keep it conservative and just run their offense. They CAN score that way so long as they don't turn it over. But if this game gets late and State stays in it you'll see Relf's confidence build and that could be enough to get their offense on track and come away with a win. Watch out for State's two dynamic corners, especially Johnthan Banks. He's got superb cover skills and likes to bait QBs into bad throws, 3 picks in the last 3 games, one of them saving Saturday's game against La Tech. Murray needs to stay away from those kinds of mistakes and not allow State's defense to keep them in it.
4)Mississippi State wins if... they can get the ball to their playmakers and get some big plays. I hate to say it but State will probably be moving away from their bread-and-butter power running game and going to more sweeps, counters, misdirection, flanker screens, etc. I just don't think they can go helmet to helmet with Georgia right now. They have 4 or 5 guys with blazing speed who can score anytime they touch it and look for Mullen and Koenning to try and get the ball to those guys in the open field.
5)Some Dawgs are saying that Saturday will be Mullen's interview for the Georgia job given the prior Relationship of Georgia's AD Greg McGarity and Dan Mullen at Florida. Would Mullen leave MSU for UGA?
That's the million dollar question in Starkville. Is Mullen using State as a stepping stone to bigger things or is this his home for good? Before this season I would've said he's not going anywhere, but now I'm not so sure. It's been tough so far for him and some of the more restless State fans have been a little critical of him. I think it's insane, but such is the case when unrealistic expectations rule the day. Why would he endure that kind of pressure at State when he can go to more prestigious surroundings where recruiting is much easier? Then again, why would he go to Georgia where Richt goes 98-36 and is on the hot seat? Do that at MSU and the guy is a coaching legend. It's a tough one. One thing's for sure, if MSU is Mullen's stepping stone this will be the year he bails. If he's our coach next year it's because he has Frank Beamer-like plans for MSU.
Before anyone asks, no, I am not worried. I've said all along that this year's team will be better than last year's and I stand by that. They may not have a better record, and because of a tough schedule they may not even have the same record but I stand by the notion that they are better. I stand by it even after the Dogs edge out La Tech in overtime.
State is still a very good football team and I continue to be impressed by their defensive play each week. We know what the offense is capable of and if the defense continues to improve like this it will be a good October-November for Bulldog fans. So what gives? Why did a good State team need overtime to beat a decent but overmatched La Tech team? Well, Mullen said it best at the end of the game. The guys are playing tight and not having fun. The expectations have affected them negatively, and I tend to agree. Now, it's Mullen's new challenge to teach his kids how to play with that kind of pressure and I believe he will. He's won national championships. I think he's capable of teaching a perennial losing program how to win and how to deal with the pressure of high expectations.
That being said, there are a few things that do concern me. First, what is going on with Chris Relf? He is becoming a very streaky player and that's not what you want in a QB. The past two weeks he's looked brilliant on some drives, and then will go out the next drive and lay an egg. He's overthrowing his deep balls, he's not showing the decisiveness that made him great at the end of last season and he's looking very nervous in the pocket. More nervous than a senior with 2 years of starting experience should look. He seems to be in a mode of "don't mess up" more than a mode of "make a great play". No doubt Relf's body has been beat up this year, but I think his problem is above the neck. And I think it all started with the goal-line stop at Auburn. Since then he's been a different player. It's created an inner demon that he just can't shake. His confidence is hurt and I don't know what it's gonna take to get back on track. But we need him to step up and lead this offense in the worst way. Hopefully that beautiful fade pass to Perkins on Saturday is just the medicine Relf needed.
Second, the offensive line had a bad game on Saturday. Maybe it's because La Tech was stacking the box with 8 guys, I don't know. But our front 5 seemed to get it together fairly well against Auburn and LSU and then take a step back this past Saturday. State couldn't run between the tackles. The only success they had was with the sweep. That's not gonna cut it in Athens. A lot of it has to do with Relf's play, the better he passes the easire it becomes for MSU to run. But, still, when you can't push La Tech off the ball for one or two yards on third or fourth down there is a problem.
One thing's for sure, there are some things to work on this week. Perhaps most important among them if for State to remember how to have fun, how to play loose and relaxed. If there is one thing that distinguished this team from last year it is that. Last year State was the underdog. There wasn't the pressure of high expectations. They had fun and it showed on the field. This year, it doesn't look fun for them. That's Mullen's challenge and it's a tough one.
On the positive side, you gotta love the play of the LBs Saturday. Brandon Wilson, Cam Lawrence and Matthew Wells all played well. The secondary looked good against a potent pass offense, which bodes well for the Arkansas game. Chris Wilson challenged them and they basically won the game with two key turnovers. Nickoe Whitley continues to leave his mark (literally) on opposing receivers. Between him, Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner I'm not sure who hits the hardest and I don't want to find out. Kaleb Eulls had a good game for the second straight week.
And once again I say to opposing QBs: Do NOT throw at Johnthan Banks. That's three INTs in three consecutive games. Keep throwing his way and you're just padding the kid's stats.
Now, about that Tech TD. Arguably one of the worst instant replay calls in football history. You have a ref standing right in front of the play, clearly he sees the receiver bobble the ball on his way out of bounds. Then you have a replay that shows the ball go through the receiver's hands and beyond that, no definitive video evidence of a catch. Yet, they say it's enough to reverse the official who had the best view. Ridiculous.
Helmet Stickers: Banks, Mitchell and Whitley for some dynamite secondary play. Brandon Wilson and Cam Lawrence had solid games at the LB position. Kaleb Eulls gets better every week. Chad Bumphis had an electrifying punt return and Vick Ballard carried the ball well despite having to dodge defenders in the backfield. DePasquale had some big kicks.
Before I get into game analysis, I want to point out something troubling. In the past two weeks I've seen and heard some things from fellow Bulldog fans that make me shake my head. Dan Mullen told the Clarion Ledger that he received lots of hate mail after the Auburn loss. There has been heavy criticism of Chris Wilson and Les Koenning. Read the C-L message boards and you'll see words like "embarrassing" and "shameful". I don't get it.
I don't need to remind Bulldog where this program was just three years ago. I don't need to remind them of 45-0. So why must I remind them of the amazing job that Dan Mullen has done in his short tenure here? I'd say the turnaround he has manufactured has been quite remarkable. Is this a championship team? No. Not yet. But it's only been two years. TWO YEARS! Going from 45-0 against TSUN to competing in college football's toughest division will take longer than two years. Bulldog fans would be wise to remember that. Especially if we intend to hang on to our coach for the long term. He's delivered nothing but results and yet we already hear grumbling from many Bulldog fans after this team goes 0-2 against Auburn and LSU. That's just not reasonable. So, I say we need to be patient. State will get there. Let's not be so tough on the coaches and players. Mullen was given a tall task and so far I've seen nothing but progress. I have absolutely nothing but optimism regarding the direction this program is going.
Now, about the game.
State lost, but I was much more impressed with them than I was last week. I'm gonna be honest. I didn't think State had a chance in this game. The deck was stacked against them big time. I wasn't even expecting it to be close. They lost a very physical, very emotional game against Auburn. They had to turnaround and face arguably the best team in America. They had the pressure of a home opener, nationally broadcast. Our top two O-linemen were banged up, one of them in street clothes (then we lose our third best lineman on the first series). Relf was clearly banged up and not operating at 100%. And LSU essentially had a scrimmage game last week. In short, it was gonna take a miracle for the Dogs to win, or at least a litany of errors by LSU, and it simply didn't happen.
Bottom line, State got beat by a better team. LSU is bigger, faster and deeper than MSU. Beating them with half an O-line is not possible. That being said, I've got to give Chris Wilson and his staff a ton of credit. There were some concerns about the defense after the first two games and the defense answered last night. They were outmatched by a bigger, deeper offensive line and some powerful running backs but they played well and gave our offense a chance to win the game. The D-Line stepped up, and Cam Lawrence once again shined, potentially emerging as the anchor for this unit. Wilson's boys held their own until the 4th Quarter where the bigger, deeper Tigers took advantage of their time of possession and a Bulldog offense that couldn't keep the ball. Simply put, our D just got tired. But I applaud the effort nonetheless and I am now much more optimistic about the rest of the season. The Georgia and South Carolina games look much better for us now. And Bama and Arky aren't out of the question.
Note to SEC QBs: Don't throw at Johnthan Banks. You will regret it.
Offensively, they struggled. Granted, I expected more but going into it I knew State was gonna have a tough time scoring. Clausell and Day are good, but we need Carmon and Saulsberry at 100%. Without that I knew our O-Line would be overmatched, and they were. LSU's secondary is lightning fast and physical. We just couldn't break away for any meaningful yards. Sustaining a drive against them is near impossible. Relf struggled for the first time this year and it looked to me like he wasn't 100%. I think the beating he took last week was showing. Of course, LSUs speed, pass rush and the continued problem our WRs have dropping the ball didn't help. We couldn't get our running game going and when that happens State's not going to win.
Special Teams looked better also. Kick and punt coverage was much improved and DePasquale hit two solid FGs. We still need someone who can kickoff deep and get more touchbacks.
Helmet Stickers: Kaleb Eulls, Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox played solidly up front. Cam Lawrence once again was strong and passed some hard licks. Johnthan Banks recorded another interception and Nickoe Whitley was all over the place. Anyone else hear Ferlando Bohanna's name called when he laid the lumber on Spencer Ware? I did. It won't be the last. DePasquale is showing consistency. Quentin Saulsberry showed guts and performed well at guard. Dillon Day had one bad snap but followed that with a heck of a game at center.
One question: The time out thing. I think Mullen's frustration showed. He said LSU had the game in hand and didn't see a need to use the timeouts. True.
BUT, why keep them? Granted, winning the game is probably out of the question. They needed a TD, an onside kick and another TD in about 90 seconds. Not happening. But why not try? Especially when you have your second unit in there. These are the backups and we have the nation's best defense on the field with them. Seems like a great opportunity to practice running the offense. Seems like a chance to get our backup QB and O-Line some meaningful reps. Why not use the time outs?
Mullen was done and wanted the game to end. I understand. But I wouldv'e used the time to my advantage somehow.
Last week I voiced my concerns about our Bulldogs. This is a season where expectations were higher than perhaps ever before, or at least higher than they have been since State was coming off their SEC West championship. Maybe it's the cynic in me, but when expectations are high like that I tend to take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to assess things as objectively as possible without my emotions clouding my judgement.
What I saw was a lot of talk about some great athletes. A lot of talk about our offense. A lot of talk about our secondary. But not much was said about our D-Line and our O-Line. Then last week, I saw a glaring weakness in this football team. At the line of scrimmage, on both offense and defense, we are significantly weaker than we were last year. Now, I'm not a football expert, but I know enough to know that Gene Chizik has access to game films and that he watches them. And I know that when he watched State's film against Memphis he would see what I saw...a third string tailback running rough-shod through our front seven.
I was hoping that it was just first game jitters. Or maybe our D wasn't up for Memphis. Or maybe we missed Fletcher Cox. I was wrong. Yesterday, Auburn did what Memphis did, except they scored a lot more points. They did it with basically one play...the inside give to Dyer off-tackle. He scored twice with it and ran for a whole lotta yards when he wasn't scoring. It was that same play, over and over, and State never stopped it. Auburn averaged over 6 yards per play. Time and again our corners and safeties had to come up to make tackles.
Not once did I see a defensive lineman make a play. Did anyone of you? No, they were being pushed around by a young offensive line that had no business pushing us around.
Cam Lawrence had a big game with 14 tackles. He attacked the ball and was always near the play. Yes, he seemed to take a bad angle a few times but overall he had a good game. Perhaps his numbers were partly due to the poor D-Line play, but give him credit. He's the only one in the front 7 worth mentioning. Our LBs looked lost in pass coverage. A first year starting QB was able to setup comfortably in the pocket and throw little dink passes that shouldn't be there if the LBs were doing their jobs. Brandon Maye has so far come up short, best exemplified when he wiffed twice at Emory Blake when Auburn scored to tie it at 21 (a BIG turning point in the game). That kid has more talent than he shows. Boy do we need him to step up.
The Secondary once again shined. They are the only bright spot of our defense and will make us competitive against teams like Arkansas. But, again, I think a lot of their productivity is because they are forced to make plays that the front seven should be making. Banks and Broomfield get big props. So do Mitchell, Bonner and Nickoe (what a hit! And it didn't warrant a flag).
Field position killed us. Auburn downed 4 punts inside the 20. Our kickoff protection was lacking. How many times was Jameon Lewis tackled by the first man through? Meanwhile, Auburn seemed to start every possession with a short field mainly because our kick coverage wiffed on 3 or 4 tackles before finally bringing the guy down. It's shocking that Auburn didn't return a kick for a TD. Field position is why Auburn had 150 yards less in total offense and yet still won by a touchdown.
Offensively there isn't much to criticize. How can you criticize a team that racks up 530 yards with 97 plays. 97 plays? That's incredible. Relf looked good. He overthrew 2 deep balls that he usually puts right on the money and his one INT could have been thrown better, but it was deflected and that's not always the QBs fault. He was hurt by dropped balls, hopefully that gremlin isn't rearing it's head again like last year. Ballard shined as usual, especially the second half. No doubt it's their senior leadership that kept this team composed and calm after spotting Auburn 14 points in a hostile environment. I was very impressed with how the Dogs came back and made this a game. State teams in the past would have cashed out and started looking to next week.
I was also pleased with the backup play of Clausell and Dillon Day. It's nice to have that kind of depth. But, losing Carmon will hurt us badly, and so will losing Saulsberry. I think the O-line showed some improvement, particularly late in the game when State was able to run up the middle at will, proof that our conditioning is on the money. But, Relf was again roughed up too much. There is definitely room for improvement in the trenches.
As for the officiating, so what? Yes, they blew the 4th down measurement, but it shouldn't have mattered. You're nationally ranked and favored by seven against an inferior opponent. One bad call shouldn't cost you that ballgame.
As for the play calling, I don't have much to argue about. We needed one yard, Ballard was given a shot, then Relf. Those are our two go-to players, and they're the ones I want to carry the ball in that situation. Maybe I wouldn't have gone under center but, regardless, State should've scored and they didn't. Like I said, it shouldn't have been that close to begin with. The offense scored 34 points. They came up one inch short of 40. Let's not blame them. They did their job and did it well. 34 points should be enough to win EVERY TIME!
LSU comes into town and they bring a bigger, more experienced offensive line and a bigger, more powerful running back. That doesn't bode well for our paper thin defensive front seven. I like Chris Wilson and I'm not ready to throw him under the bus, but he has some big problems to fix and fix fast. Honestly, with what I've seen the first two games State is staring down the barrell of a 6-6 season. Besides Ole Miss and Kentucky, is there another SEC game we can win if we don't fix our defense?
Auburn isn't that good. We shoulda won this game. And we have some much tougher challenges coming up on our schedule.
I have faith in Mullen and I think it will get better. We WILL beat someone that we're not supposed to beat and who knows what can happen on Thursday. But LSU is gonna be tough. We have La Tech the next week which means we're probably 2-2 heading to Athens in what will probably be a must win game for us to have the same kind of season we had last year. Otherwise, we could be taking a step back. The schedule is just that brutal for us this year.
Helmet Stickers: Chris Relf and Vick Ballard carried this offense. Also, I gotta give props to Dillon Day for coming in at center and not missing a beat, not one bad snap. Brandon Heavens made a nice TD catch, and Perkins' option run was electrifying. On defense, I give a sticker to Cam Lawrence and the entire secondary: Banks, Broomfield, Mitchell and Whitley. They carried this unit and will be the strength of our D all season. If they get some help from the front seven this State team could become quite nasty for the rest of the SEC.
It's about two hours to kickoff. So far so good, no unexpected suspensions or injuries. State goes into Jordan Hare as a 7 point favorite. I can't remember the last time that happened, if at all.
Putting aside the importance of this game from a conference perspective, there is something that makes this game especially intriguing. Yes, Mullen wants to beat a West team that isn't named the Bears. Yes, State must have this one if they truly plan to contend for the division title. Yes, this is the one that got away last year and the Dogs want it back.
But, more than that, this is a game that State is favored to win...on the road...in the SEC...while they carry a top 20 ranking. When is the last time THAT happened?
As much as I love my Dogs I have no problem admitting that this football program doesn't exactly have a track record of success. Some would even say there is a tradition of losing in MSU football. Heck, even Jackie Sherrill finished at .500 for his career, and most of us would consider him the program's all-time best. When you have that losing tradition a mindset develops. And when that mindset develops it's hard to break. And when you find yourself ranked top 20, favored by 7 on the road against the defending national champion, it's almost impossible to find a way to win.
State teams in the past would go into Jordan Hare today and fold like a lawn chair. They'd lose and lose big and leave us fans once again disappointed. State teams in the past couldn't handle success. Couldn't handle prosperity. They couldn't handle it because it was so rare that they were never taught how to handle it. State has always played best as an underdog. And when they occasionally played as a favorite against teams they're usually not supposed to beat it rarely ends well for the Dogs.
So what happens today when the 16th ranked Dogs go to Auburn, favored by a TD, against the defending national champ and a team that usually beats us?
Well, therein lies the intrigue. We all know that Mullen has done a great job teaching these kids the game of football, teaching them discipline and poise. He's energized the fanbase like never before. It's been a long time since people talked about Mississippi State the way they do now. But has he changed the mindset of his players? In short, has he taught these kids how to win? How to handle prosperity?
That's what we find out today. On paper, State should win this game. If they go in and play a solid game, with minimal mistakes, they WILL win this game. On paper, they're better than Auburn, by double digit points. So the only way they lose is if they beat themselves. And the only way they beat themselves is if they still haven't learned how to be winners.
My pick: State 38, Auburn 16
Mullen has done a lot more in Starkville than teach these kids football. This team just seems to have a different attitude.
Bama 28, PSU 7
TSUN 21, Salukis 14
Vandy 27, UCONN 19
Georgia 23, SC 21
59-14 is about what most of us expected. In fact, it may be a wider margin than we expected. It was a good start. Definitely something to build on as we get ready for a huge one next week. I'm sure the coaches and players will be dissecting film and cleaning things over the next few days. Here are my observations:
On the good side, I think the offense looked sharp particularly at the skill positions. I really like the fast tempo that Mullen runs. This is different from last year. Mullen wants to run as many plays as possible, which is good for a quick-strike offense. You could tell it was effective. Yes, there were a few hiccups but overall Relf executed the fast tempo to perfection.
State's speed was impressive. They swarmed the ball on every play and even the big fellas in the middle seemed to be quicker on their toes. Their receivers looked crisp on their routes and greasy after catching the ball. The secondary was all over the Memphis offense. And the smaller, quicker linebackers were getting to the ball fast. This is a fast Bulldog team, much faster than any we've had in recent memory.
In addition to the speed, State was physical last night. There were some serious licks being passed and I guarantee the Memphis players are feeling them today. Relf and Ballard were both running hard downhill and the Dogs finished every play. Speed and physicality are quite the combination and, based on last night, they look to have both.
I like the depth of this team. There were a lot of Freshmen and Sophomores on the field and they contributed. Relf completed passes to eight different receivers. Tyler Russell looked very good in relief. They shifted a lot of players in and out at linebacker. And the second and third team DBs looked good as well, namely Jamerson Love. Jameon Lewis...wow...this kid is fast. I knew he had speed but I apparently had no idea it was that kind of speed. It's nice to have a player who can break loose for a TD any time he touches the ball. It's even nicer when that player is a redshirt freshman. And apparently PJ Jones will not be red shirting, which is fine with me because he had a good night and looks to contribute a good bit his freshman season.
ATM Helmet Stickers: Chris Relf, a very solid performance. Managed the offense, managed the tempo. Passes were sharp and accurate. Vick Ballard looked to be in mid-season form and I think he's gotten a little faster in the off-season. Keep running the ball like that and he'll be playing on Sunday next year. Tyler Russell filled in nicely. Showed a strong arm and made some good reads. The game looks to have slowed down a little for our future star. And that option run was pretty. Cameron Lawrence made some plays on D at the LB position, we're gonna need more of it. Matthew Wells surprised at the outside LB position, especially early in the game. Seemed like # 22 was in on every tackle in the first quarter. Johnthan Banks was outstanding as usual. This guy is slowly becoming a premier shutdown corner. If he stays his senior season he could be preseason all-American. Nickoe Whitley had a sweet pick and some big hits as usual. Marvin Bure had several tackles on kick coverage and one bone-crushing hit that drew a collective gasp from the crowd.
Now for the ugly. I know it was 59-14 and State had some gaudy offensive numbers. But I have some concerns about what I saw last night. Tops among those concerns is our interior defense. Memphis is not a very good team, yet they seemed to run the ball very effectively between the tackles. Our interior push just wasn't there and neither was our middle linebacker. The safeties were making a lot of tackles last night and that's not good when you play a low-tier Conference USA team. We missed Chris White last night. This must get better or it will kill us next week against an SEC offensive line.
On the offensive side I'm a little concerned about our O-Line. First, the dead ball penalties were bad. Yes, it's the first game and these things are gonna happen but they have to be cleaned up by next week. Also, Relf got hit a lot last night against a mediocre D-line. Our running game seemed to be effective only when bouncing to the outside. While Memphis ran well between the tackles, State didn't seem to have much there. And our average scoring drive was about 60 seconds. Now, this is gonna sound picky, but I'm a little worried that we didn't have a long sustained scoring drive. It worries me because our offensive line worries me and it's the offensive line that produces long scoring drives. Memphis is vulnerable to the big play and we took advantage of that... a lot. That's great. But Auburn and LSU are not. My question is: Do we have the guys up front to produce a 14 play, 80 yard scoring drive, the kind that wins in the SEC?
I don't know. Maybe I'm not being fair. Maybe I'm too used to State's traditional power offense and we're just beginning to see the full effect of Mullen's quick-strike spread. Maybe State simply didn't get an opportunity for a long scoring drive because they broke too many big plays and scored too bloomin fast. Hopefully that's the case. I'll take it.
No doubt these question will be answered against Auburn. We will know a lot more about this team after next week.
Tomorrow's the season opener so I figured it's time for me to make a call on how I think the season's going to go. I'm looking forward to the 2011 Bulldogs. I think they will be better all-around than they were last year. Some key pieces have to be replaced but overall I think we'll be looking at the best State team since the 1999 team that went 10-2 and finished #12 in the nation. I think this team will be just as good if not better.
State will have the best Bulldog QB since Sleepy. They will have one of the most well-rounded receiving corps in program history. They will have arguably the best defensive secondary in program history. And they will have the best RB 1-2 punch since Davis-Bouie. We will see one of the deepest State teams in recent memory, and probably the fastest team any of us has ever seen. So, I think it will be something special.
But how will that translate in wins and losses? There are still some questions that will be answered in the first two games. Will the LBs step up and fill the shoes left by White and Wright? Will the D-line be good enough to make up for the holes at LB? Is Brandon Maye the real deal? And how good will the O-line be without Brignone and Sheppard? Plus, the expectations are high this year and that puts pressure on a fairly young team. How will they respond as the favorite rather than the underdog? Here's how I see it:
Definite Wins: Memphis, La Tech, UAB, Tenn-Martin, TSUN. Let's face it, Mullen has yet to lose a game that he was supposed to win. UAB gave us a scare last year so we will be ready this year. Plus, those billboards in Birmingham warrant a proper response. And Mullen owns TSUN. In Starkville, the Rebs won't have a chance.
Likely Win: Kentucky. I say likely because it's in Lexington and that's always a tough place to play.
Likely Losses: Arkansas and Georgia. I just don't feel good about playing in Athens, and Georgia will remember how we pushed them around last year. I don't think we pull it out against the Bulldogs. And Arkansas, in my opinion, will win the West. They will shock a lot of people with an explosive offense (despite losing Knile Davis), and some awesome play in the trenches. In Fayetteville, the Hogs will be too much for us.
That's 6-2 with four games left to discuss. Let's look at them:
At Auburn: On paper State should be the better team but the intangibles will be huge here. There's the Cam Newton issue. There are a lot of unknowns about Auburn, the fact that they are replacing a lot of key personnel, so it's hard to know how good or bad they may be. And let's not forget that Auburn is the defending national champion and they will remain so until someone beats them. They won't give that up easily. It's on the plains and the Tigers will be ready. I give the edge to State but it will be a war.
LSU: The Tigers are dealing with some off-the-field issues. It's the home opener in Starkville on Thursday night, on ESPN. DWS will be rocking and rowdy. LSU will probably be the favorite but they won't be taking the Dogs lightly. It's LSU, and we seem to be cursed against the Tigers. This year I see it finally happening. We take the Tigers, and the goalposts come down.
South Carolina: Bad feeling. Bad, bad feeling. Yes, it's home, but this will be our 7th consecutive game without a bye week, four of those will have been on the road. The team will be tired and banged up. SC will also have played 7 straight, but only one road game prior to Starkville. Honestly, this is a toss up for me but I'm leaning against the Dogs. I just don't feel good about it.
Bama: They have more talent and are just plain better than us. I think it's close. I think it's physical. I think the Tide leaves Starkville relieved to escape with a win, but they will escape with a win.
So that's it. Even though State will be better than last year, better than any Bulldog team in over a decade, I think 8-4 is what we're gonna get. The schedule is tougher than last year with the more winnable games on the road and the brutes at home. And the SEC competition just gets tougher every year. Yes, there isn't a game on the schedule that State can't win and I think there is a legitimate chance at 10 or 11 regular season wins without batting an eye. Yes, we will be in the West race. But I just don't think we are at that point yet. In any other conference State is top 2. Not in this one.
Look out for Tennessee-Martin as a trap game. No one is talking about it but State will be set up here. They will be returning from a tough win at Kentucky and looking forward to a war with Bama. It's homecoming, which means distractions. Hopefully, Mullen has that one circled.
I expect Saulsberry, Carmon and Charles Mitchell to get drafted (and Relf of course). Maye will gel into a defensive leader and will make some big plays for us. Relf shatters the single season passing record and becomes the first QB I can remember to Three-Peat Ole Miss, and he takes home the Conerly. There will probably be a 1000 yard receiver, and it may not even be Bumphis. Robert Eliot will surprise with some significant contributions to the offense, and Cam Lawrence emerges as a big-time defensive player. Ferlando Bohanna and Damien Robinson will be two guys we don't say much about now but will talk a lot about at the end of the season. And the secondary sets a new season record for INTs. Mullen will be rumored in several coaching vacancies but I don't think he's going anywhere.
State WILL win a game they're not supposed to, either against Auburn, LSU, SC, or Bama. And they will probably be back in a New Years Day bowl, my guess is the Cotton Bowl in a rematch with future SEC rival Texas A&M.