This is the Bulldog theme of the week as #24-ranked (both polls) Mississippi Sate marks its first ranked week in nigh-on a decade by…well, by playing the next game. That would be Alabama-Birmingham this Saturday evening at 6:00, when the Bulldogs address two pieces of October business.
First, to score a fifth-consecutive victory, something not seen in these parts for over a decade; 1999 to be exact. In fact Coach Dan Mullen’s first Bulldog team did not win consecutive games period. Now year-two has produced four straight victories including a pair of SEC successes. The latest, 10-7 at Florida, made State 5-2, 2-2 SEC, and pushed the program into the polls for the first time since September 2001.
And, obviously, the first time for every Dog on this roster. “It’s one of those things that we really wanted to do,” said senior WLB K.J. Wright. “We’re finally getting a little recognition in the country. We just can’t get the big-head, we’ve got to keep focused and doing what we’re doing and winning. Just keep this win streak going.”
Doing so this week would address the other piece of pressing business: bowl eligibility. State would achieve post-season by late Saturday evening and achieve another 2010 team goal before October is out. From then on these Dogs would be playing to climb the bowl-berth ladder.
So, how to keep his club from enjoying their sudden celebrity too much, too long? “We just keep pushing them,” Mullen said. Beginning with a rather vigorous Sunday weight workout in conjunction with the regular day-after-game practice.
“Yeah, Coach (Matt) Balis did pretty good on us!” Ballard reported.
RUNNING AND ROLEING: Ballard himself did a pretty good number on Florida’s defense, muscling for 98 net yards on a season-most 20 carries. Looking at the stat sheet immediately afterwards Mullen commented “98?! He shouldn’t have hurt himself on that last drive, he’d have gotten his 100.” Ballard had 119 and 134 yards the previous two games.
Ballard was re-taped after his final tote, a three-yard gain on 2nd-and-2 that produced State’s final first down of the evening in a nine-play drive eating 5:50 off the fourth quarter clock. Monday he wore a protective boot on the left ankle. “To keep it from being sore. The last play I was in, I don’t remember exactly but I know I fell and somebody fell on it. I’ll be alright though.”
He’s alright as well with the fact that for the first time this first State season, he did not score a touchdown. Ballard went into the Florida game leading the SEC in scoring with a dozen total touchdowns; now he finds himself in a first-place tie with South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Auburn’s Cameron Newton, quality company indeed. Newton has one more rushing TD than Ballard.
“I didn’t score and I didn’t care,” Ballard said. “It was a team win. I was just happy for our team and it was a step for our program.”
Speaking of steps, Ballard took some different moves when for the first time he lined up as the lone Dog in the backfield to take the direct snap. “I felt pretty comfortable. I practiced it before so I was kind of used to it.” Not only that but Ballard liked playing ‘quarterback’ for a change of pace. “It takes away some of the thinking, because on some of my run plays you’re got certain steps you have to take. Being a quarterback I just take the ball and go!”
Note, he said ‘go’ and not ‘throw’. And for the record Ballard said during Florida game week he never once practiced tossing the ball.
“Nah, I don’t even attempt to do it!” Though, he added, “In high school I threw a couple of halfback passes.” Just don’t look for Ballard to turn tosser at this level, much less walk up to the line and start barking out blocking directions. The chances of that are, well, “Probably zero.”
Of course the chances of Ballard getting back into an end zone near you this weekend are much, much higher. He is netting almost 74 yards per game this overall season and 6.6 each time he totes…which is not a lot compared to the usual SEC feature tailback. Mullen likes rotating his tailbacks though 20 rushes at Gainesville showed who the coach and coordinator Les Koenning have the most confidence in when the game gets really physical.
For that matter QB Chris Relf had 22 rushes in the game and only a couple of those were scrambles. By contrast rotation TB LaDarius Perkins only rushed once, for five yards, though he was on the field many of the plays Relf called his own number.
“We wanted Vick in there,” Koenning explained. “LaDarius came in at times. You have to remember, too, you’re playing in an environment with kids who’ve never been in that. Ladarius has done some great things but being in that environment was a great educational experience for him. And for a lot of guys.”
Perkins has taken a direct snap of his own this season, as has WR Chad Bumphis. Thus Mississippi State does not have a definitely designated ‘wild’ back as is the case with most teams. In fact, Mullen doesn’t even acknowledge a title for the role.
“Nah, it’s not even called the wildcat,” Ballard reported. “It’s called ‘special’.”
PRACTICE SCHEDULE: After taking the usual Monday-off, Mississippi State returns to practice this afternoon. Tuesday is the heaviest contact day of the work week as well, and following it Mullen will be asked to update the status of SS Charles Mitchell (concussion) and OC J.C. Brignone (knee). The media access schedule has offensive players available following practice.