Firing Up Zombies and H-O-R-S-E-Ing Around

J.C. Brignone

Never mind Halloween Week was just around the corner and a full moon was overhead. J.C. Brignone was not happy with what he was seeing Saturday night. "We were kind of dead out there, kind of like a bunch of zombies running around," he said of Mississippi State's first half against UAB. "So I figured we'd get a fire started."

Not to scorch any zombies, mind. The senior center only hoped to help ignite the Bulldog offense to better efforts. Then again, Brignone's internal thermometer had hit the boiling point already, with a knee sprain keeping him out of the second half at Houston and the entire Florida victory. So after seeing Mississippi State muster just 103 yards in a 10-10 intermission tie, this guy was about to burst.

"I couldn't stand it, staying on the sideline and not able to play. I couldn't sit there any more at halftime and see my team kind of struggle. Coach Hevesy kept telling me to warm up; I was to the point I didn't want to warm up any more, I just wanted to get in the game! So I went and talked to Coach Mullen and he was fine with that."

Putting Brignone back on the field was a fine move indeed, as behind the re-assembled starting offensive line State immediately punched out a 63-yard touchdown drive and went on to add four more field goals out of the next five series. It proved just enough to stave off upset and extend the MSU winning streak to five…as well as the original season target of six overall wins.

"We're bowl eligible and like Coach Mullen says that's a 500-pound gorilla off our back," Brignone said. "And we've been wanting to be bowl eligible this year and go to a good bowl."

Whether or not State would have survived the UAB scare without the senior center can't be known; but the fact is the offense performed far better when Brignone returned after an eight-quarter exile. Not that the senior center takes the credit; he thought Quentin Saulsberry was doing just fine snapping to QB Chris Relf. Something else was the issue.

"We just needed a little fire to start. We talk about leadership on this team." And Brignone was beyond ready to get back in the line-lead. He dressed for the Florida game and in a major emergency would have played. "I was OK to play last week but they were trying to hold me out. I was OK in my own head." In the heart was another matter.

"I probably almost spun the spokes off that practice bike because I was so warm!" he said of his evening in Gainesville. "If I had played I would have had a chance to hurt myself for the rest of the season." Happily the revised line was able to take the fight to Florida and emerge with a milestone 10-7 win, which Brignone celebrated just as loudly and proudly despite a clean uniform.

"I felt great. Winning is good, it always makes your body feel a lot better. And for the last five games my body has been feeling pretty good!" The fact remains Mullen clearly hoped State could get through the UAB game without needing either Brignone or Tobias Smith, resting each for this week. As it turned out Brignone was required…though regardless of the scoreboard Saturday he might have found a way onto the field.

"Every guy wants to play no matter what. I'm in my senior year, I already missed a game, the guys won and did great but the only part I could play was getting the guys ready. That hurt me, I couldn't take it another minute. I had to help my guys out and I was going to tell Coach Mullen whatever I had to!"

Not that the boss needed a lot of convincing. "It helps with leadership, because when you take out your center you get a trickle-down effect," Mullen said. "I thought (substitute guard) Mark Melichar played fairly well. But J.C. just brings that consistency back to the line. Then you hope you're getting Tobias back this weekend."

Brignone said it's not just getting the same fivesome on the field, it is regaining the ‘flow' they had in previous games and deleting mental mistakes; particularly a series of false starts on the line. "We put ourselves in bad situations, third-and-longs and second-and-longs we're not usually in." Fortunately State overcame problems whether self-caused or from UAB's aggressive play.

There is no such margin for similar errors against Kentucky though. Brignone has been in three Dog-Kat fights and knows what his unit can expect in round four.

"They're big on trying to stop you. Their big guys up front are going to play you man on man, and their d-line looks really good. We played most of them last year. So it's going to be a good game, just like it was last year. But as I always say we're going to hope to rush for four or five hundred yards; well, that's what the offensive line hopes to do!" Not, the center agrees, that the Bulldogs couldn't stand some upgrades in the passing game going into a four-SEC-game stand.

"Yeah, it's great hitting a pass for 30, 40 yards. But you can't beat just hitting somebody in the face and knowing you're the reason your running back is 30 yards down the field and just broke a tackle and got another 15 yards."

Brignone also intends to be full-speed by Saturday, saying he was a little sore after UAB…but that is far, far better than watching from the sideline. Or even observing practice, because Bulldogs get no slack cut for injuries. Not from Matt Balis. "It's the worst thing in the world because you go through more pain working out than you do at practice! They make you pay for being hurt!" Nor does a lineman go to John Hevesy for sympathy in such cases. "I don't think that word is in his vocabulary! So I wouldn't say too sympathetic. He knew I was injured but at the same time he wanted me back. He gave it to me every day."

The Bulldogs know that though bowl eligibility has been earned, nothing else is being given them at this point. Qualifying is good, Brignone said; now the goal rises to scoring as high-profile a holiday date as they can.

"It's in our hands, and I think each game we've been a better team. Now we have to play better than we did against UAB; and we have to play better against Alabama than we do against Kentucky. We have to pick our game up each game if we want to go to a big bowl."

HORSING AROUND: Dan Mullen is all about competition, including practices where jobs are won and lost and re-won almost series by series. That extends to the specialists as well, and particularly this 2010 season when there is so little separating placekickers Derek DePasquale and Sean Brauchle. But, in-season practice weeks don't have a lot of periods devoted to actual placekicks, not until it gets nearer game day itself.

So, how do these specialists stay sharp early in the week? "There's the competitive part where we're talking mess with each other in practice," DePasquale reports. "And we play a lot of h-o-r-s-e." No, not with a roundball and hoop; with the regulation pigskin and goalposts. "One person picks a spot randomly," said DePasquale, and the game is on. "It's fun, we get the younger guys in on it too to show them the level we're at."

The spotting is not necessarily anything like what would be attempted in a real game, either. DePasquale said kicks get tried from way off on a sideline, or from behind a trash can, or most anywhere somebody dares take a shot. "It gets pretty exciting," he said, adding the gimmick kicks are more often used to make up ground. "I've got some tricks up my sleeve when I'm losing!"

And what does the boss say about such h-o-r-s-e-ing around. "Yeah, we might need to take that off the record!" said DePasquale, realizing he'd just blown the specialists squad's cover. Even better, "There are punishments at the end if you lose, the winner picks the punishment. It gets pretty brutal!"

Of course for much of the season that could be said of State's placekicking, as after seven games DePasquale and Brauchle were just 3-of-8 combined. This was an entirely unexpected drop-off from pretty fair 2009 production by both (Brauchle kicked the first half of the season before a leg injury with DePasquale taking the rest of the schedule). Mullen said he never questioned the duo's talents, but both were in a slump.

Saturday against UAB, though, DePasquale emphatically broke out, providing State's margin of victory with three field goals in the fourth quarter. And, tying the program record with five field goals total. Mullen didn't decide who was going to attempt the kicks until warm-ups, based he said on DePasquale showing a quicker get-off time.

It was a great relief to DePasquale to go 5-of-5, yet he takes nothing for granted this week. "He'll come to us before the game and ask us how we feel our distance is, about the wind and stuff. Really he just kind of gauges our confidence. He's probably a lot smarter than I think he is! I'm sure he's looking and reading into our physical and mental state more than we think." Nor does either specialist take the pick too personally. In fact, "Sean and I hung out Sunday night and talked about the game, about the upcoming week," DePasquale said.

Mullen doesn't just watch his kickers prior to games. The coach does take practice time to address any issues that crop up, and DePasquale said there have been a few adjustments made this season. "It's just like in school when you calculate problems," the engineering major said. "If there's something you do wrong you can go back and fix it down the line. And it works out."

"The biggest thing he's helped me with is he likes to eliminate the little jab-step we have, the little prep step we take before the main strides. I've been working on it. It's tough to change up completely but to slowly make it smaller and smaller has helped me out a lot. A lot of good kickers don't have jab-step, I still have a small one but it's nothing like it used to be."

DePasquale's longest kick Saturday was a 43-yarder, and he hit from 48 last fall while going 10-of-12 for '09. There is leg for more, he said.

"My longest, snap to kick? 62. Just messing around, about 65 with a small wind I guess. I've had some hurricane gusts where I'm back to about 70, but I won't count that!"

Be certain though that when he, Brauchle, and others head to the open practice field and begin the next round of h-o-r-s-e scores are being kept. Still, one wonders…what exactly are the punishments meted out to losing kicker/holder/snapper? "We can talk about it without those things!" DePasquale said, pointing at reporter's recorders.

INJURY UPDATES: As noted, OC Brignone played half a game on his still-healing left knee, and only reported soreness afterwards. TB Vick Ballard (ankle) sat out the UAB game as a precaution, since Mullen said straight-ahead speed was no problem but lateral moves were a concern. "He went with the ones on Sunday," the coach reported today, as did Brignone.

"We're still kind of protecting (OG) Tobias Smith," Mullen said. "We expect him to practice Tuesday. (CB) Damein Anderson did a lot of agilities with Matt Balis. Hopefully we go into this game healthier than last week."

PLACE YOUR ORDERS: With Mississippi State now eligible for bowl selection, the Ticket Office is accepting advance orders for tickets to the nine postseason events contractually linked to the SEC. That includes a generic ‘BCS Bowl Game' on the list, which would typically mean the Sugar Bowl not otherwise listed.

Seat locations and price levels are allocated by member rank in the Bulldog Club priority system, and based on bowl demand limits can be placed on large orders. Ticket orders must be received by December 1 at 4:30, and no refunds or cancellations will be accepted after December 10.

The ticket prices, or ranges, are: Franklin American Music City $60-$80; AutoZone Liberty $50; Chick-fil-A $80; Outback $70-$150; Capital One $80; Gator $60-$125; AT&T Cotton $125-$200; Birmingham $50; and BCS Bowl $65-$255. If an order cannot be filled at the highest price level the Ticket Office will fill it in the next-best available seats and adjust the charge accordingly.

Contact 1-888-GO-DAWGS to place ticket orders.

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