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MSU football succeeds with direct approach

 

David Miller

 

STARKVILLE -- No pass, no problem.  

 

The Mississippi State football team''s commitment to the running game reached its defining moment Saturday in a 10-7 landmark win against then-No. 22 University of Florida. 

 

MSU stayed true to its identity as the league''s defending rushing king, pounding its way to 212 yards on 49 of 58 plays.  

 

It''s no secret the No. 24 Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) are a run-first, play-action offense, but not too many teams win college football games -- much less SEC games -- with 33 passing yards.  

 

Such was the case at Florida, where at one point in the second half the Bulldogs ran the ball 23 straight times. 

 

It was an incredibly direct approach, even by MSU standards. 

 

"Going back and watching film, we were maybe a little conservative," MSU coach Dan Mullen said Sunday.  

 

For a program that has aimed to balance the offense, the coaches don''t mind sticking with the formula that led to their biggest win since Mullen''s arrival before the start of the 2009 season. 

 

Mullen said Florida''s outstanding secondary and his team''s ability to run the ball dictated the game plan. 

 

"You''re playing the number one secondary in the United States of America," Mullen said. "Every game they''ve won they''ve won by scoring on defense and making big plays on the defensive side of the ball. It doesn''t make much sense to play into their strongest hand and get away from our strength." 

 

MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said Florida''s defense opted to play man-up and didn''t bring an extra defender into the box, which allowed greater flexibility in the formations the Bulldogs could run the ball. 

 

"We felt like the mismatches inside were the way we needed to win the game," Koenning said. "They weren''t outmatching us in the box, so we had some formation deals we did to them that helped us, too. If they were doing different things, we would have went to other things, too. But because those things were working for us, we stayed with it. And we were getting first downs and our kids were executing.  

 

"Sometimes, you try to trick somebody and you trick yourself." 

 

It''s hard to argue the methods used to beat a top-25 team, but MSU''s unwillingness to test Florida through the air again shined a light on an area it has had mixed results the past two seasons.  

 

The receiver position fields four sophomores and a freshman, and the group took a hit when senior Leon Berry was ruled out for the year due to a ankle surgery.  

 

The trust in the passing game -- at least in pressure-packed road games -- isn''t yet there for Mullen, whose disposition is further complicated by a clock-burning, stick-moving ground game.  

 

Mullen feels the wide receiver group has to mature into a consistent, mistake-free unit, though he''s satisfied with the growth of those players. 

 

"Everyone has to do their job," he said. "If we''re gonna need to throw the ball a lot more, they''re gonna have to run better routes and catch the football. If we''re gonna run it, they have to block. They have to align right, catch pitches right, and take care of the football. It''s just a very, very young group. I like the way they''re maturing." 

 

MSU wideouts are vital to the team''s rushing success, as the team runs a deep array of multiple-receiver sets. The difference in playing time at wide receiver often comes down to run blocking more than route running.  

 

"If you''re gonna play for coach Mullen, you''re gonna have to block," receiver Chad Bumphis said. "It''s not as physical as you think. It''s more technique. You got to know how to do it, and we have so many blocking rules, like depending on which play, where you block the man to. It''s pretty complicated." 

 

Last week, cornerback Maurice Langston switched to wideout to help the team''s depth. Langston played one down against Florida and didn''t play on defense. It''s unclear how much of an impact he will have in the passing game when so much of receivers'' responsibility rests in the ground game, but Langston is absorbing as much as he can. 

 

Langston said he has practiced nearly exclusively with the offense, though Mullen said he''ll rotate on both sides of the ball. 

 

"I''ve got about three-fourths of the playbook down," Langston said. "I''m trying to learn everything. I''m not just trying to have a certain amount of plays I know I pretty much want to be in. Just like the other wide receivers, I''d like to be able to rotate." 

 

As complex as the blocking schemes might be for MSU''s wideouts, Mullen praised his receivers in that area, saying they were "physical" and he "liked the way the blocked" against Florida.  

 

Mullen said MSU''s receivers'' ire about a lack of involvement Saturday had little to do with catches. 

 

"(The frustration wasn''t) because we didn''t throw, but because they didn''t block as well as they could," Mullen said. "One guy puts the ball on the ground. They jumped offsides when they didn''t need to jump offsides. That (recognition) is what you want to see. That shows the development of them within the team." 

 

With proof the team can win with little from the passing game, Bumphis said the only thing the receivers can do is continue to impress in practice.  

 

"Whenever I did touch the ball I wanted to make sure I did something with it," Bumphis said. "You gotta do something whenever you get the chance. Just go out and make plays. That''s all coach Mullen wants." 

 

NOTE: Linebacker Chris White was named Tuesday the FWAA/Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for games of the weekend of Oct. 16. 

 

White, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior from Vancleave, had 11 tackles (nine unassisted), including four and a half for 20 yards in losses, Saturday in a 10-7 victory against then-No. 22 Florida. White also had two sacks for -16 yards. 

 

White will be added to the 2010 Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List. Five finalists will be announced on Nov. 18, and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy will be presented to the best defensive player in college football on Dec. 6 by the FWAA and the Charlotte Touchdown Club at the Westin Hotel in Charlotte, N.C.

 

 

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