Just how do the Mississippi State football team’s offense and defense feel after the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage of 2021 on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium?
“Both sides have plenty to be happy with,” coach Mike Leach said. “Both sides have plenty to be pissed about.”
Typically, Leach said, that makes for a pretty good scrimmage, and Saturday’s tilt on the bright green grass of Scott Field was no different.
The Bulldogs ran out three full units on offense and defense in a loosely officiated intrasquad competition that featured the lack of punts, phantom first downs and yardage sleight of hand without which spring football could never seem complete. Drives were seemingly required to end in touchdowns or field goals, and when one series quickly resulted in six points, the same players took the field again to run it back from the 40-yard line.
Still, after more than three months, football was being played, and that was enough.
“We were able to go out there with three units, and it still looked like football,” Leach said.
Here’s how Leach evaluated the Bulldogs’ performance in Saturday’s scrimmage in five key areas.
Four different signal callers took the field for the Bulldogs offense Saturday. Sophomore Will Rogers, Southern Miss graduate transfer Jack Abraham, senior South Alabama transfer Chance Lovertich and freshman Daniel Greek entered in that order for Mississippi State.
“I saw improvement in all of them, and I thought it was good to see Jack and Chance in more of a live situation,” Leach said.
Rogers, who ended the 2020 season as the Bulldogs’ starter, went 18 of 27 for 190 yards in four “drives” Saturday. He tossed a touchdown pass on the first series and was intercepted by senior linebacker Tyrus Wheat on the second.
“I thought Will did some good things consistently,” Leach said. “He had a pick he’d like to have back, I’m sure, but then I thought really operated the offense pretty well.”
Lovertich was 14 of 19 for 112 yards, and Abraham went 4 for 9 for 42 yards and a touchdown.
Greek was 7 of 9 for 46 yards and a touchdown, and Leach praised the play of the freshman from Argyle, Texas.
“I would say that was one of the more impressive freshman debut performances I’ve seen,” Leach said. “I thought he played really well. A lot of times those guys, they’ll try to make too much happen and then all of a sudden just because they’re anxious what’s in their head goes out the window, but I didn’t think he did. I thought he played within himself and (was) just very methodical, meticulous going down the field.”
After Saturday’s scrimmage, Leach praised the Bulldogs for their gang tackling on defense and their ability to force several “sacks” (as soon as any defender got within a few feet of a green-clad quarterback, the play was whistled dead to avoid contact).
“I thought they did a good job of pressuring the quarterback — that’s kind of their identity, but I thought they did a good job of that,” Leach said.
He said all three units of the Bulldogs’ defense held their own against Mississippi State’s air raid offense.
“At key times I thought they rose up, but I thought a few key times the offense did, too,” Leach said. “They played together pretty well.”
True to form, the Bulldogs didn’t rush the ball much Saturday, but sophomore running backs Jo’quavious “Woody” Marks and Dillon Johnson were effective in multiple roles.
“That’s the ultimate warrior position,” Leach said. “They run block. They pass protect. They rush the ball. They catch the ball. You’re wanting them to be able to do a lot of things, and both of those guys can.”
Marks had six carries for 15 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown tote, and caught a pass for nine yards. Johnson had just four carries for 7 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown run, but he was utilized plenty as a checkdown option in the passing game with 11 catches for 96 yards.
“I thought Dillon runs with power and second effort and that type of thing when he finishes his runs, so I think that’s good to see,” Leach said. “Woody’s kind of elusive and catches the ball really well — very smooth when he catches the ball.”
Redshirt senior Brandon Ruiz, redshirt junior Scott Goodman and redshirt freshmen Aidan Martin and Nolan McCord received reps at placekicker in Saturday’s scrimmage.
The four kickers capped the Bulldogs’ drives with extra-point and field-goal tries, all of which were 36 yards or longer. Although not every attempt went through the uprights, Leach said his kickers are improving in minor but important areas: striking the ball, getting holds down consistently and perfecting their footwork on field goals.
“It’s all those little things that make the other stuff happen, so I think they’re embracing the importance of it and improving at it,” Leach said.
West Point graduate Scott Lashley received reserve reps at right tackle Saturday. Leach said the grad transfer from Alabama has enhanced his game and is ready to compete for a starting spot.
“We didn’t get to see a lot of him last year, but I think he’s steadily improved,” Leach said. “In particular, he had a pretty good offseason, which I think paved the way for some of that. I think he’s getting better every day, and it’s good to see.”
Leach said all five offensive line positions are still somewhat up for grabs this early in the year as the Bulldogs work to pick out their best options for the starting unit as well as seven or eight key reserves.
“We’re still trying to identify who the best five are,” Leach said.