Dan Mullen, his assistants and his players keep talking about execution.
It’s safe to assume they’re not referring to beheadings or trips to the gallows, but what are they actually talking about when they say “execution” was the problem in losses to Alabama and Texas A&M?
But sifting through the coachspeak and vague references, even the double rainbow guy wants to know, what does it all mean?
“All it is,” junior running back LaDarius Perkins said, “is everybody doing their job at a high level.”
So, when there’s a lack of execution, people are not doing their job at high level, it would seem.
But, according to offensive coordinator Les Koenning, it’s not players simply failing to do their jobs entirely. It’s one person being the slightest bit off. In games against top teams, the margin for error is small, and the slightest off missteps can result in the greatest of falls.
“Very, very small things become big things,” Koenning said. “You can’t be just a hair off with your route, or throwing the football, or your read. I think those are the things we’re experiencing right now. If you’re just a little bit off, it’s not near as good as it would be against Middle Tennessee or someone like that.”
At times, junior quarterback Tyler Russell’s passes may be thrown a split-second late. Or, perhaps, another split-second in the pocket spent waiting on a receiver to come open results in a sack.
“When you’re getting into these SEC games, six inches is an off throw,” Mullen said. “You have to be that accurate, to that point.”
Then again, it may be the receiver made his cut a step too soon and found himself face-to-face with a safety and in no position to catch a pass.
Those little things happen anywhere on the field. The issue, Mullen says, is not everyone being off. It only takes one player, one step, or one odd tick to throw an entire play off.
“It’s hard to narrow it down to one thing,” sophomore running back Nick Griffin said. “It’s just little things.”
“I know a lot of times, myself, I miss a few holes,” Perkins said. “I need to get better at that. [Running backs coach Greg] Knox has been practicing with us a lot, helping us find holes and making sure we keep our eyes open.”
“Stuff like, false starts,” Russell said. “Little stuff. Not converting on third downs. Staying on the field.”
The frustrating thing for the players and Koenning is taking the field on Saturday and being surprised when the mistakes happen.
In practice, they say, the game plan is carried out perfectly. If it didn’t work against themselves, Koenning said, they certainly wouldn’t try it against other people. Practice isn’t the problem.
“It’s in the game. Obviously, we don’t go into the game thinking we’re not gonna do it,” Koenning said. “It has nothing to do with the defense. It has to do with you executing the play, and it gets magnified in those situations.”
Certainly, the Bulldogs’ offense struggled with execution in the previous two games, particularly in the first half and in the red zone.
As MSU looks to the weekend and a game against No. 9 LSU, Mullen sees an opposing offense doing what he wants to do. Not the style of play or the type of players. But, again, the execution.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the Tiger offense had their best game of the season last week, despite ultimately losing, and it was against Alabama, possibly the best defense in the country.
However, Mullen isn’t surprised.
“I didn’t see them change a whole lot,” Mullen said. “I think they just executed really well.”
If his team can execute similarly, Mullen feels pretty good about his chances.
“More consistent execution of plays really is what it comes down to, on both sides of the ball,” he said.
And yes, it is both sides of the ball. Even special teams, as Mullen pointed out after the loss to Texas A&M Saturday.
Giving up 693 yards to the Aggie offense can be summed up, yet again, with that one word: execution.
“We gotta get back to basics,” defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. “Tackling, being in position to make plays, being able to get to a quarterback.”
On defense, like the offense, the execution can be thrown off by the littlest of things. The angle a linebacker takes to bring down Johnny Manziel is off only by a few degrees, but it’s the difference between a sack and 30-yard touchdown. A cornerback opts to cover a tight end, when he ought to have chased down the receiver. It can be anything.
“A little bit of everything,” senior linebacker Cam Lawrence said. “It’s hard to put your finger on one thing. Missed assignments, that’s what they’re talking about.”
On both sides of the ball, the goal is clear as MSU prepares to travel to Baton Rouge.
“Need to make sure we execute like we should this weekend,” Perkins said.
“I really feel we’re gonna get better at it,” Koenning said. “We just gotta work.”
And that’s what they’ve been doing all week. If MSU wins this weekend, it likely happens for one big reason: execution.