In the Elk Mountain area of Colorado, just southwest of Aspen, stand two 14,000-ft. high mountains. Reaching into the sky right next to each other, the peaks considered to be Colorado’s most-photographed spot are called the Maroon Bells.
Unlike most of the granite and limestone mountains making up the Rockies, the Maroon Bells are made from a sedimentary mudstone, giving these peaks a distinctive maroon hue in the right light. Except in the winter, of course, when the 14-ers are blanketed in white snow.
Between their color and their names, Mississippi State fans and their maroon and white cowbells may have a natural appreciation for the mountain vacation spot. In fact, if you look from the right place, the Maroon Bells along with Maroon Lake (an aquatic field carved from glaciers in the Ice Age) look like a rocky version of Davis Wade Stadium with its new north endzone and grandstands lining the field.
As pretty as the view is, though, the Bells are equally dangerous. A sign at the bottom of the peaks refers to them as the “deadly bells” which “kill without warning.” Further along the passage of warning, the Bells are referred to as “unbelievably deceptive,” which is where MSU and its football team come back in.
The Bells are far from the biggest mountains in the Rockies, but the pair is certainly among the most dangerous for those who wander across their path. Failing to take them as a serious threat generally comes with negative results.
Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson have earned similar warnings to those who confront them. The Bulldogs junior quarterback and junior running back, respectively, have formed a near-impossible-to-stop duo for Dan Mullen’s team. Both are incredibly difficult to bring down as runners, and Prescott’s development as a passer has made him even more dangerous.
Combined, Prescott and Robinson have 3,439 yards and 36 touchdowns out of MSU’s backfield in only seven games.
Much of it, those around them say, is because they’re so good. But, as opposing coaches and players have said, part of it is just because they’re so difficult to defend.
When Prescott gets the snap, is he handing it off, throwing it, or running it? If he’s supposed to throw it, will he eventually see an opening and decide to keep it for himself anyway? If he does hand it off, what are the odds Prescott goes downfield to catch a pass, which he’s done several times the last two years? Then, of course, there’s the option game, where Prescott and Robinson are both running at a defense who has no idea who will ultimately take the ball upfield and is plenty fearful of both.
Prescott has four games this season with at least 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards, twice as many as anyone else in the country.
Then there’s Robinson by himself, who can almost never be brought down on first contact. And often the second, third and even fourth guy to arrive fall short of tackling MSU’s “Bowling Ball.”
Against Kentucky last week, the blue jerseys looked like they had him surrounded on the left sideline. Instead, Robinson shrugged off a handful of defenders, switched field and powered his way 22 yards for a first down on the right sideline. That’s part of the problem, too. You never what direction he’ll take, and even if you do, there’s no guaranteeing he doesn’t change it at the last second.
Then, of course, there’s the play-action game, delayed handoffs, reverses, pitches, screen passes and the like. All while also accounting for the litany of big-bodied and speedy receivers and tight ends MSU has running around downfield.
What’s a defense supposed to do?
“It’s something to new to me,” MSU’s junior offensive guard Justin Malone said. “I’ve never seen a quarterback like Dak combine with somebody like Josh and be able to do the things that they do together. You don’t know whether you have to deal with Josh running around and hitting you and having to bring him down, or Dak passing the ball, running the ball. It’s things they have to be ready for. It’s a lot of help for us because it’s hard to stop.”
MSU co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy said simply, “It gives you opportunities to do a lot of different things.”
Through that multi-talented duo, MSU is the only team in the country to have two players with 10 rushing touchdowns, as Prescott and Robinson each have exactly 10.
Prescott is the only quarterback in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing yards, checking in at No. 7 with his 664 yard total. Of course, the guy with the top spot is Robinson, who leads all SEC rushers with 887 yards (and an impressive 7.3 yards per carry).
“They’re capitalizing on their bell cows,” Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said, “Prescott and [Robinson].”
His Razorbacks, the only other team with two rushers in the top 10 in the conference, have to try and corral MSU’s stars this weekend, something no one has yet been able to do.
Studying State’s offense, Bielema’s picked up how Mullen can take a basic formation and turn into something surprisingly dangerous.
“They do a lot of spacing with their personnel,” he said. “They run a lot of 11 personnel (three widoeuts and one tight end). They line ‘em up in empty, they line ‘em up in traditional 11 formation, but also with the tight end flexed out so it looks like a four wideout set.”
And that’s just what happens before the snap. Once the ball gets into Prescott’s hands, Bielema says, the battle really starts.
“He breaks tackles, he makes people miss, he runs with his shoulder pads down. I think in the throw game, they use his skill-set very well,” he said. “Whether it’s on the move or play-action, they allow him to do some things. And I think the third thing is he’s just playing with great confidence. You can tell by the way he carries himself and the way players rally around him.”
Malone spends the better part of his life in practice and in games blocking for Prescott and Robinson, recognizing the nuances of protecting both from defenders. With most quarterbacks, he said, offensive linemen know they just have to protect 4-6 seconds and the ball will be out. With Prescott?
“If something happens, he’s going to extend the play, and I have to stay on that block. Could be 10 seconds, could be 20. But also, if something does break down, we know Dak can get out of there.”
And blocking for Robinson? The awareness needed to block for him is almost on par with the talent needed to tackle him.
“Other running backs, if there’s not a hole, they’re probably gonna take a loss or they’re going try to bounce things outside,” Malone said. “Josh, if there’s not a hole, he’ll try to run right through my back and he’s powerful enough to do it. When I get on my block, I’ve gotta move my man out of the hole. Otherwise, Josh is gonna move me out of the hole. He’s gonna create the hole and create space for himself.”
Both did well in spot appearances early in their careers, but now that they’ve taken full-time roles together, State’s duo of Prescott and Robinson has become as impressive and dangerous as the Maroon Bells in Colorado.
“They kind of feed off one another, I think,” Bielema said.
The good news for the Bulldogs, though, is they only have to face MSU’s bell cows in practice.
As one Colorado hiking guide described the Bells, “They’re dog-friendly!”