From The Dawghouse

It was a year ago Tuesday and I'd just had a quick Q&A with Dan Mullen. While awaiting presentation of the Conerly Trophy in casual conversation, I mentioned a trivia tid-bit; that he'd just become only the third Mississippi State coach in seven decades to win his debut against Ole Miss. Mullen paused, half-grinned, and responded with these exact words: "Who's the last to win his first two?"

Well, now we all know the answer to that question. The new answer that is. It's Mullen. And by ‘all' I do mean everyone on all sides of this eternal intrastate squabble we know and at times love as the Battle for the Golden Egg. We here on the winning Mississippi State side know it, and so do the losers.

Not, I ought to add, that Ole Miss played like losers last night. I thought their defensive gameplan was excellent, if also obvious given how the Bulldogs prefer to play their offensive game. And while Rebeldom will debate for a long, long time whether the Great Masoli Gamble really paid off (what difference in 1-7 and 0-8 SEC, seriously?) against program image issues and even recruiting risks, do give the guy credit for being a splendid playmaker…at times. Mostly times the former Duck isn't ducking hits, since as Bulldog linebacker Chris White noted last night he does not like contact. Adds some spice to final voting for the Conerly this year with White and Masoli contending for the state's top collegian, eh?

Yet I have to ponder today, if the candidate pool were expanded, whether it would be Mississippi State's quarterback drawing most media voting support. Really, is there a greater success story this season than what one Chris Relf has done with himself and for the Bulldogs? This is not to downplay at all the core of Mississippi State's offense, that being the gritty offensive line…which I hope observers observed was made up entirely of Mississippi natives. Yep, all five starters and the one rotator guard, every one a home state product winning their home state's greatest gridiron prize. Somewhere Sylvester Croom should be smiling since he signed five of these guys.

The former coach also took a scholarship chance on a lightly-regarded quarterback in Montgomery, an obvious athlete but with essentially no developed skills or college-type system experience. It's worth asking this morning: where would the Bulldogs be without Relf? Or more in the current context, how would the last two Egg Bowls have turned out? We know: losses. Look at Relf's numbers in these two rivalry brawls: 528 total yards and six touchdowns thrown or run for…and he had a seventh TD taken away last night by a hold on the utter opposite side of the field.

Of course we must also point out that while one regime risked a grant on Relf, it took this coach and staff to turn his talents into yards, points, wins. So instead of becoming yet another what-if Bulldog quarterback, Chris Relf can achieve legendary Golden Egg stature. And who'd have ever thunk back in August 2006 that this guy would have the chance to win three Egg Bowls, something I can't find any Dog triggerman doing since the 40s? (Derrick Taite and Wayne Madkin were on teams that won three times but both only played in two such victories)? I suspect today there's quite a bit of quarterback-crow being consumed by more than a few State fans with their Thanksgiving leftovers.

And, probably smiling. I know I am, sitting here still weary—I didn't shut down until 4:20 this ayem and neither did a few thousand of y'all judging by message board counters—but happy. And, I might add, wearing my still-crisp 1999 Peach Bowl teeshirt. You know, before the chikin folk took over, and I'm not complaining at all as I much prefer fried fowl to syrupy fruit. No Dog can claim ‘happiest' status about last night since all share in such success; that's what arch-rivalries are about. But Jack D'Arcy of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl might have been the most relieved MSU man in the house, since he could attend the winning press conference as hoped. Even ask a question, which us perfeshunal scribes didn't mind.

Well, check that ‘most relieved' note. I happened to spend the last Dog defensive series beside Dr. Mark Keenum and didn't notice him breathing for nearly 90 clock-seconds. When Corey Broomfield and White finished off Masoli on fourth down the president finally exhaled…as did everyone else on the State sideline from Mullen to mascot handler. In fact, Champ might have been the calmest hound in the house.

So. Barring any most unexpected development this week we're heading for Atlanta. And about the only obstacle between MSU and the Georgia Dome would be South Carolina getting so badly plucked by Auburn that the Outback lost interest in that particular chikin and went instead for an entertaining team run by a hot young coach. Though I was born in Tampa, the combination of climate control on New Years Eve and a couple of downtown rooms already reserved in walking distance of the Dome takes preference.

Then there is the easy opinioning angle of Mullen and Atlanta, irresistible to us writers. As I noted a few weeks back, Dan Mullen was picked to take over State after an all-night interview by Greg Byrne in that Atlanta hotel. And the MSU coach has pronounced Atlanta as his ultimate objective more often than General Sherman. Last night Dan beat me to the post-game punch, too, as before I could bring it up he joked how State was going to Atlanta alright, just a few weeks later than wanted.

Yet y'know…based on how the Bulldogs have played this year, Mullen and MSU might not have to wait a whole lot longer to reach that earlier-December date in the Dome.

I don't merely mean based on last night's performance, though it was absolutely impressive for some underappreciated reasons. See, State was not near full-offensive speed at Oxford. We did very well to get that one huge catch out of Chad Bumphis as it was (and had Relf dropped the ball in to him on the same pattern, previous quarter, I have to think a Bulldog blowout would have resulted). The collarbone break sidelined the best downfield threat.

Then Relf himself hurt a hamstring, and Vick Ballard got banged up as well. Right there, the top three offensive threats all either out or gimpy, against a defense ideally designed to shut down the ground game. So, how to respond? This is where Mullen, and we have to add Les Koenning and the rest of the offensive staff, showed why they can be a special group. They deleted or at least deemphasized some of the usual attack aspects and applied what was available.

That being one LaDarius Perkins. He came in with just 29 SEC game carries for 114 yards; he left Oxford after rattling the unready Rebels for 13 runs, 98 yards. And as a receiver Perkins was spectacular turning three short tosses into 140 yards and two touchdowns. Know what he'd done before in SEC play? Two catches, 13 yards. Any other MSU coach and today fans would be fuming about ‘not getting this guy involved' in the gameplan.

Yet it seems our folk are learning, just as with Relf, this coach knows what he's doing, and more to the point why…and why not. It's also further proof of what Mullen preaches to players, that everyone must prepare as if their moment can come at any time and be ready, totally, to perform given opportunity. Perkins did last night. Relf has for most of the season. And so on.

Nor can we bypass Bulldog defense here at schedule's end. Yes, there remain a few less-than-satisfactory issues for Manny Diaz to address before year-two here. But I do also add that tackling and coverage problems this year were as much due to the caliber of opponents as any individual faults. And for sure the stopping was much more satisfactory last night; the longest Rebel play went 28 yards.

I'd get further into the defensive deeds, and devote further space to special teams work. Take a bow, Sean Brauchle, for two kickoff tackles. But first, it'd run even longer than my own endless prose tends to on Sundays…and I'm very tired. Must be true that turkey has doping-qualities to it.

But even a dopey old editor can see some mighty intriguing possibilities for State in 2011, if the development pace Mullen has wrought with Relf and runners continues as it should. No coach simply replaces a Derek Sherrod of course, and J.C. Brignone has been a sound center. Both also leave with 3-1 Egg Bowl records too, as this 4th and 5th year class does what hasn't been done by Dogs since 1998-2001. But I like how the line should re-assemble in spring and maybe Quentin Saulsberry will get the All-SEC respect he deserves in late-summer voting. State also gets Marcus Green back (oh, if only he can stay healthy as a senior!) and Bumphis should be good to go. The way Chris Smith and Arceto Clark stepped up bodes quite well, too.

Defensively, yes, Pernell McPhee will be missed, and he'll be a great case for numbers-crunchers how stats can lie: a guy with just two sacks all season was still a superb pass-rusher…and not a bad post-sack prancer though his timing wasn't the smartest yestereve. The secondary is only going to get better, but replacing White and K.J. Wright is another matter. Of course it says something when the ‘weak' point on a State spring team is at linebacker, since those can be recruited.

The larger point remains: with what State has coming back, as well as what younger personnel is just being tapped and what more is in the redshirt pipeline, the Bulldogs are on the verge of contention for bigger things. Don't think Mullen & Co. aren't pointing this out to intrigued prospects, especially those who would fill the lone glaring gap in the arsenal: truly fast, big play wide receivers. That more than anything would make MSU a serious SEC offense. Well, along with a couple of returners capable of striking on any and every kick.

Fill this wish-list, and suddenly Atlanta ambitions are that much closer for Mullen and Mississippi State. Until then, though, we'll have a satisfactory celebration as a fitting finish to the 2010 calendar…and a kickoff to the next phase for Bulldog football.

Speaking of which... Joe Galbraith, who is even more weary than any writer after a four-month grind, is working on a Mullen meet sometime after the Monday/Tuesday trips to Jackson for awards ceremonies. Yes, I'll be at the Rubenshrine Tuesday where hopefully White gets his due, and if his acceptance speech is as brief as Anthony Dixon's last year I doubt it'll be as entertaining. And we'll have the official bowl-blessing this weekend. I asked Scott Stricklin last night if it could be done earlier, no luck.

Oh, and if any doubted…the countdown clock to Egg Bowl 2011 is already operating, when Mullen goes for the rivalry trifecta. Anyone care to be against him now?

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