High Stakes For This September Dog Fight

It is only the last weekend of September. Yet as the first month of SEC season plays out, a pair of Bulldog teams find themselves already at a pivotal 2010 point. "It's a big game for both programs," Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen said. "You're looking at someone is coming out of this game with a pretty good jump-start on the rest of the season."

Neither Mississippi State nor Georgia have jumped right out here in the early season, as both bring 1-2 overall marks and 0-2 SEC records to Scott Field this Saturday (6:00, FSN telecast). There are somewhat-extenuating circumstances, per Mullen. "I know both of us obviously played tough opening schedules in conference," he said at Monday's press conference. Tough enough that MSU and Georgia alike have a pair of losses to (entirely different) teams that were top-twenty ranked and now show up even higher in the polls.

Mullen does not want to put the home game in do-or-die terms, exactly. Or, does he? "You have to be able to win your home games in the SEC," he said. "If you don't win your home games it's hard to get your program up to a championship level." With two strikes against them already both these foes are already too far behind in that race anyway. Still here in year-two Mullen keeps championships in a longer-term perspective and sets more reasonable goals for a building program.

Goals, though, that will likely require a winning outcome in this Dog-fight. "If we get out of this run 2-2, that's going to set us up to hopefully have a successful season."

Saturday's game was announced as a sellout two weeks ago, and a MSU official confirmed today that no single game tickets have become available.

INJURY UPDATE: With a Sunday practice, there was no Monday session this week. Mullen said today that both of the gimpy tight ends, Marcus Green and Brandon Henderson, were able to run Sunday while the rest of the team practiced. Green hurt his right knee during the Auburn game, and while Mullen said early last week he expected Green to play the junior did not make the trip to Baton Rouge. During the LSU game, Henderson hurt his left knee. "I really don't know how it happened, I think I played a play after it," he said today.

As for availability against Georgia, Mullen is not making the sort of firm forecast as last week. "Obviously today is the day off so we'll see where they are as far as their ability to go."

As for QB Chris Relf, the head coach said there was no concussion suffered in the third quarter helmet-to-facemask hit that sidelined the starter. "No, he got dinged," Mullen said, calling Relf "groggy coming off" after the dinging. Relf did have headsets on while watching the game play out, and Mullen repeated what he said Saturday night that Relf had been cleared to return to play. "By the time it would have been really making another decision we were in a comeback mode anyway. So I figured let's see what Tyler (Russel) can do in that situation."

LAYING IT ON THE LINEMEN: What redshirt freshman Russell did Saturday was have three of his ten passes intercepted. The five completed to the correct color jersey produced 81 yards and two of those tosses came immediately after Russell entered. The long completions put LSU's defense back on their collective heels, briefly, as Russell completed State's only touchdown drive.

After that short show of potential though, State's offense in general and passing plans in particular were just about eliminated. For his part Relf had a pair of picked passes too, out of just eight tosses. After the game Mullen said most of the five interceptions were only partly the fault of either thrower and not the biggest part either.

A day to review affirmed his post-game opinions. Yes, Relf could have led WR Arceto Clark on pick #1, though the coach also insisted Clark should have made more effort to either catch the throw or break-up the turnover. But, "The next one the offensive line flat missed the protection, Chris tried to throw it away and didn't throw it away enough," Mullen said. On #3, "Tyler checked a protection and the running back didn't get the protection check." #4? "The screen pass just a complete whiff on the running back on the protection. Two guys completely go the wrong way and the quarterback is hit as he's throwing the ball." Russell wasn't just hit, he was enveloped by three rushers and the dump attempt batted for a caught-carom." And so on during an evening Bulldog quarterbacks may want to forget…

…but can't be allowed to, along with the entire offense. "You can assign it on every single one," Mullen said today. "There's plenty of blame to go around."

Most of that blame inevitably fell on the blocking, already a problematic area after Auburn scored three sacks (all of Relf) and more hurries the week before. LSU netted just one official sack, but then interceptions are even better than baggings. Making the outcome more painful was, as OT Derek Sherrod said, "It really wasn't anything that we weren't prepared for." The senior left tackle insists State was prepared, properly, for the matchups.

"Obviously we had some breakdowns in the game. We're going to work this week to correct that and have a more consistent approach Saturday." An admirable attitude to be sure, yet more was expected from a front-five returning four all-game starters from 2009 and a talented third-fall soph finally healthy enough to take his place. Something is not clicking on the MSU side of the trench "I'm really not sure what," admits senior Sherrod.

"We have a great gameplan going in, it's just that on the field we have to be on the same page. We have a very talented team and we have the players that can make the plays. We all just have to do our job so we can make those big plays."

Mullen believes he knows where the real issue lies on this line. "For an experienced group we're just not communicating very well," he said. "Everybody is kind of taking care of themselves instead of taking care of the line. And you need all five guys to play together." This is not mere coach-speak either, because Mullen has seen positive proof what this line and thus this offense is capable of.

"In the drive we scored the other night, nine of those 13 plays the five linemen all graded an ‘S' doing the right thing for us," said Mullen, before adding a bit of sarcasm to his commentary. "It's a shock, what happens when all five offensive linemen on the same play did the right thing!"

Related to that, Mullen thought both quarterbacks were on the right page when making at-the-line changes to huddle blocking calls. Just as they are supposed to. "Being the quarterbacks they want to set the protections for us. And manage the game while they're up there. I thought, especially going on the road in that environment they did a pretty good job of handling that stuff. What happens is the line did a poor job once he checked into it, of them not making sure they were on the same page."

Which gets back to the breakdowns, first in communication and then in protection. It was not supposed to be this way, this year, agrees Sherrod.

"Coming out of camp I had all the confidence in the world. And I still have all the confidence in the world. We're a very talented offensive line, we've been working together for a while, we know what we're all capable of. We just have to bring things together." That was a top topic in Sunday's practice and will remain line job-one all week, if the boss has his say in things.

"We're talking a lot about making sure they're just communicating and everybody is on the same page to get the job done," Mullen said. "And if we get that done I do expect us to play much better on the offensive line."

STRONG RE-STARTS: The scoring drive Mullen mentioned was State's first series of the second half. It followed a September pattern; in all three games the Bulldog offense begun the third quarter with an impressive drive. Against Memphis it was 75 yards in eight plays with Russell directing; against Auburn, Relf managed a 12-snap, 63-yard series for touchdown. And at Baton Rouge both quarterbacks had a hand as Relf was knocked out (on an open-field run, not a sack) and Russell took over mid-drive to finish on 13 plays, 81 yards.

Thus the obvious questions: why then, and why not other times? Tight end Henderson would like to know himself. "We need to come out with the same intensity as in the second half to start the ball game," he said. "I don't think we're doing anything different. But instead of getting down we need to reverse that and get on top and stay on top."

"I don't know what it is," Mullen said as well. "If it's some adjustments we make at halftime here and there." Or, he suggested, it might be more a collective focus that his team has found in the locker room…when trailing by double-digit points unfortunately. Mullen even wondered, aloud, if his team begins games with a bit of complacency. "But it's consistent across the board," he said.

"You know, a lot of it comes with leadership. We have some great senior leaders by example, we need some seniors leader that are vocal and stand up and communicate to the rest of the team what needs to be done."

At the same time Mullen is also stressing what can be done. Because, again, those isolated series have shown just what this offense is capable of once they are focused and communicating collectively.

"The strength is we're not far off when you watch the film. The weakness is we have no consistency," he said. He was particularly annoyed when, after the game's longest positive play, a Dog jumped off-sides. And yes, such things get a lot of Sunday viewing. And re-viewing.

"That's what I haven't seen out of us, is that consistent performance," Mullen said. "Now when you watch it on film you can point to it every single play. We watched it as an offense yesterday: touchdown if this guy does his job. Watch the next play, touchdown if that guy does his job. How about the next play? Man, if he had made that block we would have scored. So we're not far off, we just have to be more consistent."

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