But last night, when Georgia's mortal mascot dashed across the end zone in celebration of his team's touchdown…their only touchdown, mind…why, something seemingly snapped with Champ as he tried to become Chomp. Because as Hairy jogged by waving the flag, our home-field hound lunged a couple strides in angry pursuit, halted by Lisa's grip on the leash. Champ, it seems, has suddenly grown hisself an attitude.
And so, to bring this back to the on-field folk, have the Bulldogs.
Understand, now. I in no way encourage post-game disputations, nor sideline-to-sideline semaphoring of angered objections to game actions. Though, by same modern-day token, chop blocks are Bad Form and merit coaching anger. Pernell McPhee got away lucky on one dubious block that ultimately cost Georgia dearly; Fletcher Cox wasn't quite as fortunate, though all Coach Dan Mullen would say today was the tackle's condition was awaiting update. Maybe he'll say something definite Monday…but probably not given how other injury situations have been handled. His team.
And while I was only a few yards away from the scene I still can't say who, if anyone, was at fault for tempers that flared among respective staffs and players during the after-game communing. One has to think Georgia's 0-3 SEC frustrations has that side on, if not over, the edge…though I'll quickly stress any UG Dog who thinks a coaching change is merited is out of their mind. Put A.J. Green back in the lineup and that team gets a whole lot better fast in every way, including a run game that right now isn't a factor beyond the surprising footwork of Aaron Murray. Tell you what, a ticket to see him matched against Florida's John Brantley the next few years will be a scalper's dream ducat. And I don't look forward to the Athens trip next fall as memories will doubtless remain clear there.
The overriding point remains that whatever the in- and post-game frictions, Mississippi State really is discovering some Dog swagger again. And not a moment too soon. Or should I say, month too soon? If all goes as obviously planned next week, State will have a winning record in October for the first season since 2007…and only the second time since 2000. Kinda puts perspective to what Mullen's program is doing, eh?
His team has certainly met its first 2010 checkpoint at 2-2 for September, which was the consensus target of about 98% of the fan base too. Only the most rabidly optimistic figured this team, which remains very much a work in progress, would be better than one SEC win for the month given the front-loaded schedule. Interestingly though the Bulldogs themselves and their coaches are still upset at letting the Auburn game get away, and despite those Tigers' record and ranking they have a point. That was a winnable home game that got away on turnovers.
Assuredly LSU was lost on giveaways as well. Ahhh, but look what happens when the fumbling is on the other foot(ball). Gag, what a lousy line that was, but you do get the idea. State won this turnover contest and by no coincidence won the game. They also won the flag battle and I don't mean the halftime show. Surely this factors into Georgia frustration as a program known for discipline and consistency was seeing yellow all night.
Now, none need deny this was an evening soooo much went State's way; there's no shame in acknowledging Georgia's successful attempts to cripple their own chances. One touchdown revoked on holding; an almost sure one foiled by fumbling; a punt ricochet/turnover; and other flags to foil otherwise made plays, none more so than the blocking foul to overrule the third-down conversion when it was still just a four-point margin and UG was driving. Don't forget too, chopping McPhee was worth 15 yards and meant a punt, not a field goal try by one of the SEC's best three-point men.
Nought of the above diminishes the outcome. When one has witnessed all the bad bounces and worse breaks suffered by MSU over the decades, a little SEC luck only seems a Dog's due. Besides, we've all seen State teams get comparable breaks, if not so many in a single evening, and still not capitalize.
It needs noting State caught another sizable break after the halfback/throwback interception; Relf could easily and justifiably been ejected for slugging a Georgian in frustration, and the ref was just a couple steps away watching. I figure that because Relf applied an open passing hand (reckon he's seen ‘Bull Durham'?) to the other facemask and not a fist he got away with just a personal foul and not a punch.
Without Relf in the second half, well… He may never rival J.B., Don, or Sleepy in this regard but Relf is showing a nice grasp of option principles, when to pitch and when to call his own #14. Oh by the way, that first touchdown play was indeed ruled a pass since Relf flipped it forward to Vick Ballard. Quite clever that, since it means Relf would have gotten at least some game even with a drop that would NOT have been a recoverable fumble. Ditto with the shovel pass to Ballard later, on that all-important fourth quarter drive that may someday be seen as the pivot point in Mullen's tenure here. If you think that play works well with Vick, I like it even better with LaDarius Perkins or (if he ever returns) Marcus Green.
Or why not Chad Bumphis? For whatever reason outright reverses don't work for this team; but counter handoffs to wideouts do and the inside flip-pass has even greater big play potential. It's probably harsh to say Bumphis under-achieved the first two sophomore SEC games. I reckon he just raised such lofty expectations as a super frosh. But it was great to see Chad making plays last night against a good Georgia defense, especially that remarkable cross-field scamper for first down. I believe the pom squad chicklet he bowled into at the shrubbery is OK, though we have no injury report from that unit either.
The real victory might belong to the offensive line, a group that has born a sizable share of criticism (here included) after Auburn and LSU breakdowns. Here's to you, blocking Dogs, not just for protecting Relf as needed but re-establishing the line of scrimmage with room for the backs to make solid gains. We saw a group coming into its own on that 93-yard series, so setting a tone on the ground that the deep pass was there for the taking. And boy, did Relf and Arceto Clark take it. Needless to say, though I did indeed ask last night, Clark learned his lesson from failure to fight at LSU. This time he rassled that ball into his keeping and made the game-changing touchdown.
Which sets up another key point: this is a team that doesn't just recognize its mistakes and miscues. They learn from them and, increasingly, correct them. If that sounds rather basic, well, we've not been able to say the same often enough in previous years. This indeed is why we are now allowed to begin feeling really confident about the upcoming months. Upcoming seasons, too.
These Bulldogs are getting better where it counts. Combine that with the aforementioned attitude and potential is truly impressive.
Continuing October concerns? Well, for all the impressive hitting at times the tackling could be better, putting runners down on the first lick and not needing two or three follow-up shots. I can't critique a lack of total sacks through four games though, because the linemen have had to chase three agile passers. That tally should grow greatly in coming weeks anyway. And one has to like how with live-game evidence to apply, Manny Diaz is getting a feel for who and when to mix-and-match. Four- or three-man fronts; varied numbers of linebackers and safeties; blitz or drop or show either; and of course confidence.
I could be wrong of course but in the first two SEC games it seemed the defense was a bit, oh, stiff? Up-tight? Not going and flowing as Diaz intended but still reading a little too long and reacting a little too late. Not last night. Downfield coverage was much smarter, Zach Smith's banzai style has already scored one blitz sack (LSU) and sidelined a good receiver (Georgia). And by golly McPhee is bound to get his first '10 sack soon.
The return game still isn't delivering as expected, punts nor kickoffs. Kickoff coverage remains worrisome. Disaster loomed for the Dogs three times when Relf got sloppy with the ball or the snap wasn't clean; a curious issue given the mutual experience of center and quarterback. Oh, and K.J. Wright was serious about getting on the jugs-machine this week for some pass-picking work after literally dropping two gilded opportunities.
Then again making such corrections is a little easier in the afterglow of SEC victory…and a couple weeks of non-conference competition ahead. Though UAB is looking like a much more challenging guest than initially forecast. That's OK, one October pushover is sufficient and a better Blazer team will help prep the Dogs for the second half. Hopefully. We know better than to assume anything in any Dog team, including this one, and bowl eligibility is still four wins away.
Yet just as that fourth quarter full-field drive could become the transition point for Mullen's program, the victory itself was his biggest yet with State. Yeah, there was still a reasonable shot at bowling anyway, but the path just got a good bit clearer and the holiday destination possibilities are greatly expanded. Especially with the chaos of this conference in every slot but the top.
"The first part of our season is over," Mullen said during today's teleconference. "Now we get into this second stretch were only two of next five games are conference games. It was good to finish the first part the way we did, we need to take that momentum and confidence and go forward and improve against Alcorn State."
Momentum and confidence. Oh, and don't forget the attitude. Just ask Champ…or is it, Chomp?