Mullen didn't blink.
"Umm, we're trying to make a run at Atlanta! There's still a lot of football left to be played and if we win out, two losses, we're still technically live in the SEC West? That's our focus right now." The question mark signals Mullen was asking us for technical clarification on his assumption, by the way. I've done a little bit of Sunday morning numbers crushing and think, maybe, sorta, kinda, the coach is correct. But the tiebreaks a 6-2 State squad requires to edge out an at-worst 6-2 Auburn would fill the rest of this column to quantify. Or maybe not, I'll leave that to those whose synapses are all firing this afternoon. Me, I'm content to watch what happens Saturday in Baton Rouge and let the numbers shake out further.
Last night's irony of course is a gentleman in a Chick-fil-A (dangit, can I still call it Peach?) Bowl blazer was observing the action…and thanks for those sandwich coupons, sir! Until lately that Atlanta destination was as fine a destination as Dog fans could ask for this post-season, and it may yet play out as our Dec 31 destiny. No complaints here or I imagine elsewhere in Bulldog Country as those folk treated us first-class in our three 1990s visits.
Oh, an instructive sideline: strolling the field while the Dogs celebrated with the band and remaining fellow students, UK Coach Joker Phillips walked within a couple yards of me…in my well-seasoned navy blazer. He gave a glance, began changing direction, then realized a meaningless media man with no bowl emblem and kept going to the loser's locker room. Good coach, good team; but Atlanta on New Year's Eve was the likely highest Wildcat goal coming in and now they'll likely have to settle for a return to Nashville at best.
Or, not. The UK team I saw is quite capable of winning-out their softer November slate; while State has a brutal stretch in store. Not to come across negative, mind, merely practical: this is what made last night utterly important in giving a seven-win squad some MSU margin in November. Consensus is we need no longer worry about ending up in Birmingham (and on January 8 at that!) playing for pizza…and I love Papa Johns pies even more than the original chikin sammich. But that would have been a real letdown.
Now, much more happily, we can spend open date entertaining honest ambitions of better bowl berthing. Seems safe to say the Bulldog baseline is now Memphis (another honorable objective and open-arms event for State folk), with Nashville squarely in our sights. One more win would surely lock up ‘Lanta and even crack the door to Gator country, given the dismal state of the SEC East and surety more than the usual quota of West clubs are going to be booked for Florida bowls. Two more wins? Anybody up for a first-hand look at that megalomaniacal monument in Dallas?
Ahhh, I could rattle on and on about the possibilities November presents. Y'all feel free to continue down that track, while I step away from the frenzy and focus on the more immediate matters. Mullen certainly is. He may be only a second-year head coach but he struck an old Dog's tone in commending club success last night while confronting remaining reality. To wit: State has a lack-of-passing game that is almost assured of tripping the team up next month if not upgraded.
What, you are offended at the suggestion State is lacking in some aspect? OK then, listen to the Man himself. Yes, Mullen said last night, this is a run-the-ball offense. "And it was good to still run for over 200 yards, right around our average. That's where we want to be. (But) what we have to is clean up our pass game. I don't want to change it to just 214 yards a game running, I just want it to be over 200 passing as well." A benchmark the Bulldogs haven't reached in any SEC game so far, by the way. Heck, the last two wins produced 218 combined passing yards.
More troublesome, State is barely a 40% completions club the last three weeks. Need I note that two of the remaining opponents make a primary point of stuffing the rush? Not to Mullen I don't. He knows already. Now what he and staff can do about it is another matter entirely; for all his virtues and even moreso his true toughness, Chris Relf ain't gonna become Peter Pocketpasser, scanning the secondary at leisure and tossing textbook rainbows. Though that play-action touchdown to Arceto Clark was sweet; much like their hook-up in the Georgia game.
But then both those scores were absolutely set-up by a Dog diet of ground pounding that had defenders stacking the front against Vick Ballard, LaDarius Perkins, and Relf himself. The point holds, though, that State won't win-out without a more reliable air threat at their disposal. We do cut Relf some slack about his accuracy of late; he's clearly banged up from all that heavy-duty hauling the last four weeks and hits to the head are bound to be taking another toll.
Did you, as I, find Mullen's post-game comment about "should have played Tyler Russell a little more" interesting? He even blamed himself for not getting Russell a second series as planned. Got to think it was the inevitable conservatism coaches yield to in close contests, to stick with the proven producer and not risk breaking momentum. Except, this is not exactly a conservative staff; or not as we tend to think of such labels. In fact there were a few fourth-quarter times I fumed last night about throwing low-percentage passes (and aren't we fortunate one particular throw wasn't picked and returned?) which stopped the clock and left UK with timeouts for the final drive.
What it meant though is Mullen actually sees passing plays as, oddly, playing conservative. Yeah, that reads as strange as it writes, but you can get the idea. He really expects his quarterbacks to complete such throws consistently, even the occasional ‘shots' downfield that Mullen has been mentioning more and more of late. So, a good guess is lotsa open date practicing is in store for pitchers and catchers; everybody else will get a well-deserved relaxed work week. Except for their time with Matt Balis; he wouldn't recognize ‘relax' if tattooed on foreheads.
Now that I've risked accusations of negativism…the sight of Vick Ballard running wild, so to speak, was welcome indeed. And by the way, watch the replay and applaud Brandon Henderson's gate-opening blocking on that 54-yard dash. I still believe the absence of Marcus Green has and will cost the deep air attack dearly, but by golly Brandon does his dirty duty blocking. When he and the intact interior five are on their games, the ground gets pounded productively. The linemen should benefit more than most with an open date, obviously; keeping them together is priority-one for the November run. Running, rather.
By the same token this Dog defense is making things quite un-healthy for opponents. I did a little figgering last week to come up with that unofficial but fun fact about how often—not often, I mean—State has allowed SEC offenses to score on them. Through four games it was once each 44 snaps. Guess what? Kentucky scored two touchdowns last night on, count ‘em, 85 hikes. Political pollsters pray for such statistical accuracy these days.
‘Bend don't break' is not always accurate, since too much bending inevitably breaks. But you have to love how this defense flexes and finally swallows ground-gainers and, usually, avoids big plays. Though how many of y'all saw what I did from the press box; when one State safety lined up an inside technique and the others blitzed just a bit soon? Even a sportscribbler recognized what was coming and it did, as splendid Randall Cobb had his one big breaker for touchdown. To their collective credit it never happened again, and that has been the exception to Dog defensive rules the last six weekends.
And I'd be remiss not to note how the last two victories in large part are due superior specialist play. Take your bows, Messers. Hutchins and DePasquale; and pat the backs of kick coverage teams that are suddenly, well, covering. Very well at that.
Enough of last night. Even scribes need open dates, especially now that we've a month of Bulldog bowling to be covered in December. Feels great, don't it? This will be a hopefully-slow news week, as open date stories are rarely good word. Keep it under control kids, don't go nuts in the tenth week when so much remains to be done in November. We media get one ‘access' to State this week, on Tuesday, so cut us some football story slack please.
Basketball, now…I watched two-thirds of Saturday's scrimmaging and the report was filed yesterday; you can find it still. I won't repeat much of it here, other than to say all related about the lack of conditioning—both physical and emotional—shown by a certain high-profile sophomore center/guard was true. The body needs a lot of labor before Renardo Sidney can carry his, umm, weight on the court by December 18. The head and heart could stand lots of ‘conditioning' as well; that was an occasionally ugly show of temper to teammates and coaches alike and a reminder that Sidney did rack up the technicals as a prep junior. I reckon a year's pent-up frustrations are being vented this way, but…it's time to grow up and play up to obvious potential.
And don't blame the strength staff for his gushing-sweat condition. I paused yesterday to compliment Coach Richard Akins, who was being harassed by some guy name of Daryl Wilson whoevertheheck HE is, on how he's gotten Elgin Bailey so close to playing shape. If Bailey can come back after the Linda Blair ankle event, and the repaired knee that still needs icing after action, there's no reason young Sidney can't follow the example.
And he must. Because once Dee Bost returns to active status, if Sidney plays anything like the advertising, this is a State squad that won't just win the West. It could, even should sweep the Division unbeaten, and score enough East wins to make a serious SEC title run. Partly from their own abilities (offensive that is, they can't defense anyone yet), partly from the overall sad state of the SEC, and partly because Kentucky and Florida are bound to scar each other's records along the way. There, I've said it. Feel free to call me foolish come March if things play out otherwise.
I won't say I'm happy about giving up an open Saturday to spent four hours at The Hump to watch Lindsay Wilson or Lindsay Nelson or Lindsay Wagner or whoever that exhibition victim is to be. At least the non-game gets done in time to get home and catch Bama-EllEssYew beating the bejabbers out of each other, hopefully. But with much MSU bowling business in store I guess we should catch the roundball boys as often as available.
Note: as this has gone on longer than even I intended, let's stop here. But tomorrow is November 1, a sacred date for those of us Who Were There thirty years ago. So, we'll do the time warp again back to 1980, and I'll have a much shorter Bonus Dawghouse edition addition Monday. I can almost see you shiver with….anticipation. So I'll remove the cause, but not the symptoms.
What, you thought I'd forgotten the day?