"Our guys put together a lot of different options and things we can do," Mullen said today. "I met with the leadership committee and it's a really neat thing. They felt the best way to honor Nick was for someone to wear his jersey. They said we'd like this guy to do it for this game, the reason we didn't come out with it Monday was in case there was a change."
With bowl eligibility earned, there will be three more Bulldogs donning a #36 jersey in 2010.
With the time change, the Bulldogs concluded Tuesday's session in the dark. Still Mullen thought "It was a good day. Coming off the bye week it gives you that little extra day so you can have shorter, crisper practices." Tuesday was also a full-pads day as State gets back into a routine after their open week and limited work.
"Normally we're a pretty physical Tuesday practice, that's our most physical day of the week. But all of our practices are always pretty physical!"
TURNING (OVER) TO THE OTHER SIDE: As noted Monday, the Bulldog defense has come up with 15 total turnovers during Mississippi State's winning streak. This has allowed State to ‘turn over' their turnover margin entirely, and this week they are tied with Alabama atop the SEC stat sheet at plus-seven for the season. But there is a corresponding offensive facet to this turn around. "I look at our record," said Coach Dan Mullen. "When we're plus on the turnover ratio our record is great, when we're minus our record is not very good. That is a huge, huge factor. When you're in tight games turnovers tend to be the tipping point one way or the other."
The coach knows whereof he statistically speaks. Through three games the Bulldogs were minus-four in turnover rate and thus 1-2 for the early season. Without taking away, so to speak, how often the defense has forced a fumble or intercepted a pass, the larger factor for Mullen is his offense not making similar mistakes. Against Georgia, for instance, the MSU Dogs came out plus-one; against Florida it was plus-two as only the Gators lost the ball.
And last week the Dogs were plus-three against Kentucky…though the lone MSU turnover was actually by the defense. Linebacker Chris White picked off a pass but got a bit ambitious attempting to lateral the ball and fumbled it away, officially. So in their three straight SEC wins State is plus-six in margin, and without an offensive fumble since the Houston game.
It oughtn't surprise any State fans to be reminded the 2009 Bulldogs were minus-five for the season, and 10th in the SEC. Yet Mullen says the turnaround in '10 has not been from any extra emphasis on ball protection in practices, or any special drills and techniques. "Since day-one I've been here that has been our focus," he reminds. So what has made the difference?
Time. Seasoning. And just growing up, the coach says.
"I think there can be a lot of different factors. One, being more comfortable with the system so that you're concentrating on ball security instead of figuring out what you're doing on this play. As you get a little more experience and you grow maturity in the team, you are really focusing on fundamentals instead of just trying to figure out what to do out there on the field."
Yet Mullen does offer another reason why the turnover tally is now tilting State's way. Not losing the ball makes for a better defense, and better defense forces more opponent mistakes, which puts the offense in better positions, which sets up simpler kicking situations, which…you get the idea?
"It's a team approach," Mullen said. "If the offense will protect the football, and we play good on special teams, all of that has to do with playing great defense. Look at the games where we haven't been as good on defense, we turned the ball over a couple of times and put them in bad situations. When we take care of football, and play great special teams, we play great defense."
KICK STARTED: Speaking of special teams play, Bulldog punting has done its share to kick this winning streak into higher gear. Mississippi State doesn't lead the league in either punt average, in fact the 40.8 yard average by Heath Hutchins on the year is only ninth.
But average return is a whole ‘nother matter, because the Dogs are allowing only 0.4 of a yard, or about 15 inches for the picky, on punt returns. Nobody in the SEC is even close there since the next-nearest coverage clubs are 1.2 yards.
"Our coverage team has done a good job getting down the field," Mullen said. "And Heath has done a good job of placing the football. I mean, we're getting some good hang time and good placement to put it in positions where our coverage is there and it's harder to return." Make that nigh-impossible of late. And as to that 40.4 average, it needs noting that a more productive offense has meant Hutchins is kicking closer to midfield these days and rarely needing to let it boom. Instead the senior has indeed gone for height and placement; 14 of his punts have been fair-caught, 19 have gone inside 20-yard lines, only three have been touch-backs…and not a one has been blocked.
All good stuff, Mullen said. "But you have to be consistent. That's the key for us, we have to be consistent in the punt game. One bad coverage can result in a huge turning point in a game."