From The Dawghouse

Not long ago, Dan Mullen discussed some Bulldog benchmarks reached this second season. Such as, national ranking, bowl eligibility, winning streak. No bragging, though it would have been justified; Mullen talked in terms of "getting that over with" and moving on to more. Well, check another inevitable milestone: having a streak snapped. This is not said in humor, by the way. It's a compliment.

Because, after all, a team has to be on a winning streak to have it snapped. Which is something more than a few of us, or at least the tithe of us who must vent via message boards, should recall once their Emotional Index needle is safely out of the red. No, I am no more satisfied with last night's results than any. But yes, I am satisfied with the course Mississippi State has taken in Year Two of this regime.

Believe it or not, the above two graphs were typed in before Mullen's noon teleconference. Kinda scary to realize my fuzzy (that Italian Roast is just now kicking in) thoughts so closely match how the Bulldog boss was also thinking this morning. Here's some applicable quotes:

First, "We're not just waving panic flags all over the place right now. There are a lot of things we're trying to teach and coach off of, to improve. And make sure young players that made mistakes, we have to see them make improvement next week."

As to today's pre-practice plans in game review: "We're going to show the good and the bad. What we have to do is improve. What's interesting, we've always had to respond to some tough situations. We got used to winning a little bit. Now we have to learn how to deal with a loss. Not ‘hey get them next time', but we've won a bunch of games; the last time we lost a game we responded by coming back and winning six in a row." Again, unnerving that I'm on a similar mental wavelength, eh?

Finally, "We've always responded the right way in the past. I imagine that's not going to change for our guys. You deal with it by going out to work even harder. That's not going to change in our program and in how we teach our young men. The way you respond to adversity is getting back to work and working a little bit harder."

Well. Not only did Coach just do a lot of writing for me; he provides perspective in the process. Or at least for those calmed down enough to appreciate, anyway.

In fact, Saturday evening was a reminder of both how far the program has come in less than two whole calendar years…along with how far there still is to go before Bulldog football can stand toe-to-toe with the elite. It's not completely coincidence the Streak of 2010 was bookended by LSU and Alabama, because those are the West Division standards this particular Mullen team is to be measured against. Auburn? Well, I'm not at all the first or only to call them good team/great player. But then in the currently discombobulated state of the SEC that might be enough. Might. We'll see in two weeks and as of today I wouldn't drop a drachma in either direction.

Nor, parenthetically, would I expect a real resolution to the L'Affaire Newton by game day or even bowl bid date. And I surely don't want to expend more e-ink than this on, well, this: State should be in the clear. I say ‘should' because I've learned never to say never, but in this case I think I can also capitalize ‘Should.' The only pause reflects those dueling press releases of MSU and SEC, and whatever the league office has on reportable record to debate timelines with. State's out-front administrative response of late last week is pretty encouraging, though; and hopefully soon the hot spotlight will focus entirely on the leading characters (no pun intended) in this drama. By the way, if we thought the Sidney Saga revealed a vast and untapped source of Internet Lawyering in the form of message board analysts, man…this has achieved new heights of on-line legal opining.

OK, that out of the Sunday way…we resume Mississippi State's on-field season. Resume the remaining regular season that is, with two games left for the Bulldogs to settle their bowl destination. This loss crimps the loftiest ambitions obviously but is far from fatal with regard to much more realistic objectives. In no small part due also to the aforementioned SEC chaos, too. Eight clubs are qualified, and while three others can still get there State is safely ahead of them in perceived pecking order.

So, if we set, say, Dallas as the upper end of State's possibility spectrum; and per expert opinions Nashville as the low end; well, that's a whole lot of excellent options by even the most optimistic pre-season ambitions. For what its worth general consensus still shows Atlanta as leader coming around the last turn, and public response has been almost universally favorable.

In fact, here's a post-game note from last night. As Mullen left the post-game stage he noticed a gentleman in a blue Chick-Fil-A Bowl blazer in the room. "OK, we'll come!" Mullen called across the floor, earning an answering grin. Remember, this bowl has had a rep at the last couple of MSU games…and the other bowl's reps last night all went to the other locker room. I'm just reporting…

…nor will I be annoyed if another, better bid arrives in December, even if I have family already making reservations within walking distance of the Georgia Dome. Oh, and consider the irony so dear to us columnizers: Mullen was hired by State in Atlanta, he has made getting to the Dome his open ambition, albeit for an earlier December date. That'll be a mighty easy piece to write, eh?

But, this still hangs on these Dogs getting some more winning-work done this month.

Honestly, Alabama exposed some rather obvious concerns we already had. Particularly on the passing front…but not in the way fans see things. It shouldn't need reminding after ten games, but I'll do it anyway: this is a ground-pounding offense. Mullen himself says so. And Chris Relf's job is not to take over a game with his arm, or even for that matter his feet. Mullen repeated today the job of Relf, or any MSU quarterback this year, is to manage the game.

"Power running game, kicking game, great defense," is what Mullen said is his 2010 recipe. Thus, "Managing the ball at the quarterback position is key to us." And bottom-line remains Mullen is more comfortable with Relf managing MSU at this moment. Yes, there were mixed management matters; the first half interception was a case of trying to force a play. Twice Relf had open targets over the middle for finesse touch-toss dumps that got deflected by a big defensive line.

To Mullen, though, the body of Relf's 2010 work remains in plus territory. "He's done a nice job of managing throughout the year. We need to continue that." With, the coach added, the qualifier of not throwing to the wrong team. "And we haven't turned the ball over a lot." In fact State and Alabama were tied atop the SEC in turnover rate…and the Dogs still have gone a long time without any offensive fumbles.

So don't look for any change at quarterback this week based on one scoring series, as sweet as Tyler Russell's strike to Chad Bumphis was after the game had been lost. Yes, yes, there will be the all-week appeal from frantic fans of trying to counter Arkansas' air attack with some of the same. Mullen isn't buying it…because that is not what this team is in his mind.

"The run game, that's our base," he said today, for the foremost reason that "The experience of our team is on the offensive line. To do that we need them to play well and they've played well running the football. That's been the strength of our team this year and that needs to continue."

But what needs to stop is the sort of shocking big-break scores Alabama produced. It's still a bit boggling to review what happened last night when a Tide team built to grind folk down (much like MSU of course, only with bigger and better personnel) did all their damage on out-of-character actions. I gotta believe they are equally amazed how their trio of touchdowns were produced as we are, though from a much more positive perspective.

None should have happened, at least not that way. All three touchdown plays were there more for stopping than making. With the added qualifier: all were scored by absolutely elite players, such as a Heisman holder and one of the most-wanted receiver prospects on NFL draft boards. Don't forget that fact. Great players make great plays by beating good players not playing so good.

Frustrating thing to Mullen is, "The rest of the game I thought we did some pretty good things defensively." And, "It wasn't we didn't have a guy in position to make the play. On every play there was a missed tackle. It's not like we don't work on tackling each week. We're going to coach it hard this week and hopefully get those errors corrected and get guys to make those tackles."

Because if Arkansas' runners and receivers aren't quite in that Alabama class, they aren't too much of a stride behind either. And of course the Razorback passer is literally leagues better, as well as not one to let pressure arrive before unloading. Soooo…tackling drills, indeed.

Naturally we'll all arrive at Scott Field expecting a contest of contrasts; Bulldog ground pounding vs. Arkansas' aerial circus. Thing is, SEC football has a way of fooling us forecasters (re: last night's role reversals by Bama), and this particular West matchup more than most. Oh, and remember when MSU last went wild in the air? Yeah, 2007 in Little Rock. So come to campus ready for anything and everything.

And, for to see how Mullen moves past the most recent benchmark moment. State's 2010 home finale is setting up as a battle of big plays…as Mullen defines them. It ain't by sheer stats, either.

"You can't ‘get by' by making plays sometimes. And our young players are realizing that. Big plays are consistently doing your job for four quarters, whether it be blocking, tackling, running, throwing, catching."

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