Disappointment? Yeah, that's another MSU matter this morning-after. Nor will there be many smiles in the Bulldog locker room this afternoon as everyone reviews evidence of how such a SEC opportunity was lost. It's tempting to replace ‘lost' with ‘fumbled away' but that would likely lend a wrong tone. Because in no way should we critique those Bulldogs who lost the handle as they were on the very verge of doing something great.
And, something that could have locked up a true turning-point victory for this team and this program. It's not entirely coincidental that here on November 21 the coach is reminded of somewhat similar event of a couple-months back. "We had a three-point loss to the team I voted number one in the country," Mullen said today. "We're not that far off."
Now we can obviously doubt he's saying State isn't that far off from such a lofty ranking…but then when a team gives number-one it's closest statistical scare in conference play, and takes this week's #13 (and climbing) club into double-overtime, you know, maybe the Bulldogs aren't far off from some pretty big things themselves.
As close as, say, two fumbles?
Again I must set the context that I'm not pointing any typing-finger at either Chris Relf nor Vick Ballard for some very good reasons. First, in both cases they were making major ‘effort' plays, even above-and-beyond effort plays. Relf had just gained six yards to the Razorback 20, on a drive coming after a battered Bulldog defense had countered a MSU turnover by taking the ball back away themselves. Man, did Nickoe Whitley show why he's an every-game starter here as a second-fall frosh on THAT amazing pick play. So with a 21-17 lead Relf is doing what he does best most games by bulling around an end for positive yards…only to be caught from behind and the ball yanked free just as his team was at least in field goal range.
And of course the real heart-breaker, if not immediate back-breaker, was Ballard having the ball helmet-hit out of his hands as the tailback tried to get to that goal line in the first OT. Not a dozen feet from where I was standing, in fact, and I'll see that pigskin shooting inside the pylon and outside the end zone for a long, long time. How the heck it took that trajectory instead of staying outside the pylon for first-and-goal at the one is a reminder that when the funny-shaped ball begins bouncing not even a Physics of Football prof can predict the result.
Remember yet again, though, those were amazing effort plays and had either Relf or Ballard gone down an instant earlier… Well. They didn't, they tried to do exactly what Mullen wants his top two offensive talents to do, and by the way is there anyone on this roster you'd rather have had the handle on those plays? OK, maybe Chad Bumphis, but he wasn't available the first OT nor it seemed needed.
Mullen certainly wouldn't have had anyone else attempting those plays. Because that's what Arkansas did when in must-make situations. And in fact this brings up the real reason why the #13 Razorbacks are, well, #13, and why the Bulldogs have just reached polling position in year-two of Mullen's regime. Put another way, you saw a program that has been winning for years able to survive the best shots of a program still putting a lot of pieces together.
Though, as the record shows, not as many pieces as back in September, much less in 2009.
"Their playmakers make big plays at key moments of the game," Mullen said. "Their best players make big plays at key moments, and we're still developing that. The guys in position to be playmakers are young players still learning how to make those things." What's that you say, that Relf is a fourth-fall junior? True, but he's only two seasons into this spread-system and his first as a starter so in Mullen's mind a 21-year-old is still ‘young'. Makes one wonder what an old Dog is to Mullen, eh?
But then as it is also often said, youth is a state of mind…and these State minds are still rather green in grasping how this coaching staff wants the game played. The physically-tough part, oh yeah, they've got that down rather well. Mental toughness is also far-advanced here in year-two. Now, though, it's being as game-smart as they are game-tough. And that, folks, is one reason why last night Mullen went on and on about coaching being the reason for defeat. He wasn't trying to take the heat off his kids, mind, nor making himself a target instead.
Nope, Mullen really meant it was a coaching thing as he defines coaching. Not in X-and-O terms but in just knowing what to do when, how, and ultimately why. Take what we've discussed about two all-out effort plays going sour. This is where the mysterious ‘why' comes up.
Or as Mullen said today, "It's not that they have to make 25 plays in a game; they have to make the one big play at the key moment in the game. And with our players that's the step we need to take to make that next step, to get in the top of the SEC instead of the middle."
Oh, speaking of ‘top'…y'all do understand that all four teams State has fallen to this fall A) are holders of the SEC's four best overall records and B) were ranked from 1-to-13 going into Saturday? With, as observant posters have noted, a combined 39 wins against five losses? So the Bulldogs have nothing to be ashamed of in these defeats.
Just a lot to be disappointed with, since only the L shows on the record. And while we do defend the effort that turned into game-turning turnovers, Mullen isn't letting it pass uncommented upon. "That's something I'm looking at that, in our four losses we have 12 or 14 turnovers; in our seven wins only five. It's something that in winning in the SEC, when you play games that come down to the wire…which seems to be a lot!" Ahhh, good to hear some more humor in the voice this morning, say? Though when those plays are re-played this afternoon Mullen will make a sharper point about both.
"We practice that stuff, we have to do a better job blocking on the perimeter. The guys causing the fumbles were guys we missed blocks on. There's lot of fingers to be pointed in every play, and sometimes people look and say boy, one guys fault; they're the guys that have it in their hands the most!"
And will again this coming Saturday. All the more so if Bumphis and Smith, who caught a combined ten of Relf's 20 completions between them, are less than full-speed. And dang it, I still can't help fretting that both last night and next game are the matchups where Marcus Green is most missed, since historically for whatever reason November is tight end time at MSU. Good to see Brandon Henderson make that sideline grab last night, though. We'll likely need more in Oxford.
Not to mention much better tackling by a secondary that, to be fair, has been matched up against some top-drawer playmakers the last two contests. Any similar misses this week will open the gate for instant touchdowns. And as welcome as seeing Pernell McPhee finally get that first senior-season sack, if he and line-mates just go dashing madly after a certain at-his-best-scrambling passer/runner Saturday, the State secondary won't be able to cover anyway. If anything this week might require the most defensive disciplined asked of the Dogs to-date.
Naturally none should expect Mullen and Les Koenning to radically alter the offense based on Relf's big passing night; this is still a pound-the-ground attack. Thing is, that's exactly where the Rebel defensive strength sits awaiting. They have clamped down on some of the land's best rushers already and would expect more of the same in the season finale. So expect us enquiring media to daily ask updates on Bumphis & Smith because methinks they will be needed early and often.
Enough mixing-and-matching for this day, there's a whole week ahead for that. A frantic one, too, what with a holiday that I may, repeat may actually be able to half-take if the schedule allows. One might think the annual Egg Bowl week nerves would be a bit less on-edge given State's assurance of bowling.
For his part Mullen today downplayed the significance game-twelve will have on deciding where the Dogs spend the holidays. "That to me is irrelevant. We'll worry about the bowl game at a much later date. It doesn't matter if you're 11-0 or 0-11 or 7-4 coming in. This week is a special week for our program and for our fans and one we look forward to year-round." Nor does the coach put much stock in the home-field ‘spoiler' aspect that State played last year and now in 2010 falls to the Rebels.
"I don't know about them, but if last year's game shows it whatever your record it means nothing coming into this game. Our focus is obviously on our program. We're moving in the right direction, we're building a program for long-term success and consistency. Obviously a win in keeping our (yeah, he said ‘our') Egg Bowl trophy here would be a step in the right direction."
Ironic, eh, since the physical direction Mullen and MSU will take this weekend is…up north? And if anyone is booking an over/under on how often the Bulldog coach throws his favorite phrase out for public consumption, not to mention rivalry conniption, well, that doesn't require a stat-computer.
"As many times as people ask me who we're playing this week."