Which the Bulldogs did, by a 41-27 final score that let Dan Mullen's first Mississippi State squad to treat their 5-7 finish as a winning season overall. Since in college football hot emotion matters as much or more than cold numbers, that attitude was understandable. And realistically the Bulldogs pinned a whole year-one's hopes on how they ended the year, as rebuilding programs tend to do.
So… "Oh definitely, it felt very good after that game," said Mitchell. "We wanted to win that game so bad not only for us but for the fans and for the state. It was a big win for us last year."
But that was a whole year ago. Now these Bulldogs carry higher expectations into the next Egg Bowl and a different set of pressures. In fact the roles have rather neatly reversed for 2010, from opposing records to the game setting. This time Mississippi State is bowl-bound and on the road; Ole Miss is at home and seeking end-of-season solace by playing spoiler.
The trick per Mitchell is taking nothing for granted in the rematch.
"We're doing the same things we did and a little more. In the weightroom, at practice the intensity is raised up to another level." A level befitting a rivalry where records really ought not matter, Mitchell means, and as his coach daily reminds everyone. If anything, the safety said, State's staff is trying to keep their Dogs hunter-hungry instead of hunted-happy.
"In the weightroom it's different, everybody walks around different, coaches coach different; it's just a lot more up-tempo and a lot more intense it seems."
Of course if Mitchell and the entire Dog defense need a jolt of reality, any quick review of the Rebel attack is sure to ground them quickly. The opponent's offense belies their overall record, especially a ground game that ranks a slot higher in this week's SEC standings than Mississippi State. And while the Ole Miss air game has been erratic at times, such as in turnover and completion rates, there is no doubting this unit's ability to make a great big play happen at almost any point, from any field position.
That has to be on Bulldog minds this week because in their latest two SEC contests such plays led to losses. State can find some reasonable comparisons this week to their last road trip, to Alabama, when an otherwise fine defensive effort was let down by just a handful of lapses. For that matter MSU allowed Arkansas to accomplish much more on the ground than anyone anticipated, least of all the Bulldogs themselves.
Mitchell has gone through those games and says the fix isn't tactics as much as technique.
"It's getting guys running to the ball like we were at the beginning of the year. I don't think we've been playing bad, it's just like three or four plays in a game and those plays were big. Guys weren't running to the ball, guys missing tackles. That's what we emphasized last week." And again this week. Reminded that in the last two weekends his unit has faced some of the very finest offensive skill players in the land who will be in the NFL soon, Mitchell shrugs.
"Yeah, but we won't try to make excuses. We still have a job to do and we didn't get those jobs done."
The job this week also harks back to even earlier in the season, September specifically, when State's defense was matched against passers who could make major moves as well. Rebel triggerman Jeremiah Masoli isn't the physical stature of a Cam Newton or with an arm the strength of a Jordan Jefferson, but is quicker afoot and just as comfortable slinging on the run as any pocket passer. That in fact is MSU's challenge; to up front maintain a disciplined rush instead of a mad dash after the scrambling slinger while back in the secondary not get lured off the target too soon.
Simple to say but much, much harder for aggressive defensive backs to do as Mitchell understands very well. These Dogs are on the field because they want to and can make plays. Their key is muting the attack attitude just a bit without dumbing down the defense.
"We want to stay in coverage if he's running around," Mitchell said. "Because I feel like, from what I've seen, if he gets pressure he's going to throw it in the air. So we have chances to make a play on the ball. It's knowing that we have guys on the quarterback and knowing your responsibilities."
Speaking of which, this has been an outstanding season for the most part by Mitchell. He's third in team tackles at 79, and is up to 174 stops in his three-year career. But there's a blank spot in his 2010 stat line; after notching four interceptions the first two seasons Mitchell has yet to pick a pass this fall.
Then again, no time like the present to take care of that detail, right? "I'm looking for the first," Mitchell grinned.