That is the sort of result Mullen used to remind the Bulldogs, on both sides, about one of his favorite football dictums—the divide between victory and failure hangs in the balance on every and any snap.
"When you have these scrimmages the margin is minimal. The margin is so small between winning and losing, it could have been any play all day that could have changed the difference." No doubt the Dog defense was wondering what specific play that might have been as they paid the price of defeat, a series of gasser-runs in the cold evening air while a happy offense jogged away to warm up.
Thursday's two-plus hours of work was the first date this spring where the Bulldogs did actual tackling. Primarily that came in the final half-hour when offenses and defenses scrimmaged from the 20-yard line, going for first downs or three-and-done respectively. No true drives happened by design and thus nobody got to an end zone…though on a couple of passing plays the opportunity was there to go the distance. Mullen mixed the units not just by series but at times within a series, such as changing quarterbacks after a couple of snaps to give two triggermen turns as if rotating in a real game.
In fact if the day's real ‘winners' were the four Dogs wearing red no-hit shirts. Though, that color wasn't complete protection from an irritated defense. #2 quarterback Tyler Russell was put down sharply at least once, redshirt Dylan Farve drew his share of contact when protection collapsed, and true frosh Dak Prescott was just plain flattened once by LB Christian Holmes.
Even starter Chris Relf wasn't immune from contact but then the senior tends to give as good as he takes. Relf certainly rose to the scrimmage responsibility after a slow start with a stretch of good series that turned the tone. Up to then the defense was openly dominating, not giving up first downs and big plays and keeping the offense off their stride. Once Relf made a tough first down midway of this period, his cohorts began following suit more often than not.
"They won at the end right there," Mullen agreed. "And to be honest I think they won because our quarterbacks did a good job of managing. They're checking the ball down, getting it out of their hands, managing the game. I think that was probably the difference. I thought the defense was doing good, but as Matt kept score it was kind of the offense did not let the defense have any big plays."
That part was easy to notice. Even when sputtering the offense weren't throwing interceptions or dropping the ball, and as the first and second units gained their footing the plays began coming. At one point Farve lost the handle under pressure but center Dillon Day smartly fell on the fumble to preserve possession. That might have been the ‘one play' missed by the defense, in fact.
The bottom line though was an offense that won by, mostly, not losing, which satisfied Mullen. "Yeah, minimal turnovers, minimal sacks. There were some sacks here and there and some protection issues but the quarterbacks did a great job getting the ball out and just being smart. That's what we need to do on offense."
If this seems a somewhat low aspiration, it also reflects the still-early point of practices with just four dates done. Mullen actually figured Thursday would be a less-than-sharp session since now the defense would be free to attack and tackle, so he was pleased things proceeded as well as they did.
"It was a good practice today. It was good to see some guys make some plays. On day-four it starts to get a little bit sloppier because it's a lot of mental build-up right now. But I was pretty pleased to see the improvement from day-to-day."
With full pads on the Bulldogs have been able to get serious about the ground game, on both sides of the line. Some of the day's best hitting came early in 8-on-8 work as a back, be it half-, quarter-, or full-, tried pounding the interior. Success here was very rare and not just because the defense knew the ball was not going wide outside. The front four and linebackers were reading both handoffs and keepers well and making stops typically at the original line. One of the very rare good runs came when TB Vick Ballard got to left tackle without having to beat a penetrating tackler first, and made a clean cut. Favre showed a good sense of reading the scrum too and had some decent gains on keepers.
The first and second offensive lines were unchanged from Tuesday. The defense did get DT Fletcher Cox back after missing that day with a family concern, so he and DT Josh Boyd were in their usual inside slots with ends Sean Ferguson and Devin Jones. The second unit was DE Trevor Stigers, DT Jeff Howie, DT Kaleb Eulls, and DE Shane McCardell; and the third team DE Corvell Harrison-Gay, DT Curtis Virges, DT Jones (who works both inside and out this spring) and DE John Harris.
S Dennis Thames got to work with the first defense at strong safety in these drills as starter S Charles Mitchell was over with the group of defensive backs matched against receivers in one-on-one hitting. So was S Nickoe Whitley, his place taken on the second unit by converted corner Louis Watson. The third pair in run drills were Ivan Muniz and Asian Ruff.
The standard 7-on-7 pass/cover drills weren't ignored though. The period began with the same three-man receiver rotations, led by H Chad Bumphis and WRs Ricco Sanders and Chris White; backed respectively by Brandon Heavens, Arceto Clark, and Sam Williams; with the third trio H Jameon Lewis and wideouts Michael Carr and Robert Johnson.
But as camp progresses more of this period was invested in truly multiple-sets of four and even five receivers, including Brandon Hill and Malcolm Johnson working out of a tight end-type position. The brisk, and cold, wind didn't make throwing or catching easy as it was indoors Tuesday, with a few more drops this time and other missed throws. At the same time none of the four quarterbacks put the ball in the wrong team's hands here either.
Besides full-contact work, the day included a first good look at both kickoff teams. Derek DePasquale booted the ball to no less than four separate sets of deep-return men, beginning with Bumphis and redshirt Jamerson Love; then Lewis and RB LaDarius Perkins; CB Damien Anderson and CB Marvin Bure; and Whitley and Carr.
That's a lot of candidates, which is Mullen's plan for camp competition.
"We're doing a lot with special teams and getting a lot of guys opportunities. You know, everybody wants a chance and we're giving them their chance to get on the field. It's their chance to go seize their moment and prove they deserve a chance. Because when we get to fall camp we're not going to be able to give everybody these opportunities."
On the whole Mullen came away content—along with the aforementioned surprised—by Thursday's efforts. Execution of course could have been better but he was dealing with the expected wear-factor of day-four, not to mention college boys who know that come Friday evening they are free of both football and school for over a week. Naturally there will be some warnings tomorrow about behaving over the break, as well as updates on where they stand after this first round of spring workouts. "We'll talk more about that tomorrow when we meet with them, about practice and about improvements they need to continue to make," Mullen said.
"I feel pretty good. I feel we've got a little foundation, we've got some work done, we've got some things installed. And we'll let them get a breather, get away a little bit, and come back and review everything that we've done for the first couple of days when we come back before we practice."
Mississippi State's staff goes into their own break with a better idea of how well they will be paid this coming year, as the state IHL has approved the University's recommended salary increases. Though this is something Mullen takes pride in for the sake of keeping good coaches, he wasn't much interested in discussing details Thursday.
"I was raised that you don't ask how much people make. I never ask you guys how much you make!" he quipped. But seriously, folks, "I'm happy, our administration does a great job of helping keep us competitive in every aspect of college football."
The Bulldogs will return to on-field practice March 24.