Yet what matters more from our MSU perspective is how the Bulldogs took care of business with no fuss and minimal muss. Duhhh, you suggest? Well bubba, take a look around the land and notice the number of ranked or nearly-so squads that sputtered in opening day matchups, or rather miss-matchups; that won but did so ugly and closerly than necessary.
Or look back to the last time State started a season ranked, in 2001, and took an ugly opener again, huh, Memphis. (Remind me why we paused this annual-opener series, and why these near neighbors aren't permanently scheduled again? I bet Memphis wouldn't sell-out on a home-and-home with State.) True, that '01 team proved unworthy of ranking anyway, but the point for today is unlike other examples these 2011 Bulldogs played their top-twenty part to the hilt.
Or almost. As Dan Mullen reminded today in his teleconference, there were just enough mistakes and miscues on opening night to keep everyone honest about the state of State as game-two approaches. Featuring an entirely different class of cat. "We've got to play a top-level game," Mullen said. "Clean up a lot of mistakes we made and get ready for a game that is going to determine how we do in the SEC this year."
Yeah, he said it. Mullen is not shying away from the utterly obvious opportunity, and corresponding challenge, of this weekend at Auburn. No coach-speak today. Mississippi State's conference goal, and postseason bowl, course quite literally depends on Saturday's final score. We all knew that as far back as oh, say, January 2? But to have the head coach put it out there in the open only emphasizes the import. And impact.
Does this mean there is tension in State's locker room today? Sure. But apparently the right kind, the sort a confident squad uses to push more than press. Or as Mullen said, "We're excited to get into SEC play this week."
Then he couldn't resist adding, "Obviously a lot of schools around the country don't get into conference play quite as fast as we do. And we're right into it playing the defending national champions." I don't know other league's schedules enough to know how correct the coach was in part-one; but anyone can see exactly what the rest meant. If anything Auburn today may be feeling more pressure following their narrow escape against Utah State.
Darn right State's staff, or most of it if one assistant/neighbor I chatted with yesterday while washing and re-waxing my car (to rid residue left from the malt beverage an unhappy Memphi fan dumped on it Thursday night; what, don't like my MSU Dugout Club tag, buddy?) watched that game. And have re-watched since for real scouting prep. Now, Mullen offers a cautionary, not to say coach-speak, not to amped-up fan evaluations that these Tigers are hurting. Remember, Mullen spent seasons at Utah and knows both the Aggie program and staff, particularly a coordinator friend.
"Auburn scored 42 points against a really good team, against a well-coached team. They are the defending national champions (that again, eh?) and found a way to win and score 42 points. So I take it we're going to have our hands full."
True enough. Hands full of opportunity. Having made their opening statement with a record offensive evening and a competent defensive effort, the Bulldogs have set a tone for starting SEC season. While I can think of two, three other opponents it would be more promising to begin with, MSU might as well get a immediate measure of where they stack up in the brutal Western Division. On the road, at that. Have to suspect getting off campus for a day will assist focus too.
I mean, goodness knows they are going to hear way too often this week how they ‘should win' or ‘Auburn is down' and the like from friends and media alike. Mullen and staff—especially Matt Balis—have the sudden new challenge of actually tuning the team out on such good wishes. Maybe the best way is to re-show last year's game tape again to remind how close State was to winning and why they did not. How a game, season, and championship(s) really can come down to a single September play. I know Corey Broomfield remembers too well.
Speaking of the other half in that almost-was equation… Mullen had to know the query was coming today and handled it easily. Re: his interactions with Gene Chizik and any fall-out of the Cam Newton Saga. "Our paths haven't really crossed much. Obviously in meetings I congratulated him for the national championship, winning it for the SEC and representing us well." Which wasn't what one interlocutor wanted to hear, so the attempt was made again.
"I've never discussed that," Mullen said. "To me the Cam Newton situation ended two years ago (when the former Florida signee inked with Auburn over State). I never thought about him much. I did when we played them!" Otherwise, Mullen concluded, "None of that to me has ever come up. He's a great football coach and does things the right way in his program." So much for fueling old fires, though safe to say the topic will return all week. Lucky it is a SEC Network telecast crew in that regard.
Besides there is more serious stuff to keep State occupied all week. Presumably not any new injuries, because the Dogs appeared to escape Memphis with less marring than my car. I don't claim to have observed everything, but if any player went down with cramps on that mugly evening it was missed by me. Can't say the same for many a team on TV yesterday, though; one would have thought first game cramping was the Black Death to judge by some broadcasters.
Darn right Mullen was proud how his team thrived more than survived. "That's our strength and conditioning coach," he said. "I've said before we have the best in the country. He does a great job of preparing our guys physically as well as mentally to play in adverse conditions." As for maintaining them, Justin Gremillion and gang got a tip of the visor, too. "I think our training staff does a great job heading into the game."
Of course there was another angle. State starters weren't over-stressed because substitution began early and became complete midway of the second half. Sure the lead was lopsided by then, but Mullen was going to use the bench regardless. That's a sizable redshirted squad from '10 after all, and many are going to be needed in SEC action now.
"So there were a lot of guys I wanted to get experience, that we got experience," Mullen said today. Now all those youngsters, and don't forget the few transfers, ought to be emotionally ready for Auburn usage. "They know what to expect. They've had an opportunity to prepare, then go do it. So we expect a lot of improvement."
By the way, we can look for most and maybe all the fivesome held out of opening game back in better graces this week. Can't we? That's the possibility," was all Mullen would say. "We'll announce that on the day of the Auburn game, but we expect it." For sure we'd expect Fletcher Cox back in his starting defensive tackle spot.
Just as we can expect young Jameon Lewis to get some un-gentle reminders regarding when/where awareness on catching kicks. Sure, booting balls towards sidelines is an increasing trend and odd bounces are inevitable…but State doesn't need first down inside the two-yard line going out. Not this week. Not unless the ball was delivered by a defense that had a few first-tackle moments at Memphis but didn't give up any really bad assignment breaks. By the way, all we told you about Lewis' gifts last fall and spring have been entirely confirmed, eh?
For that matter MSU blasted the yardage record in a game where Chad Bumphis touched the ball once. For a touchdown true, but just once. Or, LaDarius Perkins had only three runs and two catches. And when Chris Relf was coolly efficient but not standout-great…though come to think of it that is the best way to play most wins. Deliver to the right person/place and let their skills take over. And we saw more of the skills Arceto Clark, Michael Carr, and Chris Smith have to offer as this passing game really expands. Notice I have not even mentioned a certain tight end, and won't to avoid any risk of hexing him.
This was an unexpectedly good offense last year which is now expected to be great. And this is the weekend to show it, maybe not in sheer statistical measure but in just making plays and controlling the tempo. Needless to note this is the day Montgomery native Relf has awaited a long, long time. Along with all other Bulldogs from differing addresses still stinging over what got away last year and are eager to even accounts.
With a win that will really count.
MSU-ELLANEOUS: Don't know how I missed it, seeing how I've been at every one of them going back to the ‘92 start. But by winning at Memphis, the Bulldog record in regular-season Thursday night games evened back up at 7-7. Remember, State began by winning the first five such games, then starting with the '00 Egg Bowl it went the other way. File this away for reference a dozen days from now.
*Credit is due the Liberty Bowl folk for cleaning up the environs, getting rid of the barns for real gateways, fountain, bright blue lighting, other nice touches. They're trying, it's just a legit question if such venues are worth saving in the long run (re: Legion Field). For that matter one wonders if Memphis football is too far gone for salvaging at a decent D-I level. I don't want to delve into conference expansion debate today. My stance that it is not in State's best ultimate interests is well-known and increasingly (if off-record) shared by University leaders, you might be interested to know.
But folk like Memphis are absolutely terrified by the potential implications. They have little to offer any BCS leagues in need of members beyond a number. Memphis also reminds why CUSA and similar leagues are almost fossilized in place, even beyond lack of BCS opportunity. CUSA teams for example are not the first football fan draw even in their own area code. Not UAB, not Houston, not Central Florida, nobody. That ain't SEC snootiness speaking at all, it's hard demographic reality. Once again MSU folk should bow in thanks that we got in on the original league ground floor. Or as Scott Stricklin oft says, that $18 million check is nice to get.
*I know Thursday evening games aren't convenient for fans, but think of all the games we got to see yesterday as a result. Not to mention those horrific Georgia uniforms. I hope defeat prompts a program I used to regard as an exemplar of tradition and classic style—the great Silver Britches--to dispose of both togs and helmet. I was also glad to see Oregon, the leader in today's sad trend of flashy football garb, go down hard. LSU sure didn't seem the worse for wearing traditional colors and combo, did they?
*Speaking of flash…I gotta ask Derek DePasquale about those shoes debuted Thursday. ‘Highliter yellow' is the best I can call ‘em. And while he was 4-of-4 on PATs, missing a field goal wasn't too flashy. Not to his coach, who doesn't object per se to yeller shoes. "If he thinks they make him kick better…" the special teams coach shrugged today. "As long as he makes it, I'm more concerned with making that 48 yard field goal."
Related to that, Mullen insists the faked punt was the right call at the right time based on how Memphis was set to rush. "We had the look we wanted," he said. And if a Dog and Tiger had not collided, because the latter went the wrong way, the MSU receiver would have slipped free and wide-lonely-open for a breakaway.
So, maybe State has shown a card here early on. But it does give upcoming opponents something else to think about and ought to aid coverage when the Dogs do kick. Which was not any issue in game-one it needs noting, kick coverage was outstanding and did as much to aid the defense as any scheming.
Now, let's enjoy some cooler humidity for a change (didja see the week's forecast highs in the 70s?!) and watch the weekend's remaining games. See y'all on the plains Saturday morning.