Mississippi State still is not on a really routine practice schedule just yet. Mondays are the normal off-days, but then yesterday school was out for the holiday. So Mullen used it as a revised starting point in specific Auburn gameplanning and installation. Lots of it, in fact. So, "We've got two more days to clean it all up, then go play."
IN OR OUT? Related to routine, Mullen could still afford to be a bit coy Tuesday as far as the status of the five players suspended for last week's opening game. Asked if they were working as usual this week "Some of them are," was the careful answer. What Mullen did say was they were indeed working, regardless of role or team-status.
"They all practiced last week," Mullen said. "When they're suspended for games guys practice, they just have different roles at practice."
Of that quintet the one of most obvious interest is DT Fletcher Cox, the preseason all-SEC nominee and best Bulldog athlete on the front line. Maybe both lines. Mullen may have tipped the hand just a little though by discussing what getting the junior back in his usual starting spot would mean.
"It's a big advantage having a guy like Fletcher on the field. You saw how young we were last week without him. And if we get him back this week it's huge." Though, Mullen followed up, "The benefit last week is a lot of guys got experience being out there on the field." Guys like P.J. Jones, one of the two true freshmen that played in game-one; or working redshirt Curtis Virges in tackle rotation as well. Devin Jones started in Cox's spot.
MOVING ON UP: One week, and win, into the season the Bulldogs have gained ground in the national rankings. They jumped from #20 to #16 in the writers poll, which is only a slot behind their final ranking of 2010. State had not ended a season with a ranking since the 1999 Peach Bowl.
Mullen's response to the promotion? About as expected.
"Polls are neat," he said, but "The only poll I take any notice of is the one after mid-January. The rest of it is guesswork." Which got the coach into a mischievous mood. "What if we're better than 16th, if we're the best team in the country? We might be #1, we don't know that yet. Maybe we're terrible and 80th! We'll see how the season plays out."
Hopefully with results closer to the bright end of this spectrum. But it seems worth asking how the Bulldogs see themselves these days, and if top-twenty status makes any difference. It best not for now, the coach said. "I mean we have trouble counting to three sometimes in different plays! Counting to sixteen, that's way out of our league!"
"The only time I thought it was a big deal was the first time we were ranked. For a lot of kids it was the first time they've been ranked before." Correct, because it came after State's 10-7 victory at Florida, breaking the Bulldogs into polls for the first time since 2001. While they accepted applause, the head coach was concerned. Rightly, because UAB pushed State far too hard in a 29-24 home win.
"I knew there was an issue, and you see what happens. We found a way to win that game at the end and I think they realized if they think about it or let it enter my brain we're not going to be ranked for very long! But I think after you won that first game being ranked we talked about it then and it all got thrown out the window."
Not with pollsters at least, since State remained ranked the rest of 2010 and began '11 with top-twenty tabbing. Now they are a sweeter 16 and would keep climbing if the Dogs can handle a much tougher Tiger team than the first.
Somebody expect so because the game's line has kept climbing since Sunday to about a touchdown now. Guess how Mullen regarded that item. "Does it mean they're going to put seven points on the scoreboard when we show up?" he asked.
"I never pay attention to any of that stuff, I'm not much into gambling." Besides, the stakes for State are high enough already in Mullen's mind. "Well we're certainly planning on going in and beating Auburn, that's why we go play the game. You can't win the SEC championship without winning this first game. Then you worry about another one after that."
NIFTY FIFTY: Thanks to a big opening night, the Bulldogs for at least one week lead the SEC in scoring, rushing, and total offense. Not to mention point-afters, though South Carolina also booted eight of those.
In 112 seasons of football, Mississippi State has scored 50 or more points in 31 games. And by kicking off this season with a 59-point output against Memphis it has now been achieved in consecutive contests. True, that means going back to the past season…but still this '11 calendar year as the Bulldogs pounded Michigan 51-14 on New Years Day.
This is not the first time State squads have scored fifty or better in back-to-back games, though one must go alllllll the way back to 1914 for the last previous instance. That was when the Maroons blasted Mercer 66-0 and Tulane 61-0 on consecutive weekends. The only other instance was 1907 with Mercer again a victim along with Union this time.
The most points a MSU team has ever managed against Auburn was a 49-34 win in 1952. The last time State scored fifty or more in SEC play was 1980, in a 55-31 shootout with LSU in Jackson.
TAKING TURNS: For all the big opening-night numbers, one of State's usual contributors had a low-key evening. Alternate TB LaDarius Perkins saw limited action, at least by his standards set over the second half of 2010. Not what might have been expected from an offense that was having its way against an overmatched defense.
"He touched the ball a couple of times," Mullen said. "He had three carries, two catches, so he got five out of all our 59 plays." Which apparently ought to have sufficed given how the gameplan developed, the coach indicated.
"And we were playing so many players, it so happened he didn't get many touches. Same way Chad Bumphis, just the way the game shook out. There was no intent on any of that."
Though, there certainly was intent to take advantage of dubious Memphis safety play when Bumphis was sent streaking downfield in the first quarter. He got behind coverage for an easy touchdown, his first since the Alabama game and tenth of his career. Bumphis has been able to score five times in season-opening games over his three years.
RUSSELL ON THE RUN: Memphis can't claim they weren't warned, nor other defenses. Tyler Russell had made it clear in both spring training and preseason camp he meant to show some flashier footwork, as well as that strong arm. Still with the Bulldogs, already in complete 52-14 control, had fourth down on the Tiger 26, the home team certainly wasn't expecting Russell to run.
But that he did, on a bootleg-left keeper after putting all the other 21 Dogs and cats on the field headed towards the other side. One Memphian recovered and might have had an angle but Russell displayed some previously-unseen speed and got to the pylon without trouble. It was his first rushing touchdown as a collegian. And not the last, if Russell sees similar situations.
"Yeah, I've got to show all the teams I can run the ball so they won't put that much pressure on me as far as blitzing and trying to get the ball out quick and stuff like that. They've learned I can run and can be a run-pass threat, too. So I've been working really hard at that. And I've been telling Coach I can run it, just put the ball in my hands and I can get what I can get. And I'm not going to shy away from it."
Mississippi State won't shy away from using all Russell's sophomore skills this year. While Chris Relf is absolutely the lead Dog on this offense, the younger quarterback has developed on schedule and offers a real change of offensive pace…without eliminating the keeper-threat now. So Russell is just as focused as the starter in preparations for Auburn, which he notes began even before last week's game as the scout team defense showed a lot of looks. Including "The Auburn and LSU defense," he said.
"You know you only have two, three days to get those reps in. So you have to make them count. Then you go watch film and make sure you've got every look down so you won't be surprised come game time."