Now, equally obviously, today's comment requires a little explication lest impassioned Mississippi State supporters still stinging after consecutive SEC setbacks get a notion their coach is settling. Right. A coach who dares daily proclaim his program's goal of playing for the (not a, the) championship is going to settle for less.
Evidence? Here's the post-game concluding comments Mullen made Thursday evening. "We will win a SEC Championship and we will win a national championship here at Mississippi State. It might be this year, who knows, it might be next year, it might take us 15 years. But we will win a championship for the people of Mississippi here."
OK, it won't be this year. A 0-2 SEC, more particularly SEC West, start assures that. And I doubt Scott Stricklin is drawing up a 15-year contract at the moment, as fun as that would be. The point is Mullen left a long—a very long—talk to his team with ultimate ambition undimmed and bold verbiage unmuted. To say the least.
By the same token, this is when Mullen makes any moves at resetting objectives. I'm not telling y'all anything new regarding just how much Mississippi State sunk into the two September conference contests. If anything, the Auburn loss will sting longer because that one well and truly got away. Just show up for the first two series full-ready, and the Bulldogs woulda won running (literally) away. It's no consolation we showed others the way and I'm not big on pulling for non-league losses anyway. Usually.
Thursday night? Another matter. I still have some questions about just how reliably LSU's offense can produce in the crunch, and should somebody some get a two-score advantage coming back will be iffy. But lawdy, scoring anything on those cats… I anticipated the wailing and gnashing of teeth as soon as Chris Relf got stuffed thrice inside the red zone. What many ignore is any ball-based sport is a time-and-space equation, and it's been a long time since I saw a defense able to shrink both so emphatically. Though, gimme last year's veteran offensive front and it mighta been another matter. More on this area later.
I have to think what has our fan base so openly frustrated by the latter loss is the blunt reminder how much more upgrading our roster STILL requires, if we're going to either A) muscle with or B) run with the very best opposition. Emphasis on the ‘very best' bit. As I wrote last week, once the game was evened up it was Auburn edges in offensive speed and decisiveness that showed. They moved faster and hesitated less. This week it was primarily re-proven on defense. Interestingly, this was not as physically intimidating a LSU defensive front as we saw in previous years, they are down some pounds across the board. But they can move, and they don't delay doing so. Which, by the way, is why MSU had NO CHANCE of running an effective option game.
Again, as also noted last week, this does not mean the Dogs are slow per se. The athleticism on this roster is indeed getting better. But as old Albert said, it's all relative. Auburn was just a bit better, LSU much more so, and that realization still stings us who'd hoped for a quantum (sorry, Al) leap forward in 2011. Heck, it might take all 15 years to catch up with LSU.
Meanwhile there's business at hand against another Louisiana club. Having watched a lot of Louisiana Tech's opener, on a saturated track at that, I was all comfortable about the second home game. Then came their racing out to a 34-7 lead on Houston, before letting it get away. Oh yes, Mullen noticed.
"We know how good Houston is from playing them the last two years," he said. "And they took Houston to the wire." Gotta wonder how deflated their collapse left these other Dogs. Gotta wonder if they're worried about a MSU program bearing dual grudges, first for the 2008 fiasco fumbled away and then for Tech taking somebody else's money and running off the 2012 State schedule. By the way, Stricklin said Thursday he's been talking with "two or three other schools" about filling the opening with nothing signed. No, he is not waiting for ongoing conference additions and shuffles to solve this.
I have to think Tech's unexpected prowess against Houston will serve to refocus Bulldog minds for a new week and revised goals. By the way, Mullen gave the guys three days off, a real break, to get over both the losses and the cumulative stresses built since late July. So refocusing will be emphasized indeed. What a coach can't do is make everybody healthy again. The speed issue relates to long-term progress; losing muscle to injuries matters right now.
"Devastating" was Mullen's description of losing Tobias Smith to knee damage. He meant both to Smith himself, who as we know already lost two seasons to ankle(s) injuries. Smith survived '10 intact with careful rotation of guards, a luxury now lost. "You feel terrible for him, and how much he means to the team not just as a player but a personality."
The good injury news is Quentin Saulsberry shook off his knee sprain to play all the way against LSU…not that I'd expect otherwise of Big Q. And, while Mullen's health reports are best taken with a whole sack ‘o salt sometimes, he did say today James Carmon's knee is similar to but not as serious as what happened to J.C.Brignone last year. "We expect to have him available this week," Mullen said…meaning Carmon, not J.C., though wouldn't that be wonderful? Regardless, John Hevesy has some serious patching to do in coming days. Mullen gave new center Dillon Day and tackle Blaine Clausell a "OK, they were OK," evaluation today, adding "We have a standard to play by here. I'm not gonna say they played poorly, but we need them to step up."
Meaning no lowering of standards for Louisiana Tech, either. Who all Hevesy comes up with for rotations, if there are any, will be worth watching Saturday. The real spotlight though will likely shine on the guy behind the line. Oh, the message board traffic inspired by changing quarterbacks there in the fourth quarter. Mullen was almost eager to discuss it today, interestingly, though after emphasizing "Chris is our starter" before the question could even be raised.
Not that we expected otherwise. Mullen affirmed today what we all know anyway. "I have a ton of confidence in Chris. Chris played decent, he actually played well in the game." (Anyone startled by this generous grading, re: LSU defense above for why; take it from first-hand opinion, John Bond would not have done much more than Relf tried against this Tiger team.) OK, so why bring Tyler Russell in at the end?
"We were just stagnant on offense and we were looking for anything to get a spark," Mullen explained today. "Time was getting away, we'd had a couple of three-and-outs, I was trying to create a spark on offense not because Chris was playing poorly but to change something up."
Now, parsed as it surely will be, that statement can seem contradictory. But Dan Mullen knows something about baseball, too, and the risk/reward in shaking up pitching plans. Sometimes something has gotta be tried because it's gotta be tried, whether for immediate affect or maybe down-the-road experience. Of course Russell got a lot of that last year against LSU, too, and it'll take a while to undo that damage still. I mentioned the Great Bondini, and now wonder if all MSU quarterbacks since are paying the price for his unparalleled success in the series?
Best I can judge for now, MSU really does want Tyler taking more turns. Yet factor in the shaken-up blocking and well, you figure it out. Russell really will run better now but he's not going to have a good defense respecting quarterback keepers the way Relf does. And speaking of someone ready to run…Dylan Favre got himself in hot water with an intemperate social-messaging comment.
And, just as easily, turned it to his potential advantage. "He called me right after and said Coach, I messed up," Mullen related today. Mad? Maybe a little at the time, but now "I prefer that to ‘I'm happy standing on the sideline'," the coach said. "I want guys that want to be out there on the field." He said Favre even requested more special teams duty, such as kickoff coverage…which boggles the MSU mind at the prospect of #6 screaming downfield towards the nearest wedge.
Ironically enough Favre could prove to have good timing because the head coach really does want to put the redshirt under center, should situation allows. This would seem a fine week for it, if the Bulldogs take care of their namesakes. If.
What remains obvious is how Dan Mullen will adapt to 1-2, 0-2 SEC circumstance without relaxing his demands on the Dogs. Increasing demands, too. By the way, he asks no less of himself and we fans as well. I saved this post-game comment for column use as it really does set the ongoing theme.
"As we build this program we're trying to create culture, a championship culture. We broke ground on a $25 million football facility, we're selling out the stadium, we're creating a homefield advantage and electric atmosphere. We need to continue that for this year, next year, the following year, ten years from now. We will win a championship here at Mississippi State."
FAMILIAR FACES: There are few more entertaining ways to spend a fourth quarter than in the sideline company of Fred Smoot and Ashley Cooper. Yeah, everybody knows what a clown prince Smoot is. Ashley—the bone-jarring safety of the same era—is just as amusing albeit in a more deadpan way. They were a great pair on the field and still darned good off it. Cooper and I just shook our heads at how Fred woulda performed in 1999-2000 here had there been the giant video board operating above him. I suggested he'd have spent more time looking at himself than the other team, even turning to watch himself run an interception back. Fred didn't disagree either.
Larger point being, we need all these former Dogs involved in as many ways as practical for them and MSU. On this board, too, and I'm proud to say we have lettermen signed on and assisting keeping a certain Editor straight. Not that today's players automatically know who they are in lots of cases; we elder fans forget that ‘history' to a college freshman is ancient automatically. History began with them. While many of the kids do know something about a, say, Smoot—and if not he'll gladly fill them in!—names like Cooks, Clark, Malone are from dinosaur days.
Yet they all matter to all generations in differing ways, and seemingly Mississippi State is making more out-reach effort to our athletic alumni….
I'd just finished Wednesday lunch with some of the media relations gang, and was about to fill the to-go cup with sweet tea…when I noticed the fellow at the ice dispenser. As Matt Balis turned my way, I quickly replaced the cup under the unsweetened tap. He got a chuckle out of that…
Speaking of Balis, in a Q&A last week with John Cohen for the next magazine issue on fall baseball, the Diamond Dog skipper said their strength coach has taken cues from Balis' program. It isn't as if baseball S&C work wasn't tough already; it was. But now Cohen is turning the strength staff loose to make it even tougher and by all accounts it is paying off immediately.