But of course this whets team appetites for more good stuff. And the obvious fact is, for State to take that proverbial ‘next step' up the league ladder means opening SEC season with a win. That's the practical point. Emotionally, it means finally taking care of the tormenting Tigers who've prevailed in consecutive nailbiters.
I don't pretend to know how Auburn folk feel about this…well, was gonna say ‘rivalry' but it takes two to have one and the respective sides have another Most Despised. I do know Bulldog fans, for a variety of reasons, have marked this rematch with something approaching obsession. Me? I'm still a tad simpatico regarding our fellow cow colleges in the eternal bigger battle against snob schools, but that's just the farm boy talking.
Seriously, there are more than enough pragmatic reasons to have circled September 8 as soon as the slate was published. And for the Bulldogs themselves the overriding emotion isn't hatred; it's wanting to finish this particular job left un-done the past two times. Dan Mullen himself acknowledged that today. "We've been right there, had opportunities to win, and haven't pulled it out," he said.
"You always put emphasis on the first game of conference season, it so important. I think they (the Dogs) are going to be ready to find a way to pull it out in the end, finally." Oh yes, he did say ‘finally'; easy to tell how those close calls do grate on the top Dog too.
And, how focused Mullen has been on Auburn practically since returning from Nashville. Did anyone else notice the post-game tone last night? I mentioned in the game story how ‘Auburn' was mentioned far more than ‘Jackson State'. Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson was most honest, he called The Opening game a rehearsal. Guess at this point we could add ‘with all due respect' and so on. If anything it seemed the Bulldogs had more respect for these Tigers than they did the Memphis breed which served so nicely as opening-night fodder before.
Still JSU was paid, well, to serve tune-up duty for a Dog team that looked pretty good at first real observation. What I liked best was scoring touchdowns on five of the first six series…and if you wonder back in 2009 Mullen's first team only scored twice in seven first-half chances against JSU. A rather nice show of progress, eh? But then such efficiency is what a SEC team expects against a SWAC-level visitor. Or a Memphis.
By the way, Mullen's four teams have averaged over 52 points on opening night, all against Tiger teams. Hmmm, wonder if the SEC might be willing to move…never mind. If the made-for-TV opener with Okie State comes to pass next season we'll see if this trend can continue, if only against another mascot. For now it is still felines on MSU minds.
Mullen said today he liked Tyler Russell's leadership on-field and general game demeanor. Sure, he expected it, but seeing it for real is always welcome. We who've gotten to know Russell were not at all surprised to hear him already self-critiquing minutes after the win, though of course he had most of a second half to start analyzing. Mullen agreed, Russell made some less-than-good throws and missed a couple of conversion chances by getting greedy and going long.
"Overall his performance I thought was pretty solid. But I still expect more, I'm always going to expect more because that's a position we want to be the best."
Other likes from last night include non-surprises such as tailback and receiver depth. You just gotta think the offensive staff has fun figuring which runners and catchers to use when, where, and how. As long as they don't get trapped into over-analyzing, that is, looking for perfect fits when good enough ones are available up and down the roster. Put another way, while they all have slightly special strengths, most of the skill guys appear interchangeable. Today Mullen said yes, he would be willing to ride a hot hand if one emerged. Consider what that would mean, because if any of these guys get hotter than the rest it means they must be sizzling.
It is still early to make definitive claims for the line. Though, shoving aside those 300-pound JSU tackles was no mean feat either. I noticed in his first few series Justin Malone at times was plowing a pair of defenders at a time and running in-stride with his back. That was before the big redshirt inevitably tired in his first outing; he's still just a pup after all. But I'm a little less antsy now about alternating good old Tobias Smith…who I'm proud to see was voted one of the team captains. The guy deserves it. We can also see why signing Charles Siddoway had the staff smiling so.
As for the defense, yeah, more yards were allowed than one would like. And JSU threw enough other catchable-but-uncaught balls to raise eyebrows if not concerns. I'm holding off anxieties though, as most of the guest's success came against mix-and-match lineups. Several backups in the secondary won't enjoy the day's review for sure. Though it needs reminding how ‘vanilla' the defensive front played things after the first quarter. Wilson admitted he wanted to test basic three- and four-lineman rushes, to get useful teaching tape now that it's SEC season and State will have to play that way at times out of coverage necessity not choice.
Plus-points are obvious; very few outright missed tackles, and two pick-sixes added to a proud secondary's account. They've got eight now, and you just know Corey Broomfield is twitching to get his hands on a pass again.
If there was a first-look letdown, it was just three touchbacks in nine kickoffs despite the moved-up tee. Though we don't know for sure if Mullen wanted the ball boomed every time, or if—as he hinted at midweek—the coach wanted JSU returning so they could be tackled short of their 25. If so it worked pretty well. So let's withhold judgment on freshman Devon Bell's debut for now; even his missed field goal was working with wind on the south end. Mullen didn't even bring the miss up today, instead saying he was happy with everybody…then adding "We'll see how preparation goes" this week. Interpret that as you wish.
Overall then, a satisfactory start all around. Including you fans who snapped up the last three-score or so remaining tickets on game morning and legitimized the 17th-straight sellout. True, there were the usual parking policy complaints, but surprisingly muted given the complications of wet grounds (temporary) and construction (permanent). By golly I think our fan base is maturing, to realize that you can't be a real SEC program operating by high school practices. Or as the old don said, it's just business…like all the j-tron time devoted to adverts and promos. Price of progress, literally. I even suggested that the old scoreboard, which was turned on exactly 15 years ago last week and now is unplugged and about to come down, be gutted and turned into temporary skyboxes a la Left Field Lounge style.
Fun stuff, but now it gets a heckuva lot more serious for Mississippi State. General preseason consensus is there are six wins on this schedule barring catastrophe, thus assumed bowl eligibility. From there it's a matter of which bowl the Bulldogs can achieve. Making this week one of the determinative (spell check let that slide!) games for State. For Auburn too. By the way, the last time the faced State coming off a loss was in…wait for it…2007. Yep, the last time the Bulldogs took one from the Tigers. One looks for any sort of indicator in such intense situations y'know.
Though I also recall that State began Auburn week favored by double-digits with the line down to a touchdown at kickoff. Then the team didn't show up for kickoff and fell behind two touchdowns. Never mind that MSU caught up and even led briefly, and please let's not resurrect claims of chain gang chicanery or headset spying. Even if—big if—any allegations were correct, none matters if the Bulldogs start strong. Which is what Mullen coaches for, making last year such an anomaly.
Without detailed scouting so far, the impression is a strong start by State this year can make the difference. And prevent the sort of fourth-quarter drama and trauma we saw in 2010 and '11. Having enjoyed a fine dress rehearsal last night the Bulldogs are ready to get down to the real business of 2012. It begins with, finally, beating a real Tiger team on the second weekend of a State season.