Are the Bulldogs the 23rd-best club in this country, today? That is not the real question to my mind. I'd rather know if they see in themselves a ranked team, and will enquire accordingly this week. Mullen as you'd expect puts another and much more meaningful spin on the situation. He hopes a number in front of the name becomes motivation to first prove and then improve. Because, Mullen pointed out, "We jumped into the polls and we did not perform at our best."
But back to the lead theme and how all those frustrating failures to finish some perfect passing plays reflects the real story today. By the way, Mullen counted eight true ‘drops' of Tyler Russell throws, allowing for degrees-of-difficulty and such. We watching in-person or those coping with the telecast, or whatever ESPN3 claimed, saw at least five really glaring gaffes, four of which would have gone for touchdowns.
Finish off just half of ‘em and it is a Bulldog blowout. By the way, I must have missed the memo informing that we are only allowed to count ‘deserved wins' on the left side of our season column. I'll try to remember that when posting State's record from now on. Silly me, to think this team is really 3-0, halfway to bowl eligibility and tied atop the early Division standings. Though all we Westerners were this close to sitting a game back of a 2-0 Louisiana-Monroe, huh?
Sorry, sidetracking again; here is the point. To complete a college pass means doing a lot of hard stuff, plenty of moving pieces and tricky timing. The simplest part is simply catching the @#$% ball. Yet last night on those numbered occasions it was the easier end-act missing. Mullen's comment today? "That's where the discipline and focus comes in. When you're in coverage you're locked-in, when you get open you can lose focus."
Lesson? "Don't take it for granted, that's the mindset we're preaching."
Reminder, he was talking directly about throwing-and-catching…but I'm sure you see the larger lesson. Now please understand I am not telling you the Bulldogs took their Troy trip for granted. They scouted and schemed and practiced and prepared just as for Auburn a week earlier. Sure, State got on the busses expecting to win the road game. They also anticipated a tussle give Trojan offensive prowess and boy did we get it. Kudos to the Trojans for throwing, and running for that matter, a serious scare at their first SEC guest.
The fact remains SEC squads are supposed to beat teams from the smaller regional cousins, even allowing for some red faces and blue moods in a couple of our conference addresses this month. State did win, with more Dog drama and fan trauma than necessary…and the head coach is absolutely about to use that to his instructional advantage. Why, Mullen's teleconference tone today sounded almost, dare I suggest, gleeful? As if he can't wait to assemble the team and turn on the tape.
"Fortunately we got a win in a tough environment," Mullen said today. "There's a lot we can teach off of that game. Both our staff and our players are a little disappointed, it's great to be disappointed and still come out with a win."
Look. I understand, mostly, the Sunday angst poured out on message boards. Though that ‘don't deserve' notion does escape me. As I told a player's parents leaving the post-game presser, this old dog has been at far, far too many similar games that got away. Good, bad, even great State teams managed to fumble—literally at times but mostly figuratively—at least one away somehow, somewhere. Given this larger perspective, then, who are we to dismiss any kind of victory? Or would y'all rather we left Troy with a real L on the record? Apparently a few really do today, and if any are reading this please…go get some help.
And let's consider this firm fact which impresses me maybe more than anything Mullen has achieved. In his four seasons with State, the Bulldogs have yet to lose a game they should, by objective measure, have won. This goes beyond the note we file weekly, that Mullen hasn't lost to any un-ranked or non-voted opponent. That's factual of course, but what I mean is there has been no Louisiana Tech 2008, Maine 2004, no Tulane 2003, no Troy State 2001, no Northeast Louisiana 1996, no Arkansas State (tie) 1993, and so on and on and on and…you get the idea, hopefully.
Have his Dogs cut it close? Sure, that UAB trip last year was unnecessarily ugly. And we never shied-away from noting had Louisiana Tech kicked a field goal instead of throwing an end zone interception the 2011 team wouldn't have gone bowling. Yet fans do tend to forget this: one of many aspects to an improving program is how the opponents eventually make the big mistake. Winning teams make the big play, or at least don't make the fatal error which often is the same thing. With the same success.
Now, since I'd hate to entirely spoil the Sunday pity-partying, we'll give Mullen's take on that disturbing defensive performance. Or something. I don't care about the sheer stats, alarming as they were. It was how Troy compiled their numbers, the consistent slashing and gashing of a defensive front that had dominated its first two tests. Lack of sacks, nah, I'm not as concerned there as Troy quarterbacks didn't have the ball long at all. What does concern is they had such open targets to toss to, especially after State dropped so many into coverage…and left some linebacker regions empty for the ground gaining.
Mullen, now, what aggravated him outright was tackling or the lack thereof. Trojans consistently and infuriatingly kept moving forward after contact. Though I have to note too, had John Banks' blitz worked in the second quarter an interception would not have been thrown to Darius Slay. Funny thing, this football. Still lack of sure stopping is something the coaches can't excuse. Nor will they.
As Mullen said today, I want to see how our guys respond. I have to look in their faces when we go out to practice tomorrow. I have a good feeling with a lot of guys are not going to be pleased with their performance." Read that again; the coach has a good feeling about some bad results? Ahhh, right, that ‘teachable' theme again.
Ditto for the pass catchers. Oh, and let me add this encouraging comment; as aggravating as it was to see perfect strikes go off the hands of Johnson, Sanders, Morrow, et.al., should we not be encouraged that A) those guys got so wide-open and B) Russell delivered the ball on-target and on-time? No, seriously, think a moment how for years we've bemoaned inability of State offenses to achieve either of those steps. The hard parts, as noted already. If the receivers can keep all that up, the catching has to come. Put another way, it's hard to complete a bad throw to an un-open receiver. Or have we forgotten our past passing frustrations so easily?
Obvious yet somehow a little overlooked today is last week's pre-game priority, of avoiding the proverbial trap game. It was justified of course, though given many of the September scores we're seeing I wonder if there really are many true ‘trap' matchups out there. And we cannot ignore the fact that these Dogs began preparing for Auburn, and Auburn alone, as soon as they assembled in January. There was just no way they could have come off that necessary victory and been primed for anyone, anywhere a weekend later.
Also, we seem in a phase again where the game really is week by week for almost everyone. Almost, there's one serious exception so far and I drove past their lair last night on the return trip. Everyone else? It comes down to which team has the better physical health and mental focus that particular game.
Or, who has the better overall ability…and this again should encourage we State folk about this Bulldog bunch. Troy played a great game save for turnovers and all but one of those was forced, something to put in the defense's positive category. Yet the Dogs won anyway. Or put another way, and yes we scribes did indeed present it this way to Mullen, where many a MSU squad before would have found a way to lose last night his squad succeeded.
"That comes with a little bit of belief in our guys," Mullen answered today. Not cockiness or arrogance, understand; Mullen related it was a somber locker room. "Now, on the bus a lot of guys were happy we won the game!" he added, and Mullen seemed to like this quick emotional transition too. What he sounds to like best of all is how on consecutive weekends State has been seriously challenged. First it was Auburn's startling kickoff return for a third-quarter lead, which could have spun that one out of control on a single play.
It didn't. No more so than repeated Trojan challenges and an offense which kept moving chains and taking snaps. But, and this can't be stressed enough, not scoring nearly as often as the stat sheet implies. We're overlooking that the Dog defense did make straightforward stops on a few series, not many but a few and that was barely enough. I said it last night to some State friends and repeat it again for your consideration: winning as the Dogs did, making the must-stop stop and concluding a gutsy must-score series, will pay off against bigger and better opposition down the line. Maybe this year, maybe next, but the experience gained can't be over-valued.
Or as Mullen said of beating Auburn and Troy, both could have gone the other direction easily. "In both weeks we found a way to make things happen to win the game. That's what a good team does to win games."
Three of them, and counting.