That's the sort of results Mullen was demanding from the Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0 SEC) once they were safely back on campus and now residing in the rankings at #23. Maybe some squads would lose a little edge with those two facts, compounded by the fact they host South Alabama (1-2) this week. Just not Mississippi State right now. A 30-24 scare at Troy has done wonders to refocus the MSU minds, in time to prepare properly for the Jaguars.
Leaving the locker room last Saturday, Mullen made it clear he was not only coming down hard on players for their Troy performance. The coaching staff itself was due for some serious self-examinations. Today the boss gave a progress report.
"We talked about it all Sunday, of seeing where we made our mistakes and how we put our players in better positions to make plays."
All this might come across harshly for a squad which is, after all, unbeaten and gaining attention in the land's fiercest league. But that is part of the point. A stumble in non-conference play would undo much of the benefits of beating Auburn and starting SEC season successfully for the first time since 1999. In fact that was also the last time a MSU team was 3-0 in any combination of wins.
At the same time Mullen has found the benefits to how that first road game played out, beyond a reminder that no opponent is taken for granted. The Bulldogs came through in the crunch and that is something worth learning this early in a season. It is also a gauge of program development to Mullen.
"When it's time to make a play, guys are stepping up and making plays for us to win. A lot of times in the past when adversity hit guys would look around, ‘who is going to make the play?' Now when adversity hits guys are stepping up and making plays.
"To have a great season we need that to happen a lot more the whole year."
Naturally Mullen would prefer a little less drama this weekend. It's a second-straight Sun Belt foe for State (South Alabama and Troy meet next week by coincidence), but a first-ever meeting of the programs. The Jaguars are only a fourth-year program and making a fast transition to Division 1 football. So there is a measure of history to the weekend, and in 2014 State will make more for USA as their first SEC guest in Mobile.
"You see they've done a good job building a program," Mullen said. "To me, they go out and are very sound in all three phases of the team. Their kids play hard and they are sound. They believe in what the program is about, a lot of guys have come in from the beginning and bought into what they are doing."
The Jaguars might not be nearly as known as conference cousin and near neighbor Troy. But Mullen sees so many similarities in the two southern Alabama squads. Especially on offense.
"Obviously South Alabama will spread the field, and try to create miss-matches in the open field," he said today. "They get it out of their hands fast so it's hard to create pressure. Their guys know their system and there is plenty of talent.
"They are a sound, well-coached defense and run to the ball. So it should be a fun game Saturday."
It probably has not been a fun week for the Bulldog defense, having giving up more yards—about 100 more of them—in one night at Troy than the previous two wins combined. No wonder Mullen had a wry tone when asked if there was any chance of taking USA's offense for granted.
"After how we played last week we're not worried about overlooking anything on the defensive side of the ball." Particularly up-front where the touted Bulldog defensive line struggled to get a hand on runners or passers alike. The approach was bare-bones basic most of the night which worked well against Auburn, not so much the second time around. Mullen isn't worried about the scheme though, just the individual execution. Or as he put it today, guys doing their own job.
"It's very simply. They're in a gap defense, are you controlling your gap? If a run hits, it means you didn't handle your gap or got blocked out of their gap." This applies just as much to blitzing calls, by the way, where gap integrity remains foremost even ahead of chasing down a quarterback.
This week some are making much of a perceived lack of sacks by the defense in general and the front in particular. That overlooks what should be the true indicator that the Dogs have the defensive skills. State is tied for the NCAA lead in turnovers collected, with seven interceptions already and five recovered fumbles. A turnover trumps a sack in almost any conceivable situation.
Offensively, State might have allowed more yardage than netted at Troy. But the season trends remain very positive on this side. QB Tyler Russell's 58% passing rate is a little deceptive too since he had eight true drops last week, but the eight touchdown passes against no interceptions is what counts. So does an average gain per-catch of 14 yards. The rushing game is productive as well at 5.3 yards each carry and only one lost fumble against six scores.
The only offensive letdown to-date is a pretty solid sign in itself. Mullen is a little disappointed not to have gotten second QB Dak Prescott more playing time. Not upset, just not satisfied. He'd hoped to put the freshman on-field at Troy before the game turned into a scramble for survival. Yet now in review Mullen wishes he'd, as the coach calls it, force-fed Prescott into the game just as happened twice against Auburn.
"We have the package to throw him in and force-feed some snaps. It's on me to get him in and get him some confidence like we did the first two games. It's like the package for the other guys." Those guys being wideouts Chad Bumphis and Jameon Lewis, and the package being a ‘wild' set for direct snaps to the potential playmakers. Bumphis has rushed the ball once this year on a end-around; Lewis three times on direct snaps. The net is just eight yards.
"We haven't looked smooth doing it," Mullen said. "We've looked pretty good in practice but in games we haven't looked great." Regardless, this package remains in every week's plans. "It's something we'll carry with us through the year."
The year takes a break next week with State's only open date of 2012. Coming after just four games it might seem early to hit the pause button. Mullen sees it differently; he counts August camp and the four September games as first half of the entire season, and the eight October-November games as the second half. Meaning, next week is half-time for the Bulldogs.