"I'd say it's one of my better ones. I'm never satisfied but it's one of my better ones. It's definitely not my best, I'd like to get inside the 20 a little bit more." Not that Swedenburg had many such situations; he had to kick it away from the Mississippi State 31, 36, 42, 33, and 22 yard lines which put the other red zone a bit out of range.
"Other than that, we had all fair catches so that's a positive," he said. Indeed, none of his kicks saw any attempt at a return with fair-catches waved about the time Swedenburg's kicks reached their apex. "I feel as a punt team we did that today. I felt that's a positive to take away from the game."
But then Bulldog coverage has been superb this season; best in the country in fact as no other NCAA team has allowed an exact net of zero yards on punt returns. The downside of course is Swedenburg's skills wouldn't be in such demand if the offense was gaining ground and scoring points. And being out-scored 48-0 in the last two first halves digs a hole deeper than any punter can fill.
Of more concern to State folk right now is the emotional hole this team might have stumbled into. Swedenburg said, from his vantage point, offense and defense played with effort. "I think it was there. Just the outcome wasn't what we expected."
"It's never fun coming into a locker room after a loss. But our guys are resilient, we're tough. It's second-nature for us to bring ourselves up after a loss, or bring ourselves down after a big victory and make sure we come in and do our job week-in and week-out."
TROUBLING TREND: As noted, State has fallen behind by identical 24-0 halftime scores in their losses to Alabama and Texas A&M. Worse, each opponent has scored a touchdown on their first three turns with the ball, practically scoring a knockout before the Bulldogs ever get on the scoreboard. Or even get much in the way of real drives going.
CB Johnthan Banks nixed the suggestion A&M borrowed any Alabama gameplans for how to start a game against State. "It was very different from last week. A very different offense, very different pace, very different style." If true, though, this is all the more troubling from MSU's perspective. First, because the offense isn't showing up strong at kickoff.
Third quarters are more positive, certainly for QB Tyler Russell as he's directed drives after halftimes and this week scored on one. Russell said he adjusted some things after a 5-of-9 half with a long completion of 11 yards. "For me, I just got the ball out quicker. I went through my reads quicker, I knew I didn't have that much time, they were blitzing a whole bunch. So for me it was trying to get the ball out quicker."
Quicker, and shorter; borrowing from A&M's approach Russell threw soon as possible to his wideouts and let them make moves. The result was after one first-quarter play that went for double-digit yards, and two in the second (two of those three were 15-yard rushes), the big pass plays came. Russell had short and medium throws go for total gains of 42, 14, 23, and 28 yards in the third period alone. Not enough to mount a real comeback but sufficient to score some pride points and show the offense could adapt.
The defense was another matter entirely. LB Cameron Lawrence made scheming for A&M with a run/throw quarterback of amazing escape skills sound like picking between poisons. "Trying to keep him contained and cover receivers, kind of in a dilemma," Lawrence said. "But we just have to execute. I felt we played real sloppy, several missed tackles. It's just reoccurring." Not just several missed tackles, there was a list so long only the defensive staff can count them…not that they will want to. The best measure of un-made stops was on the defensive stats sheet: the top six tacklers had as many or more assists than solos, meaning a whole lot of tackles were made downfield in pursuit.
Lawrence harked back to the night Troy stung State for 572 yards, dismissed at the time as a Bulldog blip. Except the linebacker said scouting A&M led the Dogs to prepare as if for the Trojans in tempo and play selection. Then the Aggies stormed to a near-record 693 yards.
"I thought Troy and Texas A&M were very similar in what they did. So we were prepared as far as that went, we just have to execute. Really, everything we saw on film was exactly what we expected. I mean we had guys in the right place, we just have to wrap-up and make the tackle."
Beyond all this though is the glaring slow-starting trend State is setting on both sides of the ball. "We've got to look at it," Coach Dan Mullen agreed. "We've got to come out and execute right from the beginning. I can explain it, we didn't execute very well. We executed poorly on offense, and combine that with not executing on defense and that's your slow start."
DOUBLES DIPPED: In their first seven games against FBS defenses, the Bulldogs had 94 plays go for ten or more yards. The high was 20 against Tennessee; the low ten against both South Alabama and #1 Alabama.
But this even-slower start meant against A&M only nine plays produced ten or better yards. By bitter contrast the Aggies did it 22 times out of their 97 total offensive snaps.
MOVING UP, GETTING BACK UP: The 14-yard catch and run by WR Chad Bumphis for a touchdown gave Russell his 16th touchdown toss of the junior season. That ties the program record set by Derrick Taite in 1995.
Russell's response? "It means nothing right now. I'd have felt better if we win the game. Like I tell all the other guys, it doesn't matter how good you do or how bad you do; I could go out and throw three picks, as long as we win the game I'm happy. And we didn't win the game."
Russell also threw his third interception of the season, when blitzed into throwing behind an emergency target not looking for a pass just yet. Though sacked just once, same as last week at Alabama, Russell took far too many after-throw licks…also same as last week. Twice he got up after third down incompletions limping to the sideline, though he said afterwards nothing was wrong.
"I'm fine," he insisted.
State also had one sack, when Lawrence got to Johnny Manziel for a nine-yard loss. He did it judo style, sort of, slipping after the agile quarterback but getting their feet tangled for a trip. Lawrence's 13 total stops (six solos, seven assists) was a season-high for the senior.
REJECTION: The blocked field goal by DT Josh Boyd was State's first kick rejection since last year at Arkansas. It was the second field goal blocked by Boyd in his college career.
BOWLED OVER: Five bowl games were represented at Saturday's game; the Capitol One, Cotton, Outback, Chick-fil-A, and Liberty. At 7-2 Mississippi State is guaranteed a post-season berth, and will match the 1998-2000 stretch of three-straight bowl games.
COLOR CODING: For this first conference game meeting with new SEC member Texas A&M, the MSU administration used the last time the two tangled. That was the 2000 Independence Bowl, better known as the Snow Bowl, won in overtime by State 43-41. To commemorate, not only were members of the team and Jackie Sherrill invited back. These Bulldogs got to wear special all-white uniforms and helmets with silver jersey numbers and a silver Dog face outline on the helmets.
Special garb did not work out well for the home team. However the Aggies stole some of State's thunder by unveiling their own first-time-ever black uniforms with maroon numbers, announced 90 minutes before kickoff.