Just goes to affirm a fundamental fact of bowl season. That all other things being reasonably equal, the team happier to be there and hungrier for respect has the advantage. I'm not saying MSU went through motions; they prepared well and by all accounts enjoy themselves. And this certainly wasn't like, say, those bowl trips of the early 90s by State teams which cared more for the goodies than the game and did go-through-motions. I know, I was there.
No, Dan Mullen's men wanted to play and win. The Wildcats just wanted it more, and I can live with that. What is difficult to accept in the aftermath is how the Gator Bowl symbolized and summarized so, so much of 2012.
WARNING: for those who loathe the ‘e' word, it's about to be used by someone with a first-hand knowledge of such things. LaDarius Perkins was the last Dog made media-available and bless the man he was willing to talk. Talk frankly, too, about our real topic of today. How did a 7-0 season become a 8-5 finish, and what does it mean for the future.
Perk didn't point to schemes or lineups or such. "We just felt sometimes we didn't execute (warned you) like we should in games. That's what it comes down to, if you execute the plays you should be successful. But there were a couple of games we were in we didn't execute like we should. It all plays into a team game. It's all our fault, we have to make sure we get better at that next year."
Perkins, who did make the 1,000-Yard Club for one of the few bright spots, is correct. I know, I know, this sounds sooooo similar to post-loss explanations from the prior regime. And know what? It was just as correct. Execution isn't absolutely everything but it is the third-most important aspect of how football is won or lost. Yeah, I said third. The procurement of talented players and enough of them is the single largest factor in the college game. Period. Now I'm not going to compare player-by-player or anything but do give Northwestern credit for having quality personnel. As many as MSU? Doubt it, but nor is the difference so great as our inter-conference comparisons (or recruiting rankings) lead us to expect.
So why then were the Bulldogs playing a step slower? Which I add was the impression of the schedule's tougher second-half and for that matter even in victories. I'll grant three games where this was physical fact, State is slower than the league's elite who annually recruit (that again) exceptional speed. The Dogs are faster than they were four years ago, just not within a stride of the very best and changing that is the work of many more recruiting classes. We hope.
But the last two and most humbling losses were not to physically superior squads. Nor should wins over Auburn, Troy, Tennessee, and Arkansas been as tense as they were for too long and decided more on their mistakes than State's execution. Harsh? Maybe. The unavoidable impression today remains that 2012 should have produced at least one and likely two more wins (yes, yes, I predicted eight in July myself) and could have been more dominating in the victories. And certainly not as blown-away as were the losses, especially second halves of the last two games.
Which brings us to factor #2. It falls behind recruiting and above execution but really is the ‘link' to the two…and I don't have a label for it. ‘Coaching' is too broad a term, ‘philosophy' too vague, ‘scheming' too specific. Send your own suggestions. Meanwhile I'll try to explain.
The best one-word summary for why this season developed and ended as it did is one offered by several assistants going into 2012: ‘identity.' At the time they meant the need to establish one. I resurrect it now because it doesn't seem they succeeded, and in retrospect this was a team and season almost assured of unsettled identity.
The schedule itself encouraged this. Remember how we fans obsessed all summer over ‘if we can beat Auburn and Tennessee…'? So did the Dogs. And when they did, well, who can blame them for breathing the proverbial sigh of satisfaction at an accomplished mission? That this also served to set them up poorly for a less-focused second half was also practically foreordained, we now know.
Beyond this though there was the seemingly-simple task of establishing just what sort of offense and defense this was to be. (As an aside, we should applaud the largely-positive trends on special teams as even their big breakdowns didn't cost a loss, and the key players are returning.) Offensively, after three seasons of power run-first with a strong quarterback-keep percentage, Mullen and MSU changed course. Statistics are easily miss-used and often superficial, but here's some regular season numbers anyway.
In wins the Dogs rushed (scrambles and sacks included) 54% of plays. In 2010, the other eight-win season which seems to serve as a better comparison than '11, it was just under 70%. Yardage? In 2010 58% came on rushing; this past year it was less than 44%.
Now there are two great big reasons for this shift to the air game at the expense of what was Mullen's calling-card. Most obviously the presence of the finest pure-passing quarterback of modern MSU memory and maybe ever. Other quarterbacks have put up numbers but none have the poise and prowess of Tyler Russell. He's that good, a genuine professional prospect quarterback at last. At long, long last for a MSU program which has for most of forty years relied on athlete/throwers. It's what we've WANTED, people! Admit it yourself, how often have you moaned ‘if only State had a real quarterback'? And here we have one, who will own every passing record worth counting before he's done.
And yet this same once-in-a-lifetime-for-State quarterback creates a quandary. A quarterback is only as capable as his targets and his blocking and SEC defenses know that. So did a Big Ten team apparently; I can't get over how un-open those senior receivers were all afternoon, and how few true downfield routes were run against a shaky secondary. They didn't get any slower over the holidays, so it makes one respect Russell all the more for finding them in the regular season. More on what this means for 2013 in a moment.
Another major change from 2010, less-so from '11, was slowing down the snapping. State was just plain deliberate this season. First because a pocket-passer needs the time to read coverage and re-direct everyone, and Russell does this well. Second, huddle-called passing plays reduced the snaps and strain on an offensive line that remains work-in-progress. I'm about convinced Tobias Smith isn't returning or might not even be wanted to as State wants to know pre-spring who they can count on. But Justin Malone is about ready himself and with four other veterans one must expect better blocking this fall.
OK, we've gotten bogged-down in specifics. Going more generally, I suggest Mississippi State's natural use of an exceptional passer came at an intangible cost. Hmmm, how to best express it? Try this: where Russell and his coach/coordinator work well together in this sort of pro-leaning approach, Mullen's every instinct remains run-option spread with a power back. I'm not qualified to say one way or t'other if this year's offensive line would have done that any better, but I am optimistic for '12. I do add that unless a blocking back is left in for extra protection no fivesome will keep Russell clean consistently. Not unless the rising receiver group is a heckuva lot faster than their graduating peers and that is very much uncertain.
As for lacking a defined identity, I give you the 2012 defense. Though again rear-view perspective shows some of this was also inevitable. I noted in November that putting three great cornerbacks together looked fine on paper; on field results were erratic and most especially on third downs. Though there were lots of big-strikes on first downs now that I think a bit. This didn't make sense, until players and coaches admitted the communication just wasn't there consistently. ‘Communication' is the ‘execution' version of a defensive secondary you know. Yet there is a long list of interceptions to remind that all the individual abilities were there to make plays!
Lack of pressure on passers, or for that matter many run-plays stopped for losses, is the real sore subject though. Not that we expected a JLD-banzai defense this year of course, nor should we ever again as that day has passed. Thing though is Chris Wilson's correct comment, that aggressive defense doesn't work if the players cannot ‘get there', works both ways. He's right, State didn't have a real good rush team on the field most plays so we didn't rush. The question is why not, or maybe why not adapt a little more to at least have the wild-card factor for opponents to consider?
And a static defense can work just fine too…as long as the backfield holds up. Re: communications again. There you have the problematic paradox of a defense that was neither this nor that, and muddled in the middle I guess. Good enough personnel-wise to be thisssss close to a really fine unit, but ultimately indecisive against aggressive offenses. Up-tempo spread offenses to be specific, including Ole Miss and Northwestern teams frankly State ought to have beaten. By double-digits.
This is not so much a schematic issue as philosophical. To grossly over-simplify, it is as if we designed this defense to match the Alabamas and LSUs; you know, physical and basic, which is the ideal method if you have their players and experience. But it also left the Dogs vulnerable to tempo teams that, by golly, resembled the 2010 MSU offense in all sorts of sundry ways. Does that make sense?
I suppose what I've gradually, grindingly even, led up to is this. We had a good 2012 season. It could and likely should have been better. And the chief reasons appears to be a shade of uncertainty in just what this team was best-suited and –talented to do. Put another way again, the '12 Bulldogs were almost good enough to be not quite good enough because they didn't really know what they were.
This is a good time to repeat Dan Mullen's own snap-summary. There's no denying the impact his first Egg Bowl loss and a frustrating bowl had. Of course as a coach he can compartmentalize better than we, but his comment—"It was great to win a lot early, it sucks to lose late to be honest with you."—speaks volumes about the split-personality season. Ahhh, but he continued with the real message.
"We have to do a better job as coaches and we have to make sure we continue to put kids in position to win. The great thing is, eight-win seasons now are starting to become disappointing at Mississippi State. You know, eight-win seasons used to be massive celebrations. And now within our program those are starting to be disappointing ones. That's the direction you want the program headed in."
Now. I've heard similar statements from other coaches and sports and know this can be meant two ways. Were Mullen a, say, sixth- or seventh-year coach of the same school, such a comment would come across as an excuse. You know, as ‘you folk don't appreciate how good you've got it with me so get off my back.' Ohhhh, have I heard that theme before from long-term coaches whose programs begin underachieving. So have you.
But I don't interpret Mullen that way, this day. First because he's only been a boss four years and at 40 his fire still burns. It might have dialed back just a touch the last year or so as he settled in, but I ‘spect that is about to change. We saw it after the Egg Bowl first-hand; and while Mullen wasn't as direct Tuesday (he took a long time to get to the presser and had gathered his thoughts) the eyes said it all. As in, the returning players and the surviving staffers—yes, changes are in store though they have to be handled and timed carefully here in recruiting season—should see the early-years Mullen again. At least that is my own hope, because whether staff- or scheme- or philosophy-wise this is no time to stand pat with more of the same.
So I'm choosing to interpret the man as saying that while there has been absolute and unarguable progress in the state of State football, he and we are also at a crossroads of sorts. Even if Mullen wasn't saying it such, that is the fact. 2013 is going to see either better, or worse, but not the same. Take the schedule for one or two large reasons. Thanks, TV and conference office, for foisting the Okie State opener on us, then revoking a return with Tennessee for a trip to South Carolina.
For that matter a just-went-bowling Bowling Green team is an upgrade. If I had to place a prediction today, I'd honestly have to come down on 7-5 right now. Fortunately I don't. Another factor is the temporarily-fragile state of two West peers after coaching changes. They won't stay down forever, probably not even long; so Mississippi State must maximize current opportunity in those games too.
More immediately is wrapping up and honestly even amping-up recruiting. I'm not concerned, by the way, about running backs wavering this way or the other. We're in good shape there and more good ones are available every year, a la the NFL's example. But State must continue to procure the best big bodies available on both sides (though we're well-stocked on defensive front fortunately) regardless of scheme. I'm a lot more comfortable than you'd think about linebacking and secondary personnel by the way.
But receivers…it's scary to consider just how critical it is for a transfer wideout or two to not merely replace graduates but be faster and better. We've got the right coaching there, as '12 showed. The right plays to use them too. Yet without at least one or preferably two elite targets (notice the amazing difference just one of those made to the arch-rival this year!), I fear the best passing quarterback of my MSU lifetime will be wasted.
Which gets back to identity, or philosophy, or whatever. Mullen has proven himself an adaptable coach, able to go from power running to pocket passing in a single season. He wasn't kidding when he alerted us years ago he uses two-thirds of his playbook every year, just a different 66% to suit the personnel. My question here at New Years: which personnel will he pick for 2013 before selecting the appropriate pages?
I love Russell, his poise and prowess and candor and calm. By the way, you did realize State hasn't had a quarterback drafted since 1987; and Don Smith was picked as a running back by the Bills anyway, not a quarterback. Rockey Felker in 1975 was the last Dog drafted as a quarterback. See what I mean by once-in-a-lifetime?
Yet as already noted, two factors complicate things. First, are the runners and catchers and blockers here to make full use of his NFL skills? And second…is this head coach and offensive staff entirely sold on primary pocket passing? If there is the least, I mean even an iota, of hesitation in their minds, then State must commit immediately to their former successful run and option approaches with passing mixed in. Russell can run the ball, really he can. Dak Prescott is better at it and that is no insult to anyone, just fact. We'll never know how the Gator Bowl would have played out had Dogs jumped the snap TWICE in goal line when Prescott was about to take four shots at the end zone. Remember those false-starts before griping about what quarterback was used when, OK?
See, I don't think quarterbacking in '13 has to be an either/or equation. Depending on how he shakes out his staffing, Mullen has shown at least me he can mix and match triggermen efficiently. Forget the ‘keep everyone happy' concept; winning does that. But State cannot wait until after spring ball to decide what the offensive identity is. They have to set a course before camp and practice it then.
Ditto the defense, pending again what Mullen decides about division of responsibility. The co-coordinators approach isn't to blame, Chris Wilson and Geoff Collins functioned fine together. Still Mullen nailed it pre-bowl admitting that if the defensive front was going to shuffle smoothly—and that need will only increase as more and more MSU opponents play tempo offense—Wilson should focus on his guys and linebackers boss Collins call the plays. Thus, this morning's news that the Gator Bowl change in overall coordinator is now permanent. And I've no worries Tony Hughes can handle the whole secondary, meaning there is a fair chance of hiring a specific special teams coach now. If so he'll inherit a good group of players.
And good players still matter more than anything. Put this way, it's real easy to have a ‘philosophy' when you've also got a Chris White, Fletcher Cox, and Pernell McPhee. I'm not going to jinx any current personnel with comparisons to those greats, but I do like the potential in a lot of vets and redshirts to blossom this spring. I really wish I saw a Derek Sherrod, then any offensive approach would work. Time will tell. Then again the time is right now. I repeat, the 2013 script needs to be largely written between signing day and first spring practice. Whether it is firing-and-hiring (the convention begins Monday and one suspects coaches in question have already been cued about their futures; whether the news goes public before is another matter) or outlining general themes on both sides, this can't be figured out during practices as in the past.
This may be the longest column I've written since the change-over in '04. Thanks for the patience so far, but I've one other thing to add. Well, make that two: pitchers and catchers report Monday, along with the rest of the Diamond Dogs for the first day of spring classes. That though should ease the coming winter weeks.
The main thought though relates to Mullen's comment about the change from celebrations to disappointments. A non-Floridian musician now entirely identified with the state penned an amusing novel years ago that is part of my annual winter reading, for its sunny Caribbean setting. A certain athletic director we know used to read this same book as a State student, in fact he put me on to it for how many chapters were based on author's song titles.
In it one of the rogue characters tells the hero about the boom-and-bust nature of his shady businesses. Cleaning up the lingo, he explains that good times come like wild horses; one rides them long as possible and when eventually tossed off, just wait in the shade until the herd gallops by again. If you've made it this far with me, you'll easily grasp the implication to Mississippi State's football history. We've had a few, really too few, such wild rides over the years. And they were fun for sure, just as returning to the Gator Bowl was.
But are we Bulldogs forever bound to a cycle? Once upon a time I'd have shrugged and said yes, tough but true. Now, I'm not so convinced we are locked into such a short feasts and long famines fate. Oh, it won't be easy breaking the historic cycle; our conference is only getting stronger and State has to hustle just to hold its current place much less improve. But progress is possible, as proved by such things as stadium expansion and that splendid, nay palatial complex about to open. Seriously, you'll have to tour it in person to appreciate, words and photos won't do justice.
The keys to future celebration of better remain upgraded recruiting, renewed fire and even fury within the staff (hate to say it this way but some youthful vigor might be required), and not least even greater commitment from us. The fans. What, you say you've given enough already? I understand the emotion, and can show you the stack of nigh-weekly requests correspondence I also receive. But when I mentioned the crossroads situation we're in, I include our own shows of support. It might be much to ask most of us to be in Houston on August 31…but sorry, there is no excuse to stay in front of the big screen on home game weekends any more and then gripe about results on the field. A big-time team demands prime-time support, even for 11:00am kickoffs.
Well, that's way more than enough for now. There's still bowl-trip laundry piled up, an empty fridge, and the MasterCard demanding attention. Not to mention Opening Day already peeking over the horizon. Yet Bulldog football really is an all-year affair now. And the 2013 season is already underway.