Today more so than usual since giving up four fourth-quarter touchdowns without response isn't an ideal formula for optimism. What is, now, are events of the preceding periods when a Bulldog ball team still finding its footing went toe-to-toe with a much more talented and far, far more confident foe and, as Dan Mullen reminded today, was positioned to win. Or at least try to. This oughtn't get obscured by the final margin, which is of realistic meaning only to them that make money off such stuff. Oh and no, I don't begrudge the Tigers scoring a couple of bonus touchdowns, that's their job.
‘Job' being something Mullen and staff resume stressing today.
Sure, sure, I understand. Trudging to post-game last night my own talking-points likely matched yours. The confusing and failed two-point conversion (see Notebook filed about 2:00 this ayem for the coach's explanation). Another missed field goal of course. Slightly more subtly, the missed connection on 3rd-and-two that A) was completely there for the conversion and B) stopped the clock charitably for a club with just one timeout left. LSU certainly seized on that gift to regain the lead before halftime. That's a sampling, all legitimate questions as well as items which will be addressed in practice where it counts a lot more than in any presser. None are downplayed.
But the head coach's own impression then and again today isn't so much those might-have-beens. Because, he reminds, it was a one-possession contest after three complete quarters. Well yeah, he did mention missing that 42-yarder as a turning point of sorts, but more from the sense State had to settle for a kick anyway after driving from one 25 to the other. I could hear echoes from the coach today of his post-Auburn-mortem, where he saw a win escape not on the final drive but on third-quarter series not turned into points.
So, what is Mullen's morning-after impression? It has to do with something simple to say and incredibly hard to explain. So I'll provide the complete Sunday quote for context, regarding what happened in the fourth quarter…and how to keep it from happening again.
"I think there's a lot of different little angles. That's part of what with some young guys on the team, of them playing with confidence and expecting to make plays. I think what I saw as the game went on at times is we kept telling our guys hey, be ready. Everyone you've got to be ready to go make some plays. And they saw as the game went on they were making plays, we were in position going in the 4th quarter in a tight game to win the game, at the end of the third quarter. And I started seeing guys push a little bit, you know? Trying to go make the play instead of doing your job and then making the play when it presents itself. And there's a lot to be learned from that."
Indeed. But it is best and often only learned from hard experience, this matter of doing one's own job while still staying aggressive about play-making. And make no mistake, Mullen wants his Dogs to hunger for the big play. It's finding that indefinable balance point, where State struggled last night and the Tigers didn't. Or didn't as much. Don't let the final margin obscure how the Dogs made lots of explosive and entertaining plays, both sides of the ball, and were ever so close to making more and maybe better. I say maybe because you won't see two better-thrown balls this fall than what Tyler Russell delivered for touchdowns in the second quarter.
Or how LaDarius Perkins read and spread his first run. Or how Jameon Lewis—is that guy becoming big-time or what?—and De'Runnya Wilson handled physical coverage to make the catches. And not least to me, at least, the quality of protection both Russell and Prescott had for most of the evening. I've been as tough on Bulldog blocking as anyone since August but must tip the proverbial hat at their overall effort. No, LSU's defense is not, well, a LSU defense as we've come to expect. In most other conferences they'd be regarded with dread but by both their own high and SEC standards this year's Tiger unit isn't overwhelming.
They are as athletic as ever and will make just enough stops, most of the time. Plus they can be assured of plenty points to work with and here in 2013 college football it's so-far true that offense is the best defense. That'll adjust a bit by November but for now scoring and more to the point (points?) confidence of scoring trumps most other factors. Yes, I expect this to become something of a State strength over the rest of '13 and certainly into next season. I really, really like lots of what the Dog offense is showing.
Yet we didn't see quite enough this time to beat a top-ten team. Did we expect to? Even the most eternally-optimistic State fan likely didn't come to campus looking for an end to that losing streak against either LSU or ranked opposition. I figure all the expressed frustration today is a natural result of it being right there for the taking through three. Just as three weeks ago at Auburn, of course…though had that been on the home field I'm convinced State would have finished.
As it was, per Mullen, a team that still isn't completely certain in themselves began pushing to over-achieve, try doing other folks' jobs, and making mistakes. The interception was a back-breaker for sure, but Lewis was open for a correctly-tossed ball…and that is progress even if un-used. Seriously, think a moment: it's been a while since State receivers were consistently and clearly beating coverages of any SEC sort, right? So not only did Dogs make tough catches (that one by D.Wilson just hints at what sort of still-raw athlete we have for developing into greatness) and run fine routes, they beat defenders often. Almost often enough, as Mullen also explained today.
"I look at did we have guys in position? And for most of the night we did, and even with guys in position they (LSU) just executed and made the play." And, he added, "We made a bunch of big plays, but…both our fourth down conversions the ball was tipped away by a safety at the last moment. Both of their long conversions we just missed tipping the ball away. So give them credit for the execution and making the play." Yes, he used that e-word so loathed of fans who only think about calls and suchlike. Because as usual the coach is correct.
Of course an offense with a quarterback who is climbing the draft charts weekly, two wideouts who we can hope turn pro next spring too, and a rack of running backs, ought to execute. My point here is, there are Bulldogs showing pro-style skills of their own in a spread system. They just aren't as far advanced either individually or collectively…but unlike their Tiger peers will be back in 2014 with the obvious exception of Russell. By the way, not a word was asked or said today about the two-quarterback rotation Mullen seems committed to. Guess we've worn that topic to the nub for now. Besides, the results were pretty darned impressive and the other eleven on-field seem to function just fine no matter who counts cadence.
Now to the fourth-quarter item which does have me fretting for the rest of the season. It was the coinciding series of Dogs going down, where this offense can least afford further injuries. By game's end we had Justin Senior at left tackle, Dylan Holley at center and Dillon Day shuffled over to guard as Blaine Clausell and Ben Beckwith were hurt in scary sequence. The Sunday sick-call hadn't begun when we talked with Mullen.
What he could say was pretty interesting though. "I don't think there's any significant injuries in the group, but whether the availability for this next two weeks we don't know, we'll find out later." Hmmm, seems he's already thinking in two-week terms interpreted as ‘thank heavens for another well-timed open date.' Though Mullen had to talk-up his former employing-program of Bowling Green today. A 5-1 foe needs respecting anyway as winning leads to winning, never mind they're the Homecoming guest due to pure timing rather than any insulting inference.
I don't pretend satisfaction with 2-3. Nor surprise either as things have developed. Even in the heights of preseason optimism the upgraded schedule with Okie State and our two Tiger nemesis (nemeses?) nagged in bowl-eligibility outlook and it's come true already. Still there's increasing reason to believe a potent offense is taking shape again before our long-suffering State eyes. And as bad at times as the defense looked against elite talents—of which they'll face more this season—those Dogs were not consistently beaten about as by the top-ten teams of recent seasons. Mullen is right, this was more a matter of most players learning the hard way when to stand their ground and when to go get ‘em.
Remember, even John Banks got burned often in his college career and nobody wanted him off the field, when healthy that is. Which he wasn't last November but that's history now. Good to see J-Banks back home yesterday, and it was fun chatting again with John and Marybeth Bond before the game. Yes, the thought did cross my ancient State mind about finding a 13 jersey and having J.B. run some triple option against the very opponent he most abused four-straight years. We could make quite a quality wishbone from this roster, say?
We recall those and other Bulldog greats for what they did at their peaks, and for most of this squad that peak is still to come. Even some seniors aren't top of form after early-season injuries, and still Russell and Perkins looked 90% sharp on their returns. By end of this month if they avoid any more setbacks and, and, the offensive line returns to strength, State's offense ought be capable of bigger and better regardless of opponent. And stop squallering about schemes and such, the defense is developing. Barely scratching a lot of surfaces, in fact.
Which means to me that the hardest teaching and coaching is ahead. That is, working on what needs it and leaving the rest be. I can't define that either, but it's comparable to what helps a .250 batter one season hit .300 the next. Or a poor frontcourt defender into a steady one. Just slight, even subtle tweaks of technique with much more emphasis on mentality. Because enough of these Bulldogs have shown yes, they can make the plays.
How quickly the figure out ways to make them most of the time is what will settle Mississippi State's fate this post-season, as well as springboard everything into the next season. And who knows? Accelerate the process somehow, some way and we might get that win over a ranked team sooner rather than later.