So hopefully his team has benefitted from a comparatively soft second month, especially yesterday's short break following the Thursday night victory over Kentucky. "Clear our heads and get a breather," Mullen said today. Bulldog breaths must be caught in time to prepare for their trip to South Carolina and a rare daylight game with the Gamecocks. Suggestions the squad restock in body and mind for following games with other ranked opponents Texas A&M and Alabama might seem sensible too.
With five games left this top-twenty…no check that, this top-fifteen stretch won't necessarily settle the season or the post-season for 4-3 Mississippi State. The bowling goal is certainly achievable as these 2013 Dogs chase history in the form of a fourth-straight holiday game. At the same time, Mullen's team can position themselves much more favorably by scoring an upset in any of these coming three weeks. And an upset it would be if State left Columbia with more points on the board.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us," Mullen said today. "South Carolina showed what kind of team they are, overcoming adversity." The Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2 SEC) certainly did that, rallying from a 17-0 deficit to defeat unbeaten Missouri 27-24 in overtime. Though they still trail the Tigers by a game and need outside help, South Carolina continues to play for another Eastern Division title.
While his players grabbed that quick break, Mullen and staff got started scouting the Gamecocks a day earlier. The head coach didn't wait for the video exchange but watched Saturday's rambling, scrambling comeback keyed by quarterback Connor Shaw. A knee sprained late in a loss at Tennessee had the old triggerman questionable but he did take to the field in the second half and made the plays with foot and arm. "Obviously they're a much different team with him," Mullen said. "He's a great player and a winner."
Shaw still looked a bit gimpy at the end, as did explosive running back Mike Davis with a sprained foot. Other Gamecocks have taken their hits and hurts in recent games too. State's staff will prepare for the regulars all the same, as big-play receivers like Bruce Ellington are full-speed. And while his junior (and draft status) season hasn't produced big numbers, there is no bigger presence on any defensive line or lineup than end Jadeveon Clowney. Never mind 24 total tackles and two sacks with no lack of outside distractions.
Mullen calls Clowney the "best defensive player in the country" and part of an overall great defense. "As a whole they've got a lot of great surrounding cast as well."
Mississippi State isn't in any West Division contention but did just get a first conference win, outlasting Kentucky 28-22. A last-drive defensive stop was required, just as in the previous Bowling Green game, and the SEC-winless Wildcats were a broken tackle from spoiling State's night and likely season. Fortunately S Kendrick Market made that tackle on second down, and two snaps later a rushed pass went high and incomplete.
While fans fretted having gone down-to-wire with modest opposition, the Bulldogs rightly celebrated both successes equally. As did Mullen who said all that needed taking from the two home victories is "That we won! In the end it's finding ways to win football games. Fifty percent of the teams yesterday weren't able to do that."
However, Mullen is working that fine line of allowing the players to enjoy winning, as they should; while pushing improvement in just about everything. What he technically took from those two games, and for that matter tough losses to ranked rivals LSU and Auburn, is this team does play well in some stretches. Very well even and on both sides of the ball. It's just that against opponents with a number in front of the name strong stretches aren't enough.
Against Kentucky, "We found a way at key moments of the game to play our ‘A' game." This week a lot more of those moments must be made or the Bulldogs could get blown off the field by a South Carolina squad which doesn't get knocked-out and is always able to strike. Multiply that a few magnitudes in the next two weekends and Mullen's focus becomes clearer.
He has an offense which has functioned fine, and better, in first halves for weeks but gone into a second-half shell and been out-scored 52-17 in fourth quarters. Over 24% of all offensive snaps have gained ten or more yards, yet the red-zone touchdown rate is 19 out of 29 chances. That latter stat is one trend Mullen is emphatic about. "Get down in the red zone, you have to get touchdowns."
Playing Kentucky was very good for the Dog defense's third-down numbers. Except, the nothing-to-lose Wildcats went for five fourth-downs and converted four, failing only on the chance that mattered most. Getting this squad off the field quickly as practical is of increasing concern to Mullen.
"There's not one stat in a football game that leads to wins, but those are things that certainly helps. The time of possession, the number of snaps. We'd rather play more offensive snaps." Doing so against a SEC defense is another matter than against the Alcorn States and Troys who were far easier pickings.
One area where State has excelled, interestingly, is ball security. The offense has lost one fumble all fall, best in the conference. Even adding five interceptions and this team ranks with the league's best in turnover margin. "Knock on wood," added Mullen. "We need to continue that though, it seems like to many turnovers to me." Then again this team would rank even higher by forcing turnovers, and they've managed just six takeaways as well.
Quarterbacking continues to keep everyone guessing. With both healthy, Mullen has alternated the past two starts with senior Tyler Russell taking first snap against BGSU and soph Dak Prescott against Kentucky. The difference last week was any rotation script was trashed early as Russell's fourth snap left him with a sprained left ankle and he didn't return. Mullen said he would update this and other injuries at Monday's press conference, presumably including offensive line where true freshman Jamaal Clayborn made his debut. It came in game-seven, alternating with a hurting right guard Ben Beckwith.
The defense has two players of increased interest but not for injuries. Safety Nickoe Whitley was ejected in the second quarter after drawing two sportsmanship penalties in a four-snap stretch. Mullen said Whitley had been given a couple of days to himself and indicated a conversation was in store when the team reassembles. But decisions about the senior's status won't be made until later in the week.
This applies also to soph defensive tackle Quay Evans, who did not dress for the last game and saw limited October action anyway. "We're handling that internally," was Mullen's Sunday statement.
Player discipline is kept internal. The struggles of placekicker Devon Bell are played out in public, with a 5-of-11 season on field goals and three-straight misses after the soph made good on three before that. Mullen did caution that Bell's 47-yard attempt before halftime at the semi-closed end was into a wind and the range might have impacted his technique.
Bell's longest make this year is 40 yards though he did hit from 47 as a true freshman. None of his misses this year lacked for leg at all, and his kickoff work has been exemplary with more touchbacks the first half of '13 than he had all of '12. Bell has even been given most of the punting work in the last two games. In fact, and with obvious irony, the week senior Baker Swedenburg was announced as a Ray Guy Award nominee among the land's leading punters, it was Bell punting three times to the older Dog's two. And averaging better, too, though Swedenburg's gifts are in hang time and placement more than booming it away.
A further and more frustrating irony though was how Bell didn't get one other punt off. Taking a short snap in the end zone he simply dropped it and did well to limit damage to a safety, though those two points did put Kentucky in one-play striking distance at the end.
Mullen has said for weeks the issues are technical and being addressed, particularly foot placement on the kick. And last week the coach reported 27-of-28 accuracy in practice. This doesn't ring rightly when making kicks for real three-pointers are missed at least half the time. Mullen is standing by the strong-legged Bell.
"He knows we have confidence in him, he knows the team has confidence in him."
Confidence in any shape and form is necessary as, after four home games around two open dates, the Bulldogs take consecutive trips to opposite ends of the SEC. Columbia and College Station are over 1,000 miles apart by air, longer when starting-and-stopping from Starkville in each direction. What happens in these road games won't necessarily break the Bulldogs' season…but can make their post-season goals very much bigger and better.
If, Mullen said, the players pack and play with their best. "Anything less than our ‘A' game and you're probably not going to win."