Mississippi State (4-3, 1-2 SEC) is coming off a short weekend break following the 28-22 win over Kentucky last Thursday. The Bulldogs now face a five-weekend run of conference games which opens at 11:21am (CT) in Columbia, against the 6-2, 4-2 Gamecocks.
Coach Dan Mullen: "I'm excited about the game. Obviously, not a team we've gotten to play very often. I think we played right down to the wire here a couple of years ago and give up a late touchdown pass. We had some opportunities to score and we didn't to win the game. You look at their program, Steve's done a really good job developing the program. He took it and built it up through the course of a bunch of years, and finally put it to a point they've started to compete for championships. I know they're a team now that after they built that foundation they expect to compete for a championship year in and year out. They had a huge win last week, it just shows how much they know how to win, their guys. And how superstar players step up at key moments. Their quarterback, they have the best defensive player in all college football that's a game changer. The top running back in the SEC right now. So a great challenge for our guys, and obviously playing it on the road adds to that. We've got to find a way to go win."
You mentioned before about the influence Steve Spurrier was early in your career? "Yeah, I was a big fan of his growing up. I never met him until I was coaching at Florida I don't think, I don't know how much he influenced my coaching deal but I always was a big fan of his growing up. Like their style of offense and what they, they were spreading it out all over the field, in the shotgun throwing it a bunch. I always thought that was pretty cool."
Watching the Kentucky tape how did Artimas Samuel and Jamaal Clayborn play? "They hung in there, they did some good things. They made a lot of mistakes. But they did some good things, which is good to see. The stage wasn't too big for them. They came in and were ready to play and went out there and performed. The good thing, I didn't see a lot of nerves on them, I just saw that ‘now I have to learn'. They understand what a game is like, and you can't simulate a game anywhere or any way. So it's good they got that experience."
Is Connor Shaw one of your favorite players watch? "It is. You watch, you just see the type of player he is. Last week it was completely evident the type of player he is watching that game and what he means to that team. Now, sometimes they don't make him put up huge numbers, they don't need to. But as any great quarterback I think he manages the game extremely well. People use that in a negative term, I use that as he does what he needs to do for his team to win the game. If it's run the ball he runs it, if it's hand it off he hands it off. I'm sure if they needed to for him to win a game he'll go throw for 500 yards and won't complain about it either. That to me is a manager and a winner at the quarterback position, and he does that very,very well."
The three teams ahead are 20-4, how do you prepare for this stretch? "I don't know, our first seven opponents are 38-18 so they were all pretty good, too. I mean, no different than most of the other stretches that we face during the season. You're playing a pretty tough schedule so I think our guys are used to playing good teams every single week."
What stands out about Mike Davis? "He can do it all. He's got a lot of speed. When he gets out in the open field he can make you miss, but he's also very much a power back, he gets a lot of yards after contact. That's to me where he's special as a runner. And he's an extremely effective wide receiver, they use him a lot in the passing game and create matchups with him that make it difficult. He's a guy obviously they want the ball in his hands because of what he can do with it, physically and athletically, and they do a good job of finding a lot of different ways to put it in his hands."
Is Davis sort of a ‘throwback' player, that lead back of 10-15 years ago? "I don't know what a throwback (is), it depends how far you throw back! If you go to the single-wing shift then all quarterbacks are throwbacks. I don't know, I think he's just an excellent football player. And they're good coaches, he's one of their best players on offense and they put the ball in his hands."
Do you have to keep a ‘spy' on Bruce Ellington all game? "Well, and Byrd, and their tight end is really athletic. And they're quarterback can make you miss. That's what makes them a championship contender team, is they've got a weapon at every position. I mean, when you have a good team, if you want to stop one of them they have four other guys that will go beat you. So you have to play good, sound defense all across the board. I mean, we've had games we could go just stop the running back and let them throw 450 yards, and we won't be real happy probably after the game."
Kaleb Eulls and Denico Autry maybe haven't had the season people expected? "Well, I think they've played pretty well, I don't know what people expect. I think they've played pretty soundly on our defense. They're gap-sound most of the time, they're holding their gap, they're making plays when they're asked to make plays. So I don't know what you're expecting?"
"I mean stats, production, I do it off of film grade. And their film grade is pretty good actually. Because sometimes you're not going to get stats."
Has Spurrier adapted to more of a power running game from his years at Florida? "They ran a lot when he was at Florida, he had some backs put up some big numbers. Fred Taylor and some of those guys put up some big numbers even then. But he's a very intelligent football coach. He looks at his team, looks at where his advantages are, and tries to take advantage of those numbers. And I think they do a good job of getting the ball to players and creating a lot of different formations and sets, and getting matchups that they like."
"I would say this, they're probably a lot less traditional than he used to be. But I think all of football is now. You'll see him running a lot of unbalanced sets. Where before a lot of people used to line up in three formations on offense; they were going to run the ‘I' and split-back with three wides or something like that. Now I think they've adapted to a being lot of unbalanced lines and receivers over and all of that stuff to create advantages in the run game."
At times the offense has looked awesome and at times there are lulls, is that normal? "No, I mean every game to me has been very, very, very different. If there's one thing, you'd fix one thing."
"Last game I thought we did a lot of excellent things, then we did some really, really poor things. We finished with negative-50 yards in the rushing category, I mean we ran for a lot but had negative-50. Well we haven't had that much, we had 30 yards losses on sacks and stuff like that we haven't had. So the good was really good and the bad was really bad. Now you take other games; Bowling Green I don't know if there was a whole lot of good, there wasn't a whole lot of bad, it was kind of so-so. LSU, there was a lot of good and then a couple of critical errors. Maybe not terrible, like you'd say is really bad yardage plays and loss plays, but the turnover, a couple of critical errors where we had guys open and we had the opportunity to make a play, and actually went the complete opposite way. We didn't make a play. Or got a penalty at the wrong time."
"You go back to the first game of the season where we're penalty after penalty after penalty, third-and-15 after a third-and-15. It's not easy. So in each game there is always something different that kind of ebb-and-flows throughout the season. I'd love to play a perfect game, I don't know if there such a thing, or as close to a perfect game as possible. That would be a pretty good deal and that's what we always strive for. I don't think we'll ever reach perfection but we're always striving for it, maybe we'll just reach excellence."
You called Jadeveon Clowney the best defensive player, how do you contain that? "Well, he's like 6-6, 280, probably the most explosive, quickest guy on the field. Really fast and long. I don't know, containing him, he's going to make his plays. The one mistake you can make is going into a game expecting hey, we're going to take him out of the game. He's going to find a way to make his plays. We have to do a good job of making sure we limit the amount of plays he can make, or limit the effect those plays have course of the game. You've got to expect he's going to get a sack. That's OK, chances are we'll give up a sack Saturday. The key is if we don't give up a second one right after, or we don't have an interception right after. What do we do to make up for that play? That's the key to keeping the steadiness of the offense going."
State leads the SEC in fewest turnovers, is that an offense playing above its maturity level? "That's always interesting, because there you go with stats right there. Six turnovers in seven games seems like a lot for me. We'd like to have zero per game, our goal is zero which we haven't hit many times this year. If there is a category that you do want to lead in, I do like that. It shows we take care of the football."
"All our quarterbacks, we do that. And you look at it, their job is to take care of the football. We don't have a goal that says don't punt; we do have a goal that says don't turn the ball over. Personally I don't like punting, but I hate turning the ball over. There's a big difference between the two. I think our guys understand that. We coach them pretty hard, we make a pretty big emphasis, if you ask our players they know. Our players want the ball, and if you don't take care of the ball you don't get to play a whole lot and you don't get it very much. So they're pretty conscious about holding on to the ball too. They drop it, they've got to earn the right to get it back again. I think they'd just rather have it to start with and not worry about that too much."
After Kentucky you criticized yourself on play calling, how do you manage the back-and-forth with Les Koenning and managing the offense? "Well, we communicate and talk a lot. And I thought we called some really good plays against Kentucky. I was very critical of myself at the last two play calls--not the take a knee play, that's a good play call statistically speaking! But the second and third last play call."
"You know, they were OK. But especially the last one I didn't like that call. But we look at those things. There are times during the game you look back. We're very critical of everything, I mean as we evalutate everything--offensively, defensively, kicking game, our players—we're very critical of our coaches. Did we make good or bad play calls. I don't know that very often you can pat yourself on the back for hey, that was a great call. A couple of times a game maybe you make great calls, you hope that you don't make any bad calls. There's a chance you probably have three or four great calls during the game, hopefully not but usually three or four bad calls of the game. And then the rest are kind of, that was a good call in that position, it wasn't anything special. It's a good time to take a shot, or let's run it or throw quick here or whatever it is we're going to do. But we do evaluate those things. And if I'm calling a play and it's a bad play I'm always very critical of myself. I want to be the best coach I can be."
How much is there discussion in a game, like when to throw the throwback pass? "It's a lot earlier in the game. A lot of that goes into a game. It's during the course of a game, of looking and saying in a specific situation. A lot of those critical moments, there's no finger-pointing; I call the plays. Was the fourth-and-four call against Bowling Green any good? Obviously not, we didn't get the first down. So that, I could be very critical of myself for that play call, too, I called that one. That was pretty bad. If we got the first down it would have been a great call I guess!"
"To me I don't know if that was good or bad, that was a decision to do that. But a lot of that stuff, we look back at times and say hey, in this situation looking back that was not a good call. Hey, we took a big sack, maybe we should have just tried to get a couple of yards and punt; or try to do that, or should we have run it here, should we have taken that shot? Boy, we were awful conservative right there, should have taken more chances to throw the ball down the field in that situation? It's much easier to look back afterwards and guess upon, but during the course of the game you have about four seconds to make that decision.'
What makes a bad play call? "A bad play call is you have a really good idea something is coming, and you don't call a right play to beat that defense. For that last game (Kentucky), that last fourth down call, you know they're going to blitz us. I probably should have called a different blitz-beater. You're sitting there third-and-long and say boy, we need eight, 15 yards here; and you go launch one down the field and it gets picked or your holding onto the ball and get a sack. I mean you can look sometimes and say where the momentum was in that game we should have thrown a quick underneath and let our guy run, and punt the ball. And not given them another on top of momentum they had. Those are the type of things we really evaluate."
This might be a dumb question… "There are no dumb questions. There's dumb people that ask questions but there are no dumb questions!"
None of your roster has played in this stadium, is warmup an issue, sightlines, what we have to figure out? "No, none of us have played in a lot of stadiums. I mean I've been in that stadium but you forget with our guys, very few of our guys to be honest with you have been anywhere. We went to Auburn earlier this year, we didn't win obviously but there were only a couple of guys that had ever been there before. You know? Because we're a really young team and the last time we went there was two years ago and most of the guys weren't playing, a lot of them didn't travel."
"So for us, not the ‘Hoosiers' issue, but the field is still going to be the same dimensions and the goalposts are going to be in the same place. The jumbotron will be different and the play clock, the quarterback that's the first thing you do in every stadium when you walk out, point out the play clock so they know where to look. Everybody else just worries about what's going on on the field. So that stuff to me is not that big a deal."