Bowl Work Is All Business For Matt Wells

Bowl games are celebrations of an entire season. A reward for the whole year's labors. Fun. At the same time…this is a working trip to Matthew Wells. "I mean it's a great opportunity first of all to even be able to go to a bowl game. And we just want to get over the hump, you know. Come out with a winning season."

Yes. A winning season. There is the aspect which makes this AutoZone Liberty Bowl business for Bulldogs. They are taking a 6-6 record to Memphis, and will come back home with a winning overall record…or not.

Now to be clear. Nobody on the Mississippi State roster will flip the calendar to 2014 feeling this past season was a failure if they leave Memphis on the shorter side of the scoreboard. With everything the Bulldogs endured; from a truly brutal schedule through series of disruptions and injuries; and the frantic, fantastic finish, 2013 will remain fondly-remembered by the reasonable.

At the same time, players and fans do keep count. Linebacker Wells certainly does.

"Yeah, we have high expectations. Very high here," he said. "So it's a great honor to make it to a bowl game and be picked for this bowl. But I mean, we aim so high."

Such expectations and ambitions are why Bulldog bowl camp has been an interesting case study of a still-developing football team. Coach Dan Mullen's club went about campus bowl camp with an energy, and enjoyment, that stood out to longtime observers. To be sure, the way Mississippi State finished the regular season was a factor. Consecutive overtime victories to earn bowl eligibility, as well as return the Golden Egg to its happier home, put some spring in everyone's winter step.

At the same time there was the risk of post-season satisfaction, that the job was done and all could relax. Not this time. Not this team.

Wells notes another ingredient; a lot of veterans from last New Years Day defeat in Jacksonville. Suddenly bowl victories as in '10 and '11 weren't just routine any more. The reality check has been used to good effect this December.

"Right. We expect to a goal to go to a bowl game every year, and we expect to win. Like you said, we didn't win last year, but we expect to go in and take care of this game on the 31st."

This in no sense under-rates Rice. The Conference USA champions are a ten-win team and that's worthy of respect in itself. Watching the Owls reinforced Wells' opinion that the Liberty Bowl will be worth watching for anyone that likes fine football. Especially the matchup of Bulldog defense and Owl offense, where there won't be much fancy stuff going on.

"They execute very well, they're very good at what they do. And they've got good running backs, they're all big and can run. And they're also good in blocking and a physical team." Which of course is something the Dog D faces almost every SEC weekend. And yes, Wells figures there will be just a bit of extra incentive from Rice to knock off a team from the constantly-touted conference.

Regardless, "We just have to play our game. If we play our game we'll be OK."

That ‘if' does get back to the perennial question about bowls. It's not a normal game. Yet players must approach it as any other contest, maybe a little more so if they want to walk off winners. Wells was a redshirt on that 2010 team which did come out of the Gator Bowl with the trophy, and an alternate outside linebacker on the '11 and '12 squads which respectively won the Music City Bowl before dropping the return date in Jacksonville.

Winning, is better. So the fourth-fall junior is one of the old Dogs stressing this message to anyone daring treat the bowl as just a fun trip, a good time, and a post-Christmas bonus bag of gifts. In a real sense he finds himself following the lead of his own predecessors, alerting younger pups about the distractions of bowl week and keeping a club focused on business.

"I had other people to talk to. Deontae Skinner and Cameron Lawrence, a lot of guys in the room. We all followed those guys so they taught us well." And now, it is his own turn to tell the tale? "Right. It's that time to let them watch us and we be the leaders." Though Wells adds, he must pick his spots to speak carefully.

So there hasn't been a lot of lecturing so far. "I haven't really talked to them yet but I will once we get there. You know, we've been teaching them how to prepare for the game and just being mature about whatever you do and the decisions you make." Which means any Dog who plays the fool in Memphis will have to deal with teammates even more than coaches.

Listening to Wells is wise. A twelve-game starter this season, he was fifth in team tackles at 49. And Wells saved his best game for the last game by making seven stops in the Egg Bowl. He is tied for third in tackles-for-losses, no mean feat given who he was trying to beat to the ball on this defense.

"It's been a good season. Obviously not how I wanted it, but it was a very good season. This is just giving me another opportunity to go and make it even better." And improve his own position going into 2014. What, a full-season starter and senior feels pressure to progress?

Absolutely. Bowl camp reminded that there are younger Bulldog ‘backers pushing to the forefront. Beniquez Brown, Richie Brown, Zach Jackson all got lots of rotation snaps as the second (in title only) linebacker unit. And they themselves will have to keep an eye on Dezmond Harris, Deandre Ward, and converted safety Dee Arrington come spring.

"A lot of young guys got a lot of reps," Wells said. "And it's a way for them to prepare and learn, and get better at what they do. All of them are great players. I mean all of them, I'm not going to name names because I don't want to leave anyone out! But all of them are good players. They listen, they're coachable, and they give effort."

The effort takes a Christmas break as Friday was the last practice of campus bowl camp. Lone senior linebacker Deontae Skinner, one of three Dogs along with running back LaDarius Perkins and guard Gabe Jackson who will be playing in a record fourth-straight bowl game, had the last word before everyone left campus.

They will reassemble in Memphis on the 26th and resume specific preparations for Rice and the New Years Eve afternoon kickoff. No, it won't be the normal game week in most ways…but the objective is the same to Wells.

"Like I said we want to go out with a winning record. We just have to get everyone involved and give us the looks we need in practice so we'll be well-prepared."

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