Bulldog Game Notebook

One might think earning SEC defensive lineman of the week with a blocked field goal for touchdown and interception would have been enough big plays this early in a season. Not for Preston Smith.

Instead the Bulldog defensive end came back with an even bigger play for his second weekend. He got another interception and this time nobody was stopping Smith short of the end zone. Even if this time he had to cover 21 yards to get there. The result was Smith’s first football points since, well, when?

“Probably park ball when I played running back, when I was the same size as everybody.”

That was a long time ago, seeing how Smith now stands a stout 6-6 and 270. Good for a defensive end in the SEC; a little large for a wide receiver maybe? Not the way this senior sees it, since last week he claimed to have played some tight end in a previous gridiron-life.

“I had a flash-back when I saw the ball coming. I thought about my old days, back in my prime.” If that was his prime, then how to describe what Smith is doing these days? Prime time, probably.

He certainly picked a fine time for the, umm, pick. State was leading 7-3 but had just turned the ball over on an interception at the one-yard line. That left UAB minimal room to work with and on 3rd-and-5 the Blazers were taking a chance chunking the ball. MLB Benardrick McKinney darned nearly sacked quarterback Cody Clements, who heaved a most unwise pass falling backwards. In immediate retrospect a safety would have been better.

Because much like week-one when a ball tipped by DT Kaleb Eulls founds its way to Smith, he again was dropping into coverage. “I saw BMac tackle the quarterback, I thought he was going to get the sack and the safety. I saw at the last minute he tried to throw the ball and I thought he was going to try and launch it or something. Then I saw it floating in the air and I felt it was just me and I had to catch it.”

Not that the fluttering duck as an easy pick; Smith had to lunge backwards and reach with one arm. Yet somehow he secured it with a single paw, tucked and turned, spun out of a neck-grasp, and headed the other way. “Matt Wells and Kendrick Market got in the way, they did a great job blocking and helped me to the end zone,” said Smith, though he had to roll through one last Blazer at the goal. And as Smith said, this time he didn’t get blocked-out on a return by teammate and fellow DE Ryan Brown.

“I think it was a big change of momentum, when both sides are going out and scoring. We helped the offense out by getting them some points and them not coming back out on the field.” Just like a week ago when Smith’s blocked field goal was scooped and scored by S Jay Hughes, too. That’s a pair of non-offense touchdowns in as many weeks…and another nomination for some sort of SEC honor as Smith had five tackles, a hurry, and the TD return.

So, then, what will be his next dramatic act? “I think I’m going to catch it, put it behind my back at the same time, then run it in.” You read it here first.

KEEPING COOL: Coach Dan Mullen enjoyed Smith’s big play too. “We’ve got to concentrate a little more on ball security, that ball was flailing out a couple of times!” But the aftermath was no joke as flags flew. Mullen had thought a hold was going to be called; instead the touchdown stood but the Bulldogs were called for conduct.

“Celebration, that’s embarrassing for us. I’ll get that fixed, I promise you that. I want us to have to have juice, I want us to have energy, I want us to play excited. But we don’t need to be silly and we don’t need the result in a penalty.”

WAKE-UP CALL: Considering UAB threw 34 passes, it’s surprising the only interception was made by a defensive end. Of much more concern to everyone wasn’t getting just one pick all day, or by whom. It was how the Blazers shredded State coverage for 435 passing yards and three touchdowns. True, UAB was only 16-for-34, or under break-even. But those caught balls went for huge yards, an average of 27.2. And the touchdowns covered 88, 81, and 75 yards for over half the total output.

Thus, Smith said, “I mean we’re always going to be happy we got a win. But that’s embarrassing, we know that’s not our type of football we play here at Mississippi State. We know guys are capable of locking down receivers on deep balls.”

“It wasn’t bad play-calling or anything,” CB Taveze Calhoun said. “We just have to be able to go make the plays. Just letting the receivers get on top of us and playing poor technique.”

Mullen agreed. “We had guys there. We were just in bad position to make plays.” That, Mullen said, needed no film evaluation to see. Nor was it really what are popularly called ‘blown’ coverages, he explained. “Guys just had poor leverage on the wideouts and got beat.”

This wasn’t to diminish how UAB threw the ball, the head coach clarified, even calling some of the throws “really pretty, hit guys in stride.” And once when a Dog corner had coverage right, CB Will Redmond somehow didn’t play it right. He made a jump for the interception and the ball snuck through his grasp for a catch and run. “I love guys going to try to make plays,” Mullen said, signaling he does not want his cover-men getting cautious after Saturday’s scorchings. As with most everything else, it is simple execution.

Nor will any coaching heads get cut-off in review. However, “Obviously we’ll be meeting very, very early tomorrow morning. We let the coaches go enjoy time with their wives tonight. But I’ll be with that defensive staff very early. We will get that fixed on that side of the ball.”

CENTURY CELEBRATION: By luck of the 2013 post-season draw, and ’14 scheduling, the Bulldogs have now played three-straight Conference USA clubs. And won all three, in the process scoring 143 points. Add this 47-34 triumph to the 49-0 rout of Southern Mississippi last week, and State has scored 45-plus points in consecutive games to begin a season for the first time since…1914. Which just happens to be the first season a State (back then, Mississippi A&M) played on what is now called Scott Field.

Combined with those overtime wins last November against Arkansas and Ole Miss, State’s winning streak is now five games; longest since taking nine wins spread over the 2011 and ’12 schedules. And in the larger picture, Coach Dan Mullen’s teams have combined to win their last 13 non-conference games on the home field.

KICKING AROUND: Placekicking remains a, shall we say interesting aspect for the 2014 team? This time it wasn’t field goaling; State attempted none. In fact a couple of fourth-down attempts were pretty obvious indications what faith there is in making a three-pointer from any distance right now.

But after being praised last week by their coach for converting all seven PATs, both kickers missed one in game-two. PK Westin Graves was wide on his try, which came after Smith’s return. Then it was PK Evan Sobiesk’s turn. He’d hit the first chance but the second clanked the right upright and went wide. Those two missed points loomed a lot larger when UAB grabbed a 20-19 lead before halftime.

Fortunately in the end they only mattered in margin of victory. Mullen had an interesting post-game outlook, too. “We consistently look really good, or consistently can look bad at times. That’s what is disappointing with those two guys. We just have to get them playing with confidence and kicking with confidence. It doens’ look like that in practice.

”You watch them in warmups hit kicks around the field and you say there’s nothing wrong with that. Then sometimes you get in the game situation and see some bad things. Fortunately it didn’t hurt us today.”

Also fortunate to Mullen was how sophomore Sobiesk handled his miss. “He came back and drilled the next one; I mean couldn’t kick it any better, crushed right down the middle. He snuck another one inside though the goal post.” Actually, he banked it in, hitting the same upright in about the same place but just far enough adjusted to the left that it banked in. This, Mullen reported, arose from a bad hold.

“He had to stop in the middle of the swing and re-set himself and it was a good job focusing and following through with it.” So that was one encouraging sign of composure to coach. “But overall I just want to see them take where their performance level is in practice and continually translate it to be better in the games.”

What would be much better was Devon Bell’s punting, as he averaged 45.5 yards on eight kicks. And twice he had to boom them out of the end zone; each time Bell put it at or beyond the 50-yard line. “Our punts, when we needed good one we got a good one,” Mullen said. The coverage wasn’t bad either, and kickoff coverage was excellent with under 20-yards average. Bell had four touchbacks and three more kickoffs into the end zone UAB tried to return. Tried.

State is still looking for a game-breaker in its own return game. Three different Dogs fielded a kickoff and two tried punts, including rookie WR Jamoral Graham. He became the first member of Mullen’s 2014 freshman signing class to play.

MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: State’s first touchdown, at 14:03 of the opening quarter, was the earliest score since 2000 when just 25 seconds in Wayne Madkin hit Terrell Grindle at LSU… The 68-yard touchdown pass for that score was QB Dak Prescott’s longest of his career to-date… The combined 81 points ties for the most in a Mullen era game. In 2010 State beat Houston 47-24…MLB Benardrick McKinney had a career-high 12 tackles… The Bulldog offense was 5-of-5 scoring touchdowns when reaching the red zone… Prescott now has 8 passing touchdowns in two games, something only Tim Tebow (at Florida in 2008) has done for Dan Mullen… Prescott is the first Bulldog in history to throw for at least four touchdowns and rush for 100 yards in a game… Prescott is now tied for 6th in career touchdowns-responsible for with Derrick Taite, at 40… Mississippi State’s record string of consecutive home game sellouts came to an end with a crowd of 57,704. Beginning in October 2010, every ticket to Davis Wade Stadium had been sold in 31 straight games. This was a week after re-opening a renovated DWS with a record crowd of 61,889.

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