For the head coach, something else stood out more. “I’m pleased, our effort was better,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “We’re getting better as a football team.”
Playing a lower-division guest Northwestern State (0-3) was one way to better the Bulldogs (2-1) both in record and respect. Still Mississippi State did have to give some solid and consistent effort to turn a routine win into a blowout. The Demons even gave the home team some uncomfortable moments.
It was enough to keep the Bulldogs on edge. And keep Mullen’s temper in the same condition, as a second-half sideline eruption showed. But his mood was much more upbeat afterwards. All, he said, because his team met his minimums.
“Some of those things we’ve really got to look at, make sure we’re improving on. That’s the schematic and team part of it all. But most important to me I was most concerned with our effort today. And it felt good.”
The numbers definitely looked good. The Bulldogs piled up 647 yards, surpassing the standard of 645 at Memphis in 2011. It all was done with 55 snaps. And in just under 21 minutes of possession time. The offense was as efficient as explosive, too. Of the 12 possessions nine ended in touchdowns and only once was a punter called on.
Mullen wasn’t happy with a couple of fumbled balls to end the other series. But QB Dak Prescott, who got stripped (maybe) at the end of a keeper continued his streak of not turning the ball over throwing, now at a school-record 150. Prescott was 10-of-11 in one half of work for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
In the process Prescott earned his 21st school record, season or career. His 45-yard strike caught by WR Donald Gray gave the senior 6,382 passing yards.
For good measure Prescott only ran the ball six times, once for a sack, and netted 42 yards. By halftime he knew his day was done along with another record.
“I don’t think too much about them. It’s so early in the year and we have a long way to go. But they do mean a lot to me.”
The second half meant much to Prescott’s replacements. Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley mostly split the remaining series and with results nearly as sparkling as the starter. Between them the three quarterbacks were 16-of-18 for 372 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.
No one Dog runner had a huge day as carries were shared all afternoon. Starter Ashton Shumpert did get 55 yards, most of it on the opening series, and scored on a 17-yard burst. But alternate Brandon Holloway only rushed once, giving freshmen Dontavian Lee (57 yards) and Aeris Williams (36 yards, 1 TD) plenty turns and early.
The exceptionally efficient air attack needed somebody catching all those throws. WR Donald Gray showed up most. Besides his part in Prescott’s record-setting throw, the juco made three other catches for 140 yards. The longest was a 49-yard connection with Fitzgerald in the third quarter.
Nine other Dogs caught balls as well with three more scoring. Gabe Myles got the Bulldogs on the board with his 49-yard catch-and-run off Prescott’s arm, and the soph wideout would later score on a six-yard rush. Prescott ended his half with a six-yard flip to Holloway. And Staley celebrated his first varsity game with a 37-yard hookup with Joe Morrow.
Defensively? Allowing 13 points, only one touchdown, with ten series of four or fewer snaps would normally count as a solid performance. The Demons netted just 3.9 yards per play compared to 11.3 by State. And in the air, the Dogs had things covered. Or sacked.
“They didn’t come out to throw the ball a lot,” CB Will Redmond said. “But when they did we did good.”
Reviews on the ground weren’t as glowing. Though State did manage to stuff most series and forced NWLa to settle for two field goal kicks (both made) and one fake (stuffed), the troubled tackling tendencies of September still showed a little too often for comfort.
Most clearly, when the Demons took the opening third-quarter series for 14 plays and their only touchdown. It began with a couple of big gains but from there NWLa just pounded their way to and into the end zone. It led to a spectacular sideline outburst from the head coach directed at the defensive staff, but likely meant to attract the entire team’s attention.
It worked as from there State gave up nothing much else of note. The second and third units were able to stop the Demons from scoring or even driving. The post-game tackles chart showed 31 Bulldogs who got in on at least one stop.
“It was real important, a lot of guys needed those reps,” Redmond said. “That’s one thing we focused on, those guys coming out and giving all the effort that they could.”
S Kivon Coman led the list with seven tackles and both LB Gerri Green and S Deontay Evans were credited with six, primarily assists. Had he been allowed to linger longer, DE A.J. Jefferson would have a monster afternoon as the Demons couldn’t slow him off one edge. There were four sacks and 13.0 total tackles for losses, most often on Demon sweeps run-down by a defensive back.
Besides the long third quarter drive, Mullen saw some items to address in review. A fumbled snap on the first PAT, for example. With veteran SN Winston Chapman sidelined for the season by injury the hike wasn’t good and the point-after turned into a desperate throw but no other harm.
WR Fred Ross had a fine punt return ended with a spectacular stick and fumble. Prescott’s fumble was just about within field goal range, so Mullen counted that as a red zone turnover. For that matter the Demons didn’t get the ball taken away by any forced turnovers.
So, “There’s a lot of little things we have to correct,” the coach said.
The big things? They were taken care of satisfactorily. State won, scored a lot of points, set some more records, got plenty of pups booked for backup duty live time. And, no one was noticed leaving the field with a new injury.
Thus the Bulldogs ought be in good physical shape for their return to SEC play. Not that consecutive road trips, to Auburn and Texas A&M, is anyone’s idea of an easy stretch. And after 2014’s results both hosts are going to be looking for some revenge on State.
Still these are the next tests, and Mullen sees a team finding itself after three games.
“We’ve built a first couple of weeks, if we can continue to build I’ll feel pretty good about taking the field next Saturday.”