“One of the things in college football you see week to week is if you don’t play well, you’re not going to win,” Mullen said.
Mississippi State is officially warned. Show up ready for Saturday’s 3:01 kickoff (SECN) on Scott Field ready, or risk being shown-up by visiting Troy.
OK, maybe not that much of a risk in win/loss terms. The SEC Bulldogs (3-2, 1-2) are heavy over-dogs against the Trojans (1-3, 0-1 Sun Belt). Setting aside bitter memories of 2001, no one reasonably expects anything other than a home team victory. If only from the simple fact that since his 2009 debut this Bulldog coach has yet to lose in a non-conference ‘upset’ during a regular season.
Mullen’s teams are 23-3 in non-league play (26-5 including bowls) overall, and have won the last 15 home non-SEC contests. Two of State’s wins under this coach have come at Troy expense. There was the shootout in Troy in 2012 won 30-24 on a just-in-bounds catch by Chad Bumphis, when the Trojans were still going strong. A year later their slide was underway and State pounded Troy 62-7 on Scott Field.
Still, “We’ve got a tough game this week against Troy,” Mullen insisted. “They have a new head coach and guys that are believing in what they’re doing.”
That new coach, former Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown, has a good name in the profession. He also brought like-minded assistants to Troy to operate an aggressive spread-type system that through four games is just about 50/50 in runs to throws. The production though tilts much more to throwing, with not much far-off from twice as many air yards as ground gains. Soph quarterback Brandon Silvers is a 62% passer with four touchdowns, and he’s been spreading the ball evenly to wide, tight, and backfield targets.
Games with and losses to North Carolina State and Wisconsin skew the defensive stats. A better gauge is last week’s 24-18 loss at home to conference rival South Alabama. The visiting Jaguars out-gained Troy by an even 100 yards with four more snaps, and Silvers threw three interceptions. Troy’s defense still made plays with a pick and showed great progress over last season in sacking passers.
What Mullen sees is a squad giving more effort under fresh management. “It will be a good challenge for us,” he said. But is the challenge to beat a smaller-conference club?
Or is Mississippi State’s real challenge to play up to their own potential…even more, find out exactly what this potential is? Consecutive SEC West road trips produced a win (Auburn) and loss (Texas A&M). But if the results were what most would have projected, there remain enough unanswered questions about this club bringing an edge to this home-stand.
Where the coordinators talk about still discovering the best 11-man combinations for starting games, the head coach is looking at something else. Effort is not an issue for Mississippi State either. Expectations, are.
“The one thing we have to learn how to do is go expect to make plays,” Mullen said.
That will sound strange seeing how many play-makers have already shown up. From All-SEC QB Dak Prescott to the newest receivers in rotations; or first-class defensive linemen to senior cover-corners, there are plenty Dogs who can make plays. And Mullen explains, there are those leaders who go into each game expecting to do just that.
“But we have a lot of guys who are looking around at somebody else to go make plays.” Whether because these Dogs, starters or alternates, do so out of deference to their leaders; or uncertainty about their own roles, only the coaches can say. Or at this point, guess.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was talking for his side of the squad but might have spoken for the whole program. He commented this week that at least defensively coaches are still looking for the best eleven players to open games with. That too sounds a little strange…
…until a look at the schedule shows one clue. It seems likely State spent spring and pre-season preparing for those first five games, three of them West matchups with three road trips to boot. Now MSU is home for three weekends, beginning with two winnable non-SEC games. If ever a schedule set up for mid-season changes, shuffles, adjustments, alterations, any move imaginable, this is it.
Plus, Mullen seems to indicate, this ought to be the weeks when those uncertain players can make their confidence break-throughs. “As we go forward they’ll get a lot less worried about am I doing the right thing, and just letting it go and playing at 100 mph. If we get 50 guys playing that way, we’ll be a really good team.”
*Weeks six and seven also set up nicely in allowing State to rest and/or heal hurting players. The only Dog definitely ruled-out is S Kendrick Market, done for the season and career with a knee injury at Texas A&M. Mullen said Thursday evening on his call-in show WR Gabe Myles (left ankle) and WR Joe Morrow (arm) are game-time decisions, while line coach John Hevesy said Wednesday LT Rufus Warren (ankle) has practiced. CB Will Redmond is also ready to play after getting banged-up at A&M. TE Gus Walley (hand) is not quite so certain with no mid-week update.
However those health situations also offer excellent opportunity to get backups and reserves real snaps, without hurting any feelings. Hevesy has been working LT Elgton Jenkins into games more and more the last few weeks and this could be the redshirt freshman’s most action so far. Market’s place can be filled by veteran S Deontay Evans, or S Kivon Coman can shift from the other safety spot (they are interchangeable).
More likely is giving freshman S Brandon Bryant his first college start at one safety spot. Then, working in true frosh S Jamal Peters and S Mark McLaurin. Redmond has already been alternating as well, and as CB Cedric Jiles returns from two injuries in past years he is taking a larger share of snaps. On the other corner CB Taveze Calhoun sits down some series for CB Tolando Cleveland.
Even healthy offensive Dogs can expect to share snaps once this game is under control, or even before. “I want to play a lot more players,” Mullen said this week. “We want to get them a lot of different playing time.”
*Though Myles’ role in the offense had grown week by week, his potential absence this week is no issue. Not with WR Malik Dear forcing his way up the depth chart fast as slot receiver. Besides, starting H-man WR Fred Ross is having a huge first-half. His 31 catches in five games exceed his entire 13-game total of 30 catches last season, though Ross has yet to score a touchdown in 2015.
Still this could be a fine time to try someone else in the slot spot, especially if Walley is held out at tight end another week. Excellent production by split ends WR De’Runnya Wilson and WR Fred Brown have not given WR Donald Gray as many snaps as expected, though it was in a similar sort of game against Northwestern State where Gray got to put on a show. Could somebody move from split to slot receiver?
*Mullen said this week none of the four regular running backs have separated from the pack. So it appears juniors RB Ashton Shumpert and RB Brandon Holloway will again get the game going. At the same time it’s anticipated second-year freshmen RB Dontavian Lee and RB Aeris Williams will have larger profiles in these home games, always assuming State has it comfortably in control.
Or maybe not. Lee and Williams both got to open series last week when State was trying to battle back on the Aggies. Lee didn’t get a lot done on his couple of carries; Williams did with one good gain into the red zone, only to be stripped on the next play for the turnover which effectively clinched the game. The point remains, both the younger backs played when a SEC West game was un-clinched, which can only indicate increased opportunity for each.
*This week coordinator Diaz stressed his unit’s need to start games stronger and not give up first-quarter points. Something which might help can’t be schemed, but taken. The last two weeks State has won the coin toss but deferred, giving good SEC West offenses first turn with the ball. Auburn drove into the end zone before throwing an interception. Texas A&M scored on 4th-and-goal.
For the full season the time of possession is startlingly out of balance, with opponents having the ball just a second less than 12 whole minutes on the average. That is not far short of a complete quarter per-game. While possession time is not the big deal for offenses in this day of explosive spread systems, defenses do need their down-time.
So while no one would ask State’s offense to try to score slower…taking the ball first seems a reasonable request.
*Related to that above imbalance; last season in five games the Bulldog offense had run 385 plays and the team was 5-0. This year’s offense has snapped the ball 331 times in five games.
A deeper explanation? Last year at this time State’s play breakdown was 245 runs (called or keeps) against 140 passes. So far State has rushed just 146 times and thrown 185 times.
*Yet it is hard to argue against putting the ball in the air, with how Prescott is throwing it. He’s completed 65% and the typical completion nets over 11 yards.
*And Prescott’s streaks of not throwing a ball to the other team continues. He’s now at 225 un-intercepted passes in a row, third-longest in SEC history.
*State has out-scored opponents 41 to nine in fourth quarters.
*LB Richie Brown has recorded double-digit tackles in four of the five games, all of them against D-1 opponents. He took most of the Northwestern State game off and had time for only four tackles.
*DE A.J. Jefferson has notched a tackle for loss in the last six games. He is 11th in the NCAA this week in TFLs.
*WR De’Runnya Wilson is tied for fourth in career touchdown catches, with 14. He needs 17 scoring catches to move into a tie for second.
*Dan Mullen can become the third Mississippi State coach with 50 career wins.
*The Mississippi State campus is decorated in pink ribbons, as the University and athletic department participate in Breast Cancer Awareness week.