The big Bulldog picture isn’t pretty. After an ugly, to say the least, home loss Mississippi State is 2-3 and 1-2 SEC. This with the real meat of the 2016 schedule still in store.
Yet much as all wish it were different, the head coach wants full focus on the immediate. That would be Friday’s non-conference contest at Brigham Young (3-3), with an 8:21mt kickoff. Both the late game time and early-weekend scheduling have scrambled State’s preparations.
“Monday (normally an off-day) disappeared on us,” said Mullen. “And we’re practicing at night for game time.” The Bulldogs had a Sunday practice and were going at 8:00 both Monday and Tuesday. At least players can look to a Saturday break after return from Provo.
First though they must forget about the previous Saturday. A 35-14 rout by Auburn pushed State back under break-even, leaving a long uphill climb to get back and get to bowl-eligibility. That is a tough task looking at a November packed with top-20-ranked opponents.
This is no time to be thinking post-season to Mullen. Or end-season, or anything beyond Friday evening. And the last game isn’t worth remembering, either.
“They’ve got to put it behind them,” Mullen. “The best way I know how to deal with adversity is get back to work. Since I’ve been here that’s been our deal. We’ve had all kind of highs and lows, that’s the mindset we’ve had.”
The Bulldogs aren’t on any high at the moment. Despite an open date to address September issues and head-start preparations for Auburn the new month began with a 35-0 halftime deficit. With a day’s evaluation, Mullen didn’t find any glaring schematic or planning problems. Or for that matter, “Our effort was fine,” he said.
Fine isn’t enough however. Mullen had given that message before, but must apparently emphasize it even more now.
“It’s learning the maximum level of strain. They play with great effort, but there’s a strain level guys have to hit.” Mullen said lately he’s been showing on-screen examples, sometimes even consecutive plays, where effort varied. “In their mind they don’t notice that.” Meaning, it is not intentional.
It may be uncertainty and confusion instead. “Whether it’s not being sure of assignment or something unconscious, that does it.” More experience and more coaching can address those aspects.
Addressing larger issues is something Mullen would rather not spend game-week time on, especially this expedited week. But the topic can’t be avoided. After a record consecutive-seasons win total from 2014-15 this team is struggling along and showing few signs of progress.
Mullen, and the players as well, have ideas why. Most deal with being too tense away from the field and not confident enough on it. A few Bulldogs have spoken of trying to do jobs that aren’t their responsibility. Others still aren’t absolutely sure where they fit in for specific situations.
All of which defines a ball club which hasn’t defined itself, or lacks team leaders able to do it for everyone. Mullen knew this was a risk with obvious graduations from 2015, which was compounded when several leading candidates were injured in spring or preseason and have missed game time already.
“There’s eight senior starters we haven’t had on the field this year, really. I don’t know if I expected it, but there were questions in my mind how guys would respond, grasp on to roles, especially early in the season.”
The season hits half-way now, and losses to South Alabama and Auburn have State behind the bowling curve. Again, that isn’t on Mullen’s mind and shouldn’t be with players either. The coach is realist enough to know what his players are hearing, especially in today’s social media world. He won’t tell them not to listen.
Mullen does tell them to stay at their tasks and their schedule.
“It’s noise. There’s so much more noise on the outside. Used to be you guys wrote the editorials, now everybody writes them. Some guys struggle with it more than others. When the reality is right here, turn on the film and go out to practice and what we need to do to improve. You need to learn to live in the reality, not the perception of what is going on.”
Reality remains, a program ranked #1 nationally two years ago at this very point of the season is scrambling for answers. Of course Mullen reminds that 2014’s success came out of a similar sort of confusion in mid-2013. “It’s football,” the coach said.
“A couple of years ago we had a really young team, got devastated with injuries. We had to start three different quarterbacks through the season. Then all of a sudden it started to build at the end of the season and we went on a huge winning streak. That happens, sometimes.”
Sometimes it does. Sometimes, not. What makes 2016 a different, not to say harder but different perception situation to Mullen is…what came before. It’s only natural.
“I’d say this, the challenge with all the other stuff is the expectations here have changed. And we have. I’ve been through good and bad. I remember my first year, at Kentucky we got a big win to push the record to 3-5. You should have seen the kids dancing in the locker room!
“I tell our kids that. The expectations have changed. Mine are still the same, but they have bigger expectations or pressure from the outside or whatever to perform.”
There will be plenty of pressure Friday. The Cougars are back home from thumping Michigan State to even their record. BYU kicked the season off with an 18-16 win at Arizona. This is only their third home game, and homecoming weekend as well, so a packed Edwards Stadium awaits.
Mullen has been there before, as a Utah assistant. He particularly savors a 3-0 victory in Provo which clinched the Mountain West title. “In the middle of a blizzard,” he added. ‘I’m definitely exaggerating but it felt like 20 degrees below.” With Urban Meyer teams Mullen was undefeated against the Cougars.
Mississippi State also has won in Provo. That was in 2000 when an aggressive defense forced home-team turnovers for points, and running back Dicenzo Miller spearheaded the offense in a 44-28 final.
That was back when BYU and their league for that matter played wide-open offense. Today’s Cougars are a tougher bunch on both sides of the ball and thrive in physical, close contests.
“They’ve a handful,” Mullen said. “A very aggressive defense, guys that fly around to the ball and give you a lot of blitz looks. They come at a lot of different angles and try to confuse the quarterback with a lot of movement.”
Offensively, “They’ve got a sixth-year senior quarterback (Taysom Hill), he’s suffered some injuries but is a great winner and great competitor. He can run, throw, beat you in different ways. A tailback (Jamaal Williams) who is a different type player. So it’s a great challenge and against an excellent football team.”
The Bulldogs are to fly out Thursday afternoon.