“Stuff like that can actually pull a team closer together, at times,” Mullen said. “And hopefully that does happen for us on the practice field this week.”
Mississippi State (2-4, 1-2 SEC) resumes work Monday ahead of another road trip. The weekend sends them to Kentucky (3-3, 2-2) for 7:30et kickoff at Commonwealth Stadium. This is MSU’s permanent Eastern Division opponent.
And for Mullen, a productive matchup. His seven Bulldog teams are 7-0 against Kentucky, on top of Mullen’s 4-0 record when a Florida assistant. This seven-season streak, longest against any SEC opponent since the 1940s, is not being taken for granted.
Not when the average margin in those victories is a whole lot closer than the record.
“Obviously it’s a team we’re familiar with, with the constant cross-over,” Mullen said. “It’s always a game that comes down to the wire.” Or if not to the wire, certainly well into fourth quarters. Folk who put stock in ‘odds’ figure eventually something will bounce the Wildcat way.
This Kentucky team does have their own encouragement in that direction. Their league wins are 17-10 over South Carolina and 20-13 over Vanderbilt, both on the home field. “They’ve found a way to win some close games this year,” Mullen said.
Plus, the Wildcats have had an extra week for preparation. Mississippi State has at least had an extra day, sort of. Returning before sunrise from Friday’s late night loss at Brigham Young, the Bulldogs were given the mandatory off-day Saturday; then were free Sunday as well.
“We haven’t practiced since the game,” Mullen said. The coaching staff was still busy with office tasks, including mid-season evaluations of recruiting so-far and still-to-do.
Evaluating Kentucky, Mullen sees a much more physical defense this season. “They have a lot of size on defense up front. And they have some huge DBs.” A lot of the size is new, too, with an influx of junior college linemen combining with the veterans from Mark Stoops’ early and well-rated recruiting classes. Opponents appear more productive when attacking in the air than running into a front which grudgingly gives ground.
“Offensively they have a great running game,” said Mullen. With Stanley Williams and Benny Snell pounding at defenses Kentucky is netting 4.5 yards each attempt with few negative plays. Most of those are naturally sacks of Stephen Johnson, who began his career at Grambling before a juco stint. Johnson will make his fourth start of the season this week, and expands the entire offense beyond his statistics.
“He throws it very well,” Mullen said. “He also adds a dynamic you have to account for not just in the running game by extending plays.”
That same dynamic is what State expected from Nick Fitzgerald. It was more in evidence at BYU too, as the first-year starter made some exceptional plays. Most notably, his escape from two tackles and a highlight-reel leap at the goal line for touchdown. Mullen was as much, maybe more impressed when Fitzgerald tucked and took off on 3rd-and-18 for first down in the fourth quarter. Or when Fitzgerald threaded a needle to Fred Ross and Malik Dear for conversion downs.
“He makes some spectacular plays,” Mullen said. “The consistency is to make the unspectacular play.”
By which the coach wants his quarterback addressing basics; simple completion percentage for one, not forcing throws, reading defenses rightly before and during plays. “And reading it all faster. All of that comes with time.”
Mullen doesn’t want to squelch Fitzgerald’s still-developing ability to improvise, of course. Within the context of this 2016 offensive lineup some, maybe a lot of this will be necessary. Fitzgerald is also, clearly, the best option for breaking a running play for real gains. It’s the balance, Mullen said.
“You watch Nick play, he made some big-time plays. And as a coach he makes some head-scratchers.” But Mullen takes some of the responsibility as well, saying after six games’ evaluation State’s staff has to be sure what is called is what Fitzgerald does well. The coach even spoke of simplifying the offense further.
“Trying not to make it too complicated on him, so he can become more confident in his decisions and make them faster.”
What would make Fitzgerald’s life and State’s play-calling easier, even faster, is better backfield results. There may be progress in this direction. Starting back Brandon Holloway didn’t make the BYU trip with undisclosed injury, and fellow senior Ashton Shumpert struggled at starter.
When soph Aeris Williams took over, the ground game took off. Or at least took off by 2016 State standards. This was something Mullen had hoped to see.
“We went in wanting to run the ball in that environment and on the road. Maybe I was almost stubborn running the ball because I told the guys we were going to be physical. Aeris and Shumpert ran the ball hard. I thought at times we ran the ball well.”
Williams ran it far better, though confusion over an option-handoff in the read-option produced a fumble and slowed a promising drive. “It’s just getting reps together,” said Mullen, without tipping any hand on Saturday’s starter other than to say Holloway remains questionable at this point. Giving Williams the start would make sense purely on the stat sheet…
…but maybe not to the offensive staff. “There’s a lot more than here’s the ball, go run with it.” Plus, Mullen said, backfield blocking isn’t just about pass protection but getting out in front of Fitzgerald’s called keepers. This, Holloway and Shumpert have more experience at.
The other thing Mullen is looking for more of are ‘explosive’ plays. For 2016 he defines that as gaining a dozen yards or more, though Mullen notes that everyone has different ideas of ‘big’ whether in air or on ground. By whatever number, the Bulldogs must burst for more big gainers.
“The last two weeks we have not hit explosive plays.” Some, yes, but Mullen said that count is skewed a bit by Fitzgerald’s un-called runs. Those will be even harder to create against better run defenses ahead, such as Kentucky. And those defenses are confident enough on the ground to lend a little extra support for coverage.
Still, “Explosive plays in general are going to help you put points on the board,” said Mullen. That’s been the case in Bulldog-Wildcat matchups of late, whether it was Dak Prescott throwing or running himself or Josh Robinson bouncing around or through traffic. With ongoing uncertainty about the full ground game, State may be forced to the air for big-play potential.
Either way, “Run or pass you have to try to create explosive plays.”
As noted, Holloway’s status is questionable in the backfield So is Deion Calhoun, with a left ankle sprain before halftime at BYU. “We don’t feel great about him coming back.” State played the second half with starting left guard Devin Desper switching to right, and redshirt Michael Story stepping in. “I thought he did OK. He handled the situation well. He’s gotten a little experience on the road in a tough environment.”
Senior safety Kivon Coman is also questionable after missing the BYU trip with an Auburn game injury. Mark McLaurin took his place, and recorded a first career interception. The soph ought have had two picks too, the other with an open track to the end zone ahead which would have changed the entire outcome.
So would recovering a forced BYU in the first overtime with a 21-14 lead. Though as Mullen said, not only did the Cougars recovered the loose ball as it bounced ahead; they gained eight yards on it too. For that matter A.J. Jefferson stripped the quarterback previously, on the last play of regulation, and had a recovery and run for touchdown ahead. Instead he was tripped in the recovery.
That’s how close the Bulldogs were to coming back with a much-needed victory and break-even record. Just as making either of two fourth-quarter field goal tries would have won the season opener. Nothing will change those plays or the results.
The rest of the season, now, that is for the Bulldogs to change. The coach is satisfied with effort at last. So, “We’re going to have to make plays. Guys are learning to play harder every single week. I see guys make some great plays, then I see us make some bad plays.”