And the Bulldogs noticed. Especially veterans of previous spring games.
"I can't say I expected this, because it ain't never happened like this since I've been here," senior halfback Anthony Dixon said. "But it was cool. I was like, it's about time they showed up and that us showed up for them. We worked so hard for them. It was cool, I loved seeing the fans. They fed us some energy and let us know they cared about our play."
Dixon certainly cared about his play as part of the White team, and while he did score a touchdown for his side it wasn't enough to stave off ultimate defeat. When walk-on placekicker Derek DePasquale booted his field goal on the last snap, the Maroons had won 24-21 and the Whites were faced with extra weekend duty. "You don't want to, but you do what you've got to do!" shrugged senior linebacker Jamar Chaney.
Yet even Chaney couldn't be too upset with the outcome, much less the event. The second-chance senior, who thought he'd played his final spring game a year ago before that '08 season-opening-and-ending injury, was glad he had hung around when he left the locker room and saw the waiting throng. "It was a lot different," Chaney said.
"It was a lot different. The main difference was we had 31,000, the most-ever at the spring game at Mississippi State. That just shows the fans are real excited about this upcoming season."
Much of that crowd—an pure estimate by MSU staff as no tickets were taken or gates manned—was responding to Mullen's oft-stated challenge to State fans to attend the spring game in a show of support for the Bulldogs; to applaud their efforts not just in the game itself but in both pre-camp and in-camp labors. Yet at least as many folk turned out from natural curiosity about Mullen's new schemes, particularly on offense.
Only the most persnickety could have left DWS disappointed. And that last-chance ending was not at all scripted. DePasquale had missed a go-ahead field goal four clock-minutes earlier, then the #3 White offense turned the ball over as reserve linebacker Tyler Gregory picked off a pass from #3 quarterback Riley Saunders at the White 30-yard line.
The Maroon staff wanted so to win that initially they sent their #1 offense out; Mullen overrode that and gave the reserve unit their chance to have some fun. They did. A draw-run by walk-on fullback Thomas Hardin gained 21 yards; walk-on quarterback Aaron Encalade rolled left to spot the ball center-of-field; and DePasquale came through as the clock expired.
Though much of the crowd had left by that point of the evening, nobody departed with anything like the frustration of previous State spring games where offense was almost entirely lacking. Chaney said that both defenses were restricted to base schemes (special pass-rush sets practiced were not shown) but that didn't mean they took it easy on their counterparts. "We were having people not thinking but just going full speed. And just going out there and hustling, being relentless. I mean, we treated it like a real game atmosphere on defense.
"But the offense was very exciting to watch. I mean, the spread offense it's just amazing to watch and see Coach Mullen and the coordinators doing their thing." That ‘thing' being a whole lot of throwing and just enough running to balance the attack as needed. The two Maroon passers threw for 270 total yards; the Whites pair another 195. And the number of plays gaining double-digits, even 20- and 30-yard outputs or greater, might have exceeded what State's varsity offense was able to in a month of real games last fall.
"It was a better show," Lee said. "A lot of guys made plays today. I think it was good for the fans to see, but I think it was good for the coaches and even for us guys to see. Guys made tremendous plays, when they caught the ball and even when they ran the ball."
In their ‘defense' the stopping-Dogs did not get blown away consistently. "We made some good plays," White safety Zach Smith noted. "They had a couple of drives that we held them to field goals and it's always better to hold them to field goals than touchdowns." In fact neither offense scored a touchdown in the first quarter and only three times did the ball make the end zone…one of them a scramble by Lee that was called-back as he wore a no-hit jersey. The ball was re-spotted on the three yard line, and Lee tossed a touchdown to tight end Kendrick Cook. That and a two-point conversion pass to wideout Terrane Davis made for the turning point in the game.
Even as a defender, and a member of the losing squad, veterans like Smith liked what they saw from the other half of the roster. "I thought the offense looked really good and crisp for four weeks learning the offense. I thought they did a great job."
"We came out and just tried to execute for the show for the fans," Maroon receiver Leon Berry said. The juco wideout was probably the game's outstanding single player with his 125 yards on eight catches, almost all off the arm of Lee. But Davis had a good day as the other leading Maroon target, and Lee was able to utilize his two top tight ends for seven combined grabs and 68 yards. Both offenses were somewhat short-handed on skill positions; due to injuries Dixon was the only scholarship running back participating and the White side drafted him quickly. The handful of varsity receivers were parceled out as evenly as possible.
And still each offense produced, which Lee said is a very good sign. "I think it creates a positive environment for sure. Seeing that we only had a couple of receivers on each team but still moving the ball, still guys making plays. It shows us what we can do in the future."
"I enjoyed this game because it was very competitive, and it came down to the last minute as you could see," said Maroon tackle Derek Sherrod. "That's just great for everybody and for Mississippi State."
The point of this spring game of course was to both reward the players for making it a productive camp, and to give everyone else an idea of what Mississippi State could and should do when games are real this fall. The only real limit on offense(s) was personnel; play selection was wide-open and fans, present or watching the telecast, saw most of the plays practiced the previous 14 work dates. Though the special play, with Dixon at quarterback, was just tried once. "I know I didn't get much it that one time so Coach might be looking at it sideways!" grinned the irrepressible ‘Boobie.' "But we'll try to make it work when we get back in August."
Even with all the obvious interest in Mullen's spread system, MSU fans knew to study the foundational parts of this team-in-making too. And both the offensive and defensive lines drew plaudits for showing progress. "I think overall we did real good," Sherrod said. "Because we drafted we mixed it up on the O-line, the Maroon and White side we all did good. And we can only get better. Once the fall comes we'll be complete."
For their part the defense is closer to complete. This side of the locker room had less injury issues in spring, and was deeper in most areas to start with already. That accelerated the learning over four weeks under new coordinator Carl Torbush. "I mean, we put in pretty much everything this spring," Chaney said. "And the players did a good job of developing depth; in the linebackers, the D-line, and the secondary. So it's going to be fun going into the fall. We think we've got a good chance of having a great defense. Our goal is to be the best defense in the SEC. And having an offense like Coach Mullen is putting together I mean…the sky is the limit!"
In fact the fans who came out to watch open practices were the only ones who knew what wasn't shown in the spring game on the defensive side. Over the last two weeks all sorts of packages, against run and pass both, were introduced and quickly installed. Surprisingly quickly, at times. But Smith said it was a credit more to the coaches than the players. "They're the ones that put it in and teach it to us. Coach Torbush does an incredible job, he's an unbelievable motivator and he knows his football. What you see is what you get from that guy. I have a lot of respect for him, and our defense is coming around and doing a good job.
"We're definitely going to be prepared when we play a passing team because we've seen the best schemes that a coach can put out there and a team can put out there. The best schemes and routes and quarterback reads, everything."
The offense has farther to go, both from the near-complete newness of this spread system compared to the pro-style schemes tried the past five falls; and the missing backs and receivers during camp. Contact days in particular were impacted, so to speak. Still by the final day even the defense was praising what was getting done on that side of things. The offensive guys themselves were practicing and playing with much more confidence.
"We feel like, I just can't wait to see us come together as a family and all play together," Berry said. "Because we had some the other side of the ball that did real good and on our side of the ball that did real good. So I can't wait to see us come together. Now we just have to get the timing down so we can execute in the fall and do real good."
As for the guys up front, " I think we're coming along very well," Sherrod said. "We have a great offensive line coach, he's putting it in our mind to do extra things outside of what we're required to. To instill in us that we can do extra stuff to get better. The offense is great as long as we keep studying and keep producing on the field all will be well."
Spring things went pretty well with both scholarship quarterbacks too. While Lee maintained his expected first-status all camp, the last two weeks saw Relf making great strides in putting his known physical skills to effective use in a demanding scheme. If anything Relf had the more ‘oooooh' sort of passes in the spring game with some long strikes completed to top targets O'Neal Wilder and Delmon Robinson. Admittedly, a SEC defense would have broken up, even intercepted, the most dramatic bombs. Still it was good fun for all to have or watch in an intrasquad setting.
"They told me to throw it downfield, so I just put it up!" Relf said. More objectively, the third-year sophomore came out of his camp encouraged. "I felt pretty good. It was a lot of things I have to get cleaned up but I think I did pretty good. I've made a lot of progress, I think I'm about I'd say 85%. It's just a lot of work we have to do in the summer on timing. I've improved in the passing game, making the right reads."
Lee likes the push Relf is giving, not just as a backup but a legitimate alternate quarterback in this spread-system. "Competition makes us all better," the starter said. "From day-one it's been competition, continued competition. Now each day when guys see us compete it makes them trust us more and it makes us better and that's the most important thing."
The competition resumes in the first summer semester. For now the Bulldogs are finishing up spring classes in advance of next week's final exams. When they return it will be for the individual and small-group sort of work allowed by the NCAA; no coaches will be around and none should be necessary given what these players have absorbed already. They have the experience of last Saturday night at Scott Field as evidence. Proof, even.
"We did well in the spring game," Lee said. "We progressed all four weeks and I'd say it was a celebration of it. Hopefully we can grow off this, watch the film and come back in the summer and work to get better."
And come September, the Bulldogs also expect all those who watched them play a spring game come back for the real thing…and bring some more friends too. This, too, senior Chaney thinks will be a lot different.
"I mean, if you have 31,000 for the spring game imagine how it's going to be in the fall? People are going to be fighting for tickets! But that gets us ready to play when we come out and see all those fans out there in the stands."