Oh, and yes, the top Dog has already taken a peek at the opposition. "Auburn got off to a great start last night. You can see their potential of being an explosive offensive team. Auburn has always been a great defensive team and I don't see that changing, but the ability to come out and be a really explosive offensive team with their spread offense, it's going to be a handful."
Naturally it is easier to shift staff, and later today team, attention to the next game when coming off a satisfying success. Or mostly satisfying anyway. The actual opening-day experience was a complete success from Mullen's standpoint, whether seeing the third-largest crowd ever at Davis Wade Stadium for his first MSU game or just getting that debut done with a W. "Fantastic," he summarized.
"I'm really excited how our defense played and performed. I thought our special teams (played well) except for the missed field goals." Then came the inevitable ‘but' as "Obviously we have a lot to clean up on offense right now before we go on the road."
Or play anybody anywhere, for that matter. The Bulldog offense and defense combined for six touchdowns in this one game, only one less than the 2008 team scored in four November games. That alone was reason for celebrating 2009's opening act. And a net-gain of 5.4 yards on each offensive snap is certainly a sign of better things to come. Buuuuut…the head coach came away Saturday with concerns about overall efficiency from his offense. Several failures to maximize opportunities in the first half matter more to Mullen now.
This coach plays by his own system, but his initial analysis of the first-game problems echoed what any offensive coach would say. "Offensive football needs eleven guys executing together. The whole key is to have them executing together. If one or two guys make mistakes it becomes glaring issues." And the Bulldogs made their share of mistakes, most obviously in that first half. Presented with excellent field position for two periods, partly by their own defense's and kicking team's superb efforts as well as gaffes by the Tigers, the offense failed to cash in fully. They did score a touchdown each quarter but also stalled twice in JSU's red-zone and fumbled the ball away at the 37-yard line.
Another fumble, at State's 45, as well as missed field goals from 38 and 37 yards out left everyone frustrated with just a 14-0 halftime lead. And, disrupted according to the boss. "The other fact in offensive football is stay on schedule. Getting the number of penalties we had, that puts you herky-jerky. A big play, then back it up and you're in second-and-20. That really caused issues and obviously turnovers are momentum killers. Then you get in the red zone and don't score a touchdown and miss a field goal. That kind of hurt us in the first half."
At the same time it was towards the end of the second period the offense found its footing. Starting QB Tyson Lee directed most of a 79-yard drive before hurting his right (throwing) shoulder on a scramble to the five-yard line. Even had the senior not gotten hurt, alternate QB Chris Relf would have been shuttled in for 4th-and-1 at that spot; he got both the first down and touchdown on a keeper.
"Then we went through a stretch at the end of the second quarter and in the third quarter of consecutive series with touchdowns," said Mullen. "That's where our momentum started to build and you could see the rest of the execution feed off that." As in three touchdowns scored before the third quarter ended and a field goal early in the fourth. Only once did Relf have to direct a true ‘drive' as the scores came on series lasting three, three, and seven plays. Tiger turnovers (interception, fumble) set up short fields, and another fumble preceded that field goal.
The last MSU points were provided fittingly by a defense that was the really dominant fact of the day, with backup CB Corey Broomfield returning an interception 43 yards. It was the first defensive points for State since the 2007 Alabama game. The Dog D had a shutout into the final quarter when a mix of backups and reserves allowed a 10-play drive with four first downs and 72 yards. Take that away, and the Tigers mustered only five first downs and 122 yards the rest of the day.
Almost overlooked given disastrous JSU special teams play, primarily the three fumbled punt-snaps, was just how strong State coverage was. The Bulldogs had to kick the ball to the Tigers ten times total, and gave up just 114 net yards on kickoffs and punts. Taking nothing away from defensive effort and execution, Mullen said State's superior special teams work was "Tilting the field all day long, making Jackson State play on their end and us play with good field position all day long."
Now, if only juco transfer Brauchle had made good on what should have been routine kicks. Mullen said the kicker wasn't given a chance to explain the first two misses, "I explained to him how we needed it to be! And he came back, as game went on he settled in and got more comfortable. He's a very talented kid, fortunately for us he got rid of first-game jitters and can move foreward without it harming us in the win-loss category."
State certainly seemed none the worse for alternating quarterbacks. Fortunately Lee's problems were muscle spasms following the hard out-of-bound landing just before halftime, and should not slow his preparations for Auburn. "I think both played well," Mullen said of Lee and Relf. At the same time having to run the sophomore more than planned, and during the decisive stretch of the game, may prove of bigger future benefit. Mullen said if Relf had to play every play "I'd be fine with that. But both guys did fairly decent."
And he means to keep using both. In fact Mullen said how the quarterbacks alternate is no different than shuttling in receivers, backs, linebackers, any position. "They're both prepped to play the whole game and run our whole package," the coach explained.
We're going to meet as a staff and go through everything. But I think the best way to do it is to shoulder the load between both of them, instead of one taking it on himself. I still see us playing both quarterbacks."
For the SEC opener State's staff can also put Anthony Dixon back in the gameplan. The senior served an opening-game suspension, announced only hours before kickoff but anticipated based on camp and game-week indications. Mullen even opened the post-win presser reading a prepared statement on Dixon's status, and that he will returns to action for Auburn. Now, as to what point Dixon will get first chance to show his senior stuff, the coach isn't saying. In fact he said today that getting the school's all-time scoring leader back "just gives more depth" at halfback. Certainly State had few problems running the ball against JSU without Dixon, what with Relf showing his footwork and Robert Elliot proving he's back to speed from last September's knee injury and a long rehab. Starting RB Christian Ducre had some good gainers early himself but also lost the ball twice, most unusual for this senior.
Still, Dixon is the undoubted big Dog in the ground-gameplan. "Anthony is a very talented player that can do good things with the ball in his hands," said Mullen, give some extra oomph at the position with his size and power. Hopefully that's a big plus for us next week."
State's offense is showing other plusses in the talent column this season. Oft-injured TE Marcus Green tripled his reception total of 2008 with three grabs, for 40 yards, and third back Arnil Stallworth had three catches as well. Veteran wideouts Tay Bowser—who also blocked a PAT—and Brandon McRae caught two balls each.
But it was what a bunch of new pups showed that bodes best for this passing game. True rookies Chad Bumphis, Chris White, and Brandon Heavens had four receptions among them and demonstrated obvious potential for much bigger things. For that matter Bumphis, both a receiver and a H-back, is already being touted as one of the most explosive young talents to come to State in years.
Mullen is proud of this…and not satisfied with the way the kids take care of other mandatory business. This ought not be surprising, he added, since in high school these great athletes could just about do as they pleased. "The biggest thing for all young receivers is really cleaning-up and learning to play without the ball in their hands. That's where we need to make big strides. They went from getting the ball all the time to having to block, run good routes, clear somebody out."
Blocking, in particular, because more than a few good offensive plays were negated by penalties and many flags were thrown because young wideouts didn't block cleanly. And if these kids thought they had to hold Jackson State defenders, how will they react to a SEC-class safety or cornerback coming up in support?
"It's the intensity and discipline with which they have to do those things," Mullen will stress this week. But of course the ultimate goal is letting the young receiver/runners do what they came to college to do. "With most freshmen, the time they are best is when you put the ball in their hands."
State's practice schedule is slightly adjusted, with no Sunday session per se though there will be meetings to get Auburn week started. Monday's practice is a bit later due to the school holiday. As for injuries from the opener, only TE Brandon Henderson (sprained right ankle) is questionable for now. "Everybody else is good," said Mullen, adding that OG Tobias Smith is supposed to resume practicing tomorrow. The first-team guard and redshirt freshman injured an ankle four weeks ago. Saturday he was at the game wearing a jersey but not wearing a protective boot.