From The Dawghouse

Just because the first loss was inevitable made the experience no more palatable for Dan Mullen. "I despise losing," he said today, less than 15 hours after suffering that setback. "It gives you a sick feeling at the bottom of your stomach. That's how I feel emotionally."

Ahhh, but this first-year head coach also understands that even legitimate emotions need setting-aside lest they interfere with the task at hand. Make that the continuing task at hand, because for all the illness induced in the 49-24 outcome at Auburn it was still just an early stage in a long-term project. So is Sunday's game-review, team meetings, and initial practices for Vanderbilt week. No time to be sick, in other words. Much less let it show it to a Mississippi State squad that just received a equally-inevitable wake up call but can't allow the shock to linger.

"Obviously you just have to lock-in, really work on coaching, and fix the mistakes," Mullen said. "As a coach it's important we really evaluate where we are, what we're doing, and making sure we're coming back and putting our players in great position to be successful on the field."

For that matter Mullen kept his internal illness in-check pretty well today, sounding almost upbeat considering Saturday night's outcome and the late bus-ride return from Auburn. The coach certainly is in better shape than the editor, who dragged back in at 5:20 ayem and would be even less intelligible than usual right now without the heritage of Mr. Maxwell and his House. This extra-super-dark roast looks like used 50-weight Castrol in the cup but is keeping the eyeballs open.

As to what said eyeballs witnessed last evening, well…let's set the stage by agreeing we've all seen worse, much worse down on the plains. And it's also worth noting those 24 Bulldog points were the most scored against Auburn in any venue since 1998, win or lose. Hey, want to know the last time a State team topped 20 points at Jordan-Hare? Would you believe 1975, and that was a 21-21 tie.

Now of course late in the fourth quarter Mullen was likely feeling it'd been four decades since his first Dog defense stopped a Tiger drive. By then the only question to be answered was would Auburn top 600 net yards. They didn't. Partly it was dialing back the last-series effort of course…but a bigger partly was that after getting shredded from, let's see, from 4:44 of the second quarter to 5:56 of the fourth, the Bulldog defense didn't dial back on anything.

They might seem subtle items, particularly to a fan beyond caring about such stuff at that point; yet Mullen saw some thing on the last two Tiger drives that encourages for future improvement. It was when Auburn had 1st-and-goal at the two and needed a couple of quarterback keepers to shove the ball across one final time. Meaningless you say? Not to Mullen. Nor was holding a reserve running back short on 4th-and-1 at State's 38 in the last minute.

"One thing since the first day I've been here I've asked our guys to give great effort. You look at that game, 36 seconds left and we stop them. Our guys they never stopped." Again, it had no practical bearing on the contest itself, but here on the initial morning-after a SEC loss a young head coach is seeing stuff to be used for better things.

Or as Mullen puts it, "When you have guys that give great effort you can coach the rest of the stuff. They did what we asked them to do, we just need to get some things cleaned-up as a staff."

OK, such as. Every post-game post mortem immediately goes to the defensive side. A SEC doesn't allow that many furlongs without exposing serious issues with personnel, play calling, or more likely both. It's all the moreso for State because by any measure the Dog defense came out of spring and into the season much further advanced than their offensive counterparts. Whether in experience, depth, understanding of scheme, and just overall ability, the defense should be the stronger side of this squad. And it is. So, what happened?

Mullen summarizes a long story as A) State needed to make more adjustments; B) a "poor job with the staff" was done during the course of the game; and C) even when the right plays and personnel were present Auburn made the play anyway. Especially on the third downs in second and third quarters that kept the Tigers en-route to the end zone and left the Dog defense onfield longer than necessary. Or healthy.

Now we mustn't over-play one coach comment. State did adjust in ways both minor and major, specifically at first alternating and then whole-sale using the three-man front backed by either four linebackers or more often extra safeties. I've read much abuse of this switch, yet it made great sense from my press-box seat view in the first half when Auburn was getting to and around either corner with too much ease. The adjustment meant better pursuit…at the expense of both passer-pressure when Auburn came storming back in the second period and then middle-muscle in the third as the Tigers went with the bigger back. But by no means to State just shrug off their struggles and stick to the original plan; they adjusted. It didn't work as planned but they did try big and little changes, agreed?

That is what Mullen means by the poor staff job during the game. Not before, mind, but during. Whether you take this to imply players, plays, packages, or all the above, Mullen is saying something went awry during the decision-making and implementation process while the clock was ticking. Hmmm. As an aging Dog myself, I have to wonder if that reflects more the degree of frustration a young head coach and a new staff felt at not being able to come up with the ideal answer, immediately, and make it work, perfectly? Mullen has oft-admitted an impatient streak in his makeup, after all. I suspect a bit more ‘seasoning' will help with this.

At the same time I'd never want Mullen to back off on demands of both effort and execution from staff, players, and above all himself. Oh, right, there's that word State fans came to loathe so in the previous five falls, execution. Maybe at last we'll accept it as a reason rather than an excuse. One can hope. Anyway, the boss and defensive staff are in for an intense few days of self-evaluation and adjusted implementation.

"I think what we need to do is make sure we're utilizing our personnel on defense the right way in the right situations," said Mullen today. "Maybe simply a couple of things to let some of our young guys—we're playing a lot of guys who haven't played a lot of football—make sure we put them in positions to make plays, when we're asking them to do a lot of things."

As for offensive affairs, yeah, there was a little less there than first met the eye too. I'd have thought State would compile more than 300 yards, but nope, just 297. And while yes that 24-point total was a modern at-Auburn high, just two of the touchdowns came on called offensive plays. Good ones, surely; you had to like how Boobie Dixon wasn't gonna be denied on fourth down at the goal line. Or how when rushed onto the field for another 4th-and-goal in the last period, Tyson Lee caught the Tigers looking dive play and found Christian Ducre open across the stripe. By the way, Chris Relf just had a knee bruised in the previous play's pile-up, he's fine. Though if he doesn't stop holding the ball so far from his body going into contact it won't be so fine.

For that matter Relf found out, as we unfortunately figured, that Auburn was a whole ‘nother breed of Tiger than the Jackson State squad he was able to pass on at will and without pressure. I caught some grief for noting that Relf got away with a flat-footed, arm-only touchdown toss in the home debut and how that throw wouldn't fly in SEC action. Welllll… Relf even said he saw that Auburn d-end before throwing (flat-footed, arm only) but he just miss-read the scheme. Safe to say he'll have a better read on such things after this experience.

Mullen noted the job Auburn did keeping State's offense "behind schedule" as he called it, but added "we didn't help that cause. We had some opportunities to make some plays, the tough thing is we'd make one little mistake." (note: does that also sounds familiar, another ‘execution' reference?) Or as Mullen added, the quarterbacks checked into the wrong play at times. One that particularly stood out to him, though he didn't I.D. play or player for us, was a "great matchup and we checked the play the wrong way."

But, "We'll get more experience, especially at the quarterback position, and hopefully be able to take advantage of those mismatches." Notice he had no critique of adjustments or staff function here, and none seems necessary either. The Bulldog offense is scarcely begun in the process of installing a truly efficient and executable ‘spread' scheme. As players develop and mature, more and better are in store…though how-long is looking longer away these days as a SEC opponent made things infinitely clearer than a SWAC squad could.

By the way, a digression. Two weekends have reminded just how far SWAC football has regressed in recent decades, and I'd hate to project a score if, say, Nebraska played Mississippi Valley. I mention that since State is considering a game with MVSU among others. And a second, more meaningful and probably worrisome item to us. Auburn can certainly celebrate a turning-point sort of success yesterday, while surely grouching today about how badly their offense was managed last fall with most of the same personnel. The Tigers are obviously better but by no means top-half status in the SEC West yet. Yeah, worrisome like I said.

Yet, remember, for all the chaos of '08 it was at least a season spent trying to run a version of the spread. Badly, to be sure, but experience all the same which surely paid off in their spring and August camps. Whereas in all 2009 the Bulldogs are brand new to this spread stuff, but are already running it better than the Tigers did last September. Think about it. And while noting that some State players might have over-assumed their skills based on the ease of victory against Jackson State, I agree there was a real benefit from that experience. I've a good friend who is a serious football student; interesting, since his day-job is coaching the Diamond Dogs.

But as John Cohen tells me, it doesn't matter what level of pitching a batter has faced if he got a hit; the kid still feels he's a hitter based on any success. And while yes, it might lead to some over-estimation of ability it is better to just have any degree of confidence. Thus I'm not as concerned today with the offense as I was a week ago. Again, it is not of championship-contending caliber by any means. But the Bulldogs have scored some touchdowns of their own making, and that can only improve both their confidence and competence.

Then there's the utterly-revived State special teams, so much so that I scarce dare mentioning the '09 kicking kids in the same sentence as their '08 predecessors. Two games in and we've already got a legit All-SEC candidate in punter Heath Hutchins, while Leon Berry just has that indefinable knack of returning kicks. Heck, he botched fielding one last night and darn near broke it all the way back anyway. (Is it just me, or has kicking coverage become so refined that you actually seem to have better chance of scoring after bobbling the ball?) And how about Patrick Hanrahan, who crushed both a punt and punter for a spectacular touchdown play scored by Robert Elliot…himself a special teams standout.

Mullen complimented kickoff and coverage for good field positioning this week again. And that faked Tiger punt? State actually had the right defense called. "Tay Bowser ran by the guy with the ball and Cameron Lawrence just lost contain," he clarified. "If we had stopped that it might have been a huge momentum-changer." At a point when the game was still in the balance, too. But that's another might-have-been from State's first SEC experience of 2009.

"We've got a long way to go," said Mullen, who could've been speaking of the schedule just as easily as the team. He said he would have a better read on the team mood after today's meetings and practice. "Our players are really disappointed, they put a lot of work into that game. Obviously we're extremely disappointed." But, he added, he expects the competitiveness to take over pretty quickly. "Our guys are going to be excited to get back on the field and clean things up and improve as a team."

Which I take to mean the coach will have no problems enjoying his Sunday dinner. Hmmm, reckon with this piece done, and the Castrol-weight caffeine finally wearing off, I should go do the same.


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