And speaking of cleaning-up, a handful of Bulldogs are being slowed by the same sorts of illness running around campuses these days. No regular player was noticeable for absence today as the team returned to the Holliman Center, but a few were somewhat under the proverbial weather. Including QB Chris Relf, who still took time for some post-practice interviews despite obviously not feeling well.
"I think he's sick today," Mullen said, "so that doesn't help his cause. But he's working to try to get better." Besides, the head coach said, "I know I don't feel great today!"
As for injuries, TE Brandon Henderson (ankle) remains hobbled while OG Tobias Smith (ankle) is increasing his practice snaps daily with the potential of making the 70-man roster for Vanderbilt.
POINT-ING IN A BETTER DIRECTION: There's nothing satisfying in any SEC defeat, understand. Yet it's also understandable if the Bulldog offense came away from Auburn with an improved opinion of themselves. Improved, that is, after mustering no offensive points of any sort against the 2008 Tigers. This time around the Bulldogs put two legitimate offensive touchdowns on the scoreboard, as well as drove into field goal range for Sean Brauchle. The third score of course came on the blocked punt and touchdown return that briefly had State in front 17-14.
"We're making progress," said OG Quentin Saulsberry, who participated in last year's bizarre and frustrating 3-2 loss at Scott Field. "But at the same time we have to get better. You can't look at nothing good out of a loss, you have to look at the bad things you did and get better. There's a lot of things we have to clean up each and every day, just things fundamentally."
In other words, taking the negative view is a necessary stage in making positive progress. For that matter Saulsberry could recall enough situations Saturday where even a legitimate gain fell short of what might-have-been. Weekend review confirmed both his and the coaching staff's suspicions.
"On film we saw some things where six-yard plays could easily have been 60-yard plays," Saulsberry said. "So it's just the little things that are keeping us from that. Staying on the block longer or taking the right techniques, the right steps. This is a game of inches and every inch counts. And every inch can turn in to 60 yards, easily."
Instead it was Auburn coming up with more of the big plays. None for 60 yards, actually, but four Tiger offensive plays produced 30 or more yards and a couple more were mid-20 gainers. Whereas the Bulldog offense had just one play of over 30 yards, in the fourth quarter when WR Leon Berry doubled the gain after a catch with good running. That led to State's second offensive touchdown in fact.
Not a bad start, one could say; but not good enough, Saulsberry does say. And advancing ball and chains isn't just about scoring every time, either. "It's like Coach Mullen says, not only does the defense have to play good defense, we have to play good defense. As long as we keep the ball long possessions, or drive the ball and punt it deep, we're playing good defense."
Of course this particular Dog wasn't born the last time a MSU team scored more than 20 points at Auburn; back in 1975 in a 24-24 tie. Yet even an underclassman like Saulsberry can see his unit is making steps in the right direction after being offensively blanked a year ago. There are things State is doing right on this side of the ball and that should get even better. "One of the things we're doing well is we're getting movement," agrees Saulsberry. "At times we're making plays. That's a positive I've seen the last two weeks that we've been doing."
RANKINGS: While it's very early in the year, State fans too-used to seeing their team's offense listed in the triple-digit section of the NCAA stats might welcome this. After two games the Dogs rank 76th in total yardage offense, and better 35th in scoring offense.
The highest listing for State this week is in net punting and it's pretty Dog-gone high too. Through two games Bulldog punting-and-coverage is second-best in the country and behind only Baylor. Naturally it begins with a good strong kick and junior P Heath Hutchins is doing his part with a 46.13 average that ranks 8th-best in the NCAA this week. Excellent coverage finishes that job.
As far as fielding kicked balls, WR Leon Berry has made an immediate transfer impact of his own. He ranks 27th this week in NCAA kickoff returns at 28.0 yards. For that matter his regular work at wideout adds to his production and Berry is 50th in all-purpose yardage. The Bulldog team as a while ranks 25th in kickoff returns.
Unfortunately, after allowing nearly 600 yards to Auburn, the Bulldog defense checks in this week at 87th in total offense and 110th in rushing defense.
SPECIAL TEAMMATE: Another area where State is making marked, even remarkable improvements this season is attacking opponent's kicks. While it was called back on penalty, WR Tay Bowser blocked a PAT kick by Jackson State that CB Corey Broomfield took back for a short-lived point.
Against Auburn, the Bulldog block-unit got points that stood up. In the second quarter a whole pack blew through Tiger protection and FB Patrick Hanrahan stuffed not just the kick but the kicker too. The loose ball was scooped by RB Robert Elliot, another rising special-teams standout, and scored. It was the first kick-block touchdown for State since 2001.
And no Dog involved is surprised this team is making big plays in this area of the game. Especially Hanrahan. "Coach Mullen, that is one of his biggest things is special teams. And it's all based on effort, as he keeps saying. Special teams is all about effort and putting 11 guys out there just give 100% every play."
Hanrahan definitely got 100% of the pigskin last Saturday. He said the designed play used a four-man wedge aimed at Auburn tendencies to leave some gap opened. "Coach Mullen told us all week if we continued to just hammer the shield over and over, keep hitting them, after the first few punts they didn't block as heavy," Hanrahan explained. "It turned out that was my gap and I took advantage of it."
"I just went in with my shoulders down, my head down. I knew he (the last blocker) only put a little body into me so I had a gap and shot ahead. The ball hit me dead in my chest, I ran straight through it." As well as straight through the poor punter who stayed on the ground for a while. "I think I hit him square-up, it felt pretty good!" And even better when Hanrahan raised his head to see the result.
"At first I had no idea where the ball was and what was going on. I knew we blocked it, I turned around a Rob was running it in." Elliot got an official ten yards on the return as well as the six points, which briefly put the Bulldogs ahead 17-14.
Besides duty on kick-block teams, Hanrahan gets work blocking on kick-return squads as well. And of course there is the occasional call to block out of the fullback spot, usually when State lines up the wishbone for the short and hard yards. Such responsibility suits Hanrahan, who doesn't mind throwing his body into anyone. Or even carrying the ball as he did in the Jackson State game.
"I did get a college carry. It didn't turn out the best I wanted but I got it and it means a lot. I thank Coach Mullen and all the staff for the opportunities they gave me and hopefully I keep taking advantage of them." Of course for all the battering a big blocking back has to take face-first, the one thing Hanrahan worries about is getting hit…from behind. By a certain #24 who has been known to plow over a teammate or two.
"Yeah, having a 235-pound running back behind makes you want to clean out the hole before you get cleaned-out, too!"