No, this snap-statement about Dan Mullen's emotional equipoise is based on how he sounded today on the noon teleconference, as compared to one week ago. Ignore the actual words, and the tone these very disparate Sundays was…identical. Really. Last week I noted how relaxed, how upbeat Mullen seemed following the beating at Auburn; well, today he struck the same sort of chords. Which if you ask me is pretty impressive, for a fellow who just scored his first SEC win as a head college coach to demonstrate such consistency.
Now if only his Bulldog team could show some of the right sort of consistency themselves on either side of the ball…but more on that in a bit. For the moment I just find it fascinating that a young coach, with sooooo much yet to be done on a team that is sooooo far from what he wants it to be, about to begin a stretch of games against much of the latest A.P. Top 25, can come across with such present poise. Especially because as Mullen has admitted he's not exactly a model of patience and the ultra-emotive competitor is never far from the surface. We who had chances in spring and August to see—and hear, boy did we ever hear—outbursts at errors and inefficiency know how explosive the personality can be.
And yet I can convince myself we're now noticing a core strength that, maybe moreso than the open emotion, suits Mullen for the next and even tougher phases of rebuilding Bulldog football. Or am I still too groggy after a second-straight return off the SEC road after 5:00 in the ayem? Excuse while I refill the cup with 102 octane, fully-leaded. I really am getting too old for this sort of wee-hours road running.
OK. Now. As for last night's results, Mullen is justifiably proud of the team out-toughing Vanderbilt for four full quarters. And I do mean out-toughing because in most respects that was good old-school SEC football in Nashville. The ultimate stakes might not've been as high as what happened yesterday in, say, Gainesville. But for the Bulldogs and Commodores this was a true September showdown that will factor into how the remaining respective seasons play out. If anything it was more a must-win for a State team that faces a brutal—no other word for it—slate in 2009.
And, to boost Bulldog confidence that they are getting on the same proverbial page as their coaches. Most openly and obviously, on defense, which was the week's top topic. Though, after what Auburn did last night to West Virginny, perhaps some perspective is in order, eh? I still don't see the Tigers quite as contenders but they're a heckuva better unit than most forecast, not to mention further proof of just how good our league is. Ditto, Washington knocking off USC, when just two weeks ago some were saying LSU's Tigers must be ‘down' after struggling with the Huskies. Uh-huh. Or is it, ohhh boy…
Many disagreed during the week, but a talk with a Dog defensive coach affirmed what I'd suspected (hoped?) after Auburn. That, ugly as giving up nigh-600 yards and 42 offensive points looked, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with State's approach. Or, in most cases, personnel. The Dog D simply made enough individual mistakes in assignments to collectively collapse. Such as veteran linebackers lining up with the wrong technique, inside when supposed to be outside; or supporting guys miss-playing their angles against Tigers a step-faster than appreciated. All the message board fuss and fury over four vs. three man lines was taking the entirely wrong angle, for that matter. As Mullen said today, it wasn't a matter of changing the basic scheme itself, it was putting players in better position to make plays, and yes there is a difference.
Besides, as I noted to said coach, to my outside eye every mistake the staff mentioned; every gaffe observed at Auburn, was the type that could be turned to long-term benefit. Or a ‘teachable situation' as I said on pre-game radio yesterday. I reeckon most Dog defenders learned the right lessons based on holding Vandy to 2.6 yards per offensive snap and eight earned first downs (not counting two freebies from penalties). No, Vanderbilt isn't as potent as Auburn. But they ain't shabby either and know what to do with what they've got.
Which is essentially what the first two games also showed Mullen & Staff. Practice can only reveal so much about a player's true ability, games expose the rest and maybe defeat does it best of all. Here's the encouraging news: after a whupping "We didn't change our personnel," Mullen noted today. Now maybe he'd like to in some cases and I can sure think of a lineup corner that could use input from a fresh face. But on the whole Mullen knows he has some capable players to play with. And he has a better idea of their intangibles, too.
"Our players were upset with the results of the week before," he said today. "They came in with a chip on their shoulder. And when you have guys like Jamar Chaney, K.J. Wright, Kyle Love, Marcus Washington, guys have been on the field, they really kind of pushed the younger guys to make sure that would not happen again to us." Are we claiming the Dog defense is a done deal now? Nope. And you gotta imagine there could be some scary Saturdays ahead where the scores could add up big. But what Mullen wants to not-happen is the sort of mental lapses that distorted the Auburn outcome. Getting beat by a purely better player is one thing, but losing on lack of attempted execution is another and not to be excused. And set schemes aside anyway, as Mullen has one foundational focus for his defenses. "I want eleven guys running to the ball," he said. "Usually good things result when you do that."
But then today's wailing and gnashing of fan-teeth has turned to the other side of the ball. That's what scoring just one touchdown, even in SEC victory, will do. Even Mullen isn't content with that, as judged by the (I counted on the tape) dozen seconds he spent staring at the stat-sheet last night before muttering just loud enough to be heard his offenses has to "learn to throw the ball." I don't expect he was only referring to not taking sacks, either. State won a league game with just 81 passing yards on ten completions. A 56% completion rate, to be sure, and even better no interceptions. But 20 passing yards per-quarter isn't going to win a lot more SEC contests.
Interestingly, at least to me, was that a couple of those eight incompleted throws were true downfield deep strikes, something the two true quarterbacks didn't show in the first two games. Put another way, when the only real long attempt in two weeks comes from a freshman wide receiver, you know some aspects of the throwing game are begin restricted. Whether so just for the time being, or from concerns about capability in the '09 roster, we'll learn more this week I figure. Sure, most ‘spread' sets are designed for dinks and dumps to get those planned solo matchups. But the games are coming soon when State must be able to stretch the field vertically, or at least make the defense play it that way.
And in case any think the paid coaches don't know this—which a few passionate postings prove actually exists out there in the etherworld—Mullen openly acknowledged today without prompting "We've got a lot of improving to do on the offensive side of the ball." Ahhh, but where the head coach pointed first might surprise. He didn't discuss the throwing end of the equation.
"I was disappointed with the receivers as a whole. We need a lot of improvement at the wide receiver position, we've got to run better routes, got to beat some man-coverages running those routes, and got to do a much better job blocking. As a whole that will help us open up the field and help us make bigger plays."
There he goes again, stressing blocking with guys who are only supposed to run fast and far. Where the heck does a well-executed corner block show on the stat sheet; or for that matter the highlight shows? It shows, Mullen reminds his receivers and especially some younger hotshots, in the final scores. Today the coach could report that game review showed, for all the success State had pounding the ground, more was there for the taking if some nominal pass-catchers had just done a better job run-blocking.
And, he said, "We are going to be a running football team. We need to run the ball to be successful. But for us to run the ball we've got to do good job blocking in the perimeter." Besides, Mullen added, "If we do a better job blocking that makes it easier to get open in the passing game. It's got to be coached and we've got to play better at that position." Until then, for all their opening-day flash, youngsters like Bumphis and Heavens and White (who got a first start last night by the way) will give up snaps to elders of maybe a little less sheer talent but much more experience. Heck, even some semi-seasoned Dogs didn't catch all that well last night either, such as tight end Marcus Green just letting the two-point pass go off his open hands.
Hmmm, I now note no running back caught a ball at Vandy. Bound to be partly the lack of consistent blocking on the edge, I guess, but also how the ‘Dores defended shorter patterns pretty well. I've no doubt this week will address this as Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre are just too capable of making big things happen on short tosses not to have that in the gameplan. I also confess a bit of frustration with Boobie's manner of attacking the line of scrimmage much of the second half…until he showed me up with a perfect read, step, cut and dash for 40 yards that was almost as vital in changing the game State's way as the recovered punt-fumble.
And let's hear it for A.D. setting Vanderbilt up for Lee's winning scamper. The ‘Dores weren't the only ones utterly fooled when the quarterback kept and scampered into the end zone, as Dixon took a stunning shot in the process. Fortunately all contact was absorbed the least-vulnerable part of his physique, right to that hard head. It didn't keep Boobie from regaining his senses, or what he has of such, by game's end so he and Brandon McRae could baptize Mullen appropriately after the first SEC win.
Of course for all the coach's concerns at wideout, we can agree there remain worries about how effective State's two quarterbacks are. And yes it is two still, though Tyler Russell's absence Saturday was due to flu. The Russell family was told prior to Jackson State that Tyler is being redshirted, true, but I still have to think that plan is as solid as my bank account for the moment. If the kid hasn't played by mid-October, that's another matter; for now I can't imagine Mullen absolutely ruling out any options that could help win a game, any game, in 2009.
But for now it's Lee and Chris Relf in a rotation that isn't as scripted as might seem. "Sometimes it's by play, sometimes it's by series just to get the other guy in, sometimes it's just a gut feeling," Mullen said today. "Until one of them become a dominating player, I think it's great playing both of them. Because it takes the pressure off of each of them to make plays. And it kind of keeps the defense on their toes, knowing you could get either of two quarterbacks and they each have their own skills."
For sure there are disparate skills. Lee is, usually, the reliable manager, though lapses like those noted above still nag. And he's got a better long touch than he's been allowed to show this season, though it takes longer to launch. I do wish Tyson was also a bit quicker pulling the trigger on real runs, not just scrambling parallel to the line. We saw what he could do last year at LSU on some clever keepers, and the touchdown last night was, he bravely admitted to media, one time he read things just-rightly. As in he didn't dawdle but decided and dashed.
Relf is certainly the better bet to make a big running play, and we'd been alerted late in the week to look for more no-huddle, empty backfield, direct-snap use of him this game. Not that it came as a huge surprise because Relf just fits that physical bill. Yet here too there can be letdowns, such as the 3rd-and-short on the TD drive where if Relf had just fallen forward the chains would have moved and no fourth down call to kick or go would've been needed. Now, as it turned out, that might have been better in the long run that Mullen and staff had to make the choice and let the offense show their stuff in a game-deciding situation. But the point remains Relf also has his own hesitations and still is learning how to take charge of a college offense. Gotta like the potential though of a big guy who can run…
…if he can just get some consistency throwing. There in the second quarter when it was 3-3 it seemed Relf had two decent choices around the goal line and tried to split the difference, the throw missing Green. Oh, well, it did good things for Sean Brauchle to break the tie there, and he sure hit the heck out of the ball on his 49-yarder following the Vandy turnover. Still nobody pretends the passing attack is as well-developed as needed. Right now.
Oh, well. No need or time for further Sunday-shredding of a SEC victory. As drowsy as I am after the five-hour drive (just one Mountain Dew got it done, by the way), this is a far better feeling today than it was, say, five years ago after leaving Nashville in defeat. And the Dogs don't return burdened by lots of penalties as it was a week ago…though Mullen can't entirely enjoy a three-flag game since one of those cost Leon Berry a touchdown return. At least special teams again did some game-changing things, Brauchle was 3-for-3, and Heath Hutchins continues to be the unofficial September MVP. Plus the Dogs are in good health three games into the season, and whatever ringing remains in Dixon's noggin probably fits well with his own entirely unique mental soundtrack. Gad, I love that kid, and thankfully he's available for post-game interviews again. Mullen said today that Tobias Smith could have played yesterday and will be prepping for LSU.
So, I'll wrap it up, watch the rest of the first Chase race, then use some groceries to soak up all the caffeine drunk so far on a rainy Sunday. Speaking of which, the forecast indicates bayou-like conditions here to continue the rest of the week. But I saw a lot of maroon-clad folk sticking it out last night through pre-game rain and in-game mist, so who's worried about weekend weather? Besides, a little morning rain will only water-down the Bloody Marys most grouchy Tiger fans will need if they're to make 11:21 am kickoff.
And we'll have more of Mullen's outlook on LSU after his Monday presser. But based on this morning, I'd expect more of the same sort of theme. And, same upbeat tone.