"But we had to play with a chip on our shoulder because of what Auburn did to us," Love said. "Auburn ran the same kind of offense as Vanderbilt, and we knew Vanderbilt would have the same thought they could run on us. We put it in our mind nobody would ever run against us like that again."
Safe to say State's defensive staff is reinforcing that same thought. A look at this week's SEC stats offers enough evidence that the Dogs still have a ways to go in this category, because through three games MSU ranks last in league rushing defense. Not by a lot compared to, ironically, Vanderbilt and Auburn; but still far from the sort of status Mullen and coordinator Carl Torbush require. Especially considering the next two opponents.
LSU might not rank so highly themselves in rushing offense, just 10th in the SEC this week at 163 yards-per; but Bulldog coaches know better than to assume anything off such September standings. So do State veterans who saw Charles Scott rumble for 141 yards in Baton Rouge last year. And while K Williams only had three totes in that game they went for 15 yards; now he's netting six yards per carry with three Tiger touchdowns. As Mullen said, LSU can either pound the middle or race around the ends with a well-balanced ground game. Then a week away is a Georgia Tech team that thrives on big-running plays.
Which means Love & Company have to bring even bigger lumber to upcoming contests if they intend to control the trenches. "Our chip on our shoulder now is nobody gets that many rushing yards again on us. Our whole focus as a front-seven is to stop the run," he said. Love also noted that after the painful Auburn experience some new starters and newcomers now appreciate just how fast things happen on the ground in this league.
"The angles have changed because people respect the speed of the SEC and understand what they're going against now. Our intensity has changed more on defense."
Speaking of speed, the Dogs have accelerated another aspect of their gameplan. Auburn kept State from making many in-series substitutions, much less changes to the set, with a no-huddle system. Vanderbilt took the same approach but a week of working on shuttling subs in and out—particularly linemen—paid off. "They couldn't wear us out as much," Love said, adding "A lot of it is we made Vanderbilt go three-and-out a lot more, it helps the guys on rotation to keep guys fresh."
GETTING HIS KICKS: Another real help to State's defensive success last Saturday was another fine evening booting the ball by P Heath Hutchins. The junior had to kick it away a few times from way-deep in Dog territory, as well as take care on a slick, un-mowed surface; which did limit his distance. A couple of 35-yarders (Hutchins said he hit them on the laces) led to a 40.1 average and cost Hutchins his lofty NCAA standing, dropping him from 2nd in the national stats last week to 27th this week.
But statistical standing isn't much concern because Hutchins did exactly what was needed. "Heath did a good job," said MLB Jamar Chaney. "I mean, we love it when he boots it inside the twenty and makes them start on the other side of the field most of the time."
Mullen praised the "great job" his punter did by simply being consistent under the conditions. "Heath didn't boom any punts but he didn't miss any. In that first quarter when we were struggling he did a nice job letting our defense go play and get off the field."
It wasn't all Hutchins of course, though the height and hang-time he consistently nets certainly gives teammates a real head-start on coverage. Mullen was proud Vanderbilt returned MSU punts for exactly zero yards; and for the season as a whole foes have netted six yards of returns on five attempts. Seven other punts have been fair-caught, two touched-back.
"We see it every day in practice, because we practice punting every day," Chaney said. "We know what Heath can do." And while Chaney doesn't participate in actual game kick coverage, he's helps prepare the Dogs who do. "We go hard in practice on special teams, and have guys like me and K.J. Wright on the ‘scout team' going against our first-team punt just to make them better."
What, using first-team players as ‘scouts' in practices? It might seem reckless, but it fits what Mullen demands from Bulldogs kicking squads. "We want to be a great special teams team."
Along that line, WR Leon Berry is doing his part in return work. He checks in this week 39th in NCAA kickoff return standings, and if not for a holding penalty Berry had a return touchdown on the opening Vanderbilt kickoff. State hasn't scored off a kickoff since the 2003 Memphis game.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Safe to say Bulldog receivers have gotten the message. While discussing how, or if, they have to adjust to different quarterbacks, WR Chad Bumphis said not so much in the passing game but "During blocking, yeah."
Yep, Bumphis used the B-word. Goodness knows he and cohorts have heard it often enough since the Jackson State game when State wideouts—and in particular the first-year fellows—were the object of coaching critiques for their blocking performance. More accurately, the lack thereof, as Jackson State defenders either evaded would-be blockers or got held up, literally, in the process.
To their credit, wideouts haven't been flagged for holding in the two SEC games since. "Yeah, they drill it in us every day in practice," Bumphis repots. "We do a lot of blocking. I mean, Coach Hud (Mark Hudspeth) has helped us out a whole lot, it's really more now about getting in position and being able to make the block."
Yet there's another contributing factor: the freshmen receivers haven't gotten as many snaps in SEC action either. Make no mistake, the head coach wants to make as much use of these talented rookies—Bumphis, Brandon Heavens, Chris Smith, Taylor Reed, et.al., perhaps also with some frosh who have yet to be activated such as Ricco Sanders and Dennis Thames. The kids bring speeds and skills State has lacked for years at their position(s) and offer much more variety in play-scheming and -calling.
But not until they get an under-appreciated part of the job under control. "That's what Coach Mullen has been saying, we all have to become complete receivers and not just be able to catch the ball," says Bumphis. "I mean, everybody will see the good things you do. But it's a lot more stuff that people don't notice that we can improve on. So that's the main thing we're doing right now, is improving on the slot-blocking."
It's not just the kids coming in for criticism so far. Mullen commented after Saturday's victory that RB Anthony Dixon could have achieved even more big runs with better outside blocking from wideouts, and that night it was usually veteran receivers on the field. So every pass-catcher has got to improve both effort and execution in run-blocking.
"We don't have much choice but to learn it," Bumphis says. Though, he adds, his high school receiver coach did stress blocking as well. "But usually in a game I was getting the ball!" Now the prep all-star is trying to round out his skills set to a college level, because while being on the sideline watching elders at work is helpful in the long run…
"I just want to be out there, bad! I'm so used to being in the game, it's hard to make an adjustment. But I know what it takes now."
MARKETING OPPORTUNITY: The Bulldogs best get used to preparing for opponents that come into the week with a number before their names. A national ranking number, that is, such as the #7 for Louisiana State. The Tigers began the season just outside the A.P. top-ten but have won their way up with three victories.
In fact four of Mississippi State's remaining SEC opponents are part of the latest A.P. top-ten, including of course top-ranked Florida. If that weren't enough, Georgia Tech has just now slipped from the Top 25 in both polls after a loss to fast-rising Miami; and Houston is now lodged at 17th. Put another way, of the nine remaining Bulldog dates six are against squads that are or have been ranked. It seemed obvious enough to ask Mullen about the demands of playing such a slate.
"It's a great opportunity for us to sell some tickets!" he quipped, in keeping with comments made in spring and summer speaking trips. The scheduling certainly didn't hurt State in setting ticket sales records either. The ultimate effect on the 2009 record, now…
For his part Mullen can't and won't worry that far ahead. "You never know where anybody's going to be," he said. "We don't look past this, you don't know what the landscape of college football is going to be like at that time. We certainly have a top-five team this weekend in LSU and that will consume every second of our coaches' time."
Then, Mullen added, "The rest is up to our Ticket Office!"
State's last win over a ranked foe came a year ago when the Dogs knocked off then-#13 Vanderbilt at Scott Field. To find the most recent success against a top-ten club though means going back to the 2000 season and an upset of then-#3 Florida, also at home. Since then State has lost all 15 meetings with top-ten-ranked teams. But they have won three of the last six games against teams rated #s 11-through-25.
PRACTICE TIDBITS: In the brief period media was allowed to observe early practice Tuesday, newly-cleared transfer Maurice Langston was working as a reserve cornerback on the left side of the defense as well as fielding punts. The junior was cleared to join the team last Wednesday, having been suspended since soon after his February signing while his legal case worked through the system. He did not travel to the Vanderbilt game…OG Tobias Smith is now in his third week of practicing since returning from early-August ankle surgery. He is working at right guard, and after making the Vanderbilt trip but not playing Smith is available for the LSU game according to Mullen…Despite saturated grounds the Bulldogs continued to practice outdoors today, on the central artificial field…While this game has been promoted as a ‘white out' date since schedule cards were printed last spring, Mullen and MSU campus administration ask that fans be reminded of the fact in emails and twitter reports.