Just that close. Just that frustrating. Every bit that Exciting.
But then we can say much the same for all four weekends now recorded in the 2009 book. Cease venting just for a moment on the woulda-coulda-shouldas of Saturday's fourth quarter, and consider. We've had an obligatory romp over a lower-level guest; a punch in the facemask on the first SEC road trip that still featured big Bulldog plays when it was still a contest; a tense, done-the-hard-way league road victory; and now a literal last-minute thriller that could have gone either way with neither side surprised at the outcome.
Whew, that's a whole lot cram into any single season-month, but to see it in just this first September of Mullen's tenure? How much Excitement does this foretell for the future of Bulldog football?
I mean, take this most recent exhibition where State got the most points and yards against a Tiger team since the decade turned. Yes, it was a ten-point margin last year but none really believed that '08 squad was going to win the game. This matchup was more in keeping with the thrillers good Dog teams played against LSU in 1999 and 2000. Along that line of thought, we oughta keep in mind that LSU also is now in year-two of operating out of spread-type schemes, much like Auburn; whereas here in Starkville it remains the first season introducing this sort of system. Hmmm, maybe Greg Byrne oughta offer some way-in-advance sales of season tickets right now so folk can beat the 2010 rush. So what if the slate isn't finished, we put hoops ducats on sale well before the schedule is assembled?
So once the worst of the weekend what-if whining fades, I imagine most MSU folk will be getting all Excited about the chance of better results to come…even if Georgia Tech and Houston will come to town justifiably favored. Hope, real hope is, well, it's Exciting.
Interestingly, the man responsible isn't sounding all that Excited today. Mullen made a pre-emptive attack on the topic during Saturday's post-game talk, and if anything his tone was sterner today about how he wants his staff and team to see a setback. Asked what positives he took from the 30-26 loss, well…
"I don't have any positives at all. We didn't win the game. That's the most important thing, to win the game for us." Alright, that's just classic coach-speak for public consumption, while he privately praises the players for their efforts, correct? Ummm, as a prior State coach would succinctly say it, Nope. See, in this aspect Mullen is keeping true to the theme he's been instilling in MSU's locker room since January arrival. There is winning, and there is losing, and nothing in-between.
"We preached competition since the first day, that there's a winner and a loser," Mullen said today. "There's really good things that happen to winners and nothing good happens if you don't win. So I didn't really see much positive."
Harsh? Perhaps so to us outside the locker room and staff offices. But let's think back to spring and summer where everything the Dogs did, whether practicing football or lifting weights or running sprints, had individual winners and losers. Put in that overall perspective I don't guess we should expect Mullen to pat his defeated team on the collective helmet. Or at least not yet. If anything, the coach will put even more pressure on them to prepare and perform than he did following the Auburn loss, since there's a natural temptation to find some State solace in playing an annual tormenter tight and almost-winning.
That applies to these coaches, by the way. Never mind how close they came to knocking off a top-ten team (woulda been State's first such success since, again, 2000 after fifteen-straight losses to clubs with single-digit rankings). "We've got to work harder today as a team, work harder today as a team," Mullen said of his Sunday schedule. "We did not work hard enough, we didn't play hard enough, we did not do what we needed to do as a team." Which, he added, was convert that finishing opportunity. Never mind that he had no part in the previous nine LSU losses, or how typically lopsided they were.
"My experience with Mississippi State and LSU stems completely from yesterday's game. Their players made a couple of big plays, ours did too. They made one more than we did, that's where the gap is. We have to find a way to make the big play when the game is on the line."
Ahhhh, yes. Game on the line. Or should we say, football almost on the line? I've no desire to toss more diesel on the still-smoking controversy. Too many years in the bizness have taught that almost always coaches have logical, organized principles behind their decisive-play decisions. Almost always, because I'd still like a look at that alleged ‘chart' one coach claimed to have for both 1- or 2-point and try/punt situation calls. He would reference The Chart as if it were hand-written by a team of Vince Lombardi and Nostradamus.
And having seen the third- and fourth-down plays both in-person with an ideally good field-level view, then on video replay…yeah, either ought to have worked. Especially that intended jump-pass on third down to the TIGHT END, the sort of goal-area offense that we should recall worked out quite well several times in the 1990s, eh? Good to see that's back in a Bulldog playbook. Though now I also remember, Marcus Green dropped a two-point pass at the goal line at Auburn, too. Hmm, and as for the intent of an option-run to the left on fourth down, while it did work very well in the first quarter from a bit further out…wasn't Tyson Lee's pitch to Rob Elliot last week at Vanderbilt a bit behind, thus fumbled? Just a reminder that option football is not something to do casually. We'll get further evidence this coming Saturday evening of course.
Old-fashioned me, who loves few things like a well-run wishbone dive play, would still lean towards four consecutive blasts by the program's all-time touchdown leader. I'm sure the prior staff would have, too, except instead of straight-ahead motion they'd have tried slower-developing handoffs deeper in the backfield and been caught for losses. But by no means does that constitute an argument agin' what State attempted this time, either. Oh, and I still can't make myself ‘see' a touchdown out of Anthony Dixon's second-down dive; had he kept forward momentum the ball would have broken plane, but still-photos being passed around the net today don't show his body was going downward by then. I had a near-perfect view from the goal-line vantage point and didn't see it as that close; nor did any Dog visibly protest the official spotting either. They knew.
The real point herein is Mullen's confidence he and Les Koenning did what they should have done in the situation(s). "Know what?" he said today. "I probably would have called the same exact calls the same exact way we called them. I thought we did a good job to put our kids in position to be successful, their guys (LSU) just executed a little bit better. We had the (pass) play faked, protected, and the receiver open. The option on fourth down, I still would have called it. Right now I'd call the same exact play."
And, Mullen implies, use the same exact personnel. Not just for the particular situation, either, but in the game as a whole, and most obviously at quarterback. I, and surely you, have been pondering what yesterday's breakdown of snaps-and-series says about the respective status (statuses? stati?) of Lee and Chris Relf; whether riding Lee so long despite a three-pick first half sent a signal about who has more trust? Upon further review…probably not. Or as Mullen put it today, "Our thoughts at quarterback isn't going to change, we're going to play both of them."
Mullen did note yesterday (see post-game quotes) that after taking a big early hit Relf wasn't sharp upon return. "He went back in and missed a check or two," the coach said today in follow-up. And as I noted in the game recap, Relf's one big pass—heck, his only toss all day—that went for a 46-yard gainer should have been broken up at least and picked at worst as he simply slung the ball up side-arm under pressure. That it worked out for the Bulldog-better isn't to be ignored either, though, because making luck happen also means the team is getting good enough to, well, to make luck happen. Encouraging sign, says I.
Still Lee got the bigger Dog's share of snaps including the whole third quarter, for good reasons. "Tyson was getting us in the right plays, we were running the ball at the time, he was in the flow of the game," said Mullen. "He threw some interceptions early but settled down and was just in the flow so we decided to stick with him through the third quarter." And of course for the whole decisive series. OK, so there's a legit argument Relf's size would have made the difference on the pass play; but his short-toss touch also remains unproven, remember. A sneak? Reasonable idea, though Auburn was able to stuff that two weeks ago too, and I noted Relf had a tendency to tote the ball away from his body in traffic.
All the above really means is that, still, Mississippi State continues the search for—or hopefully now given a certain someone on the sideline--the development of a complete quarterback with skills to suit all situations. Until then, the rotation continues and it's clearly the best way to go in 2009. Which, we again must remind, is just the start of something that is already looking Exciting.
Oh, and should any wonder how an Exciting new head coach is handling the post-loss questioning, the answer was clear today. He may be a rookie at H.C. but Mullen is pretty darn seasoned in second-guessing already. Enough to know a key to long-term success is selective hearing.
"I've never listened to it," he said today when asked. "I evaluate every call we make throughout the game, offensively, defensively, special teams; making sure we're putting our players in position to be successful. That's about as far as the questioning goes. I get paid to coach, not to second-guess. My job is to first-guess! A lot of other people get to second-guess, that's why they're in the position they're in and why I'm in the position I'm in."
So there. All that matters today to Mullen is reassembling his squad for the afternoon practice and opening prep for Georgia Tech. Game-review will only focus on what did happen rather than what might have been. And even a coach who only sees things in win-lose terms has reason to be pleased with collective effort, along with a good bit of the execution. Especially a defense that held LSU to 30 rushing yards; that's nine feet LESS than Vanderbilt ran for! Ohhhh, if only coverage had been comparable. Even if LSU's biggest pass play was a fluke, the twice-batted ball that turned into a 58-yard touchdown, there were enough serious fundamental flaws in downfield defense that tilted the field as much as did that punt return score. Set aside quarterback controversies for now, and focus on what if anything can be done to either upgrade the cornerback positions or take some attention off them. Which Carl Torbush is already doing, you know, gambling with more safety-blitzing than he'd like but finds necessary under the circumstances.
For that matter, after last year's experience in Atlanta, all the Dog DBs are in for a rough week of work getting ready for a second attempt at containing Georgia Tech's option attack. I don't need to haul out the '08 stats to recall how ugly it got on the edges last time, with corners and safeties alike biting on the wrong man and leaving 80-yard openings. In their, so to speak, defense this is not something a week's practice can address. Still as Mullen said today, "if you want to have any success against them you'd better stop the run. You have to play great assignment football."
If these Dogs have any chance it comes partly from last year's hard lessons, too. Sorta like the spread, Mullen noted; while Paul Johnson—who he has talked with in the past about how to instill option offenses, ironically—is one of the few running this as a dedicated system, it isn't entirely a new thing any more to modern players. But that doesn't diminish the difficulty for the State staff this week.
On the other hand, Tech can't very well use '08 tape to prepare for this Bulldog offense. And hey, after living through a dismal September monsoon season here—I tipped that fella $10 for towing my mired ride out of the press parking lot yesterday—the early October outlook is dry and clear. Which should make for a faster field come Saturday, giving each offense firmer footing to operate on. Too bad it wasn't picked up by one of the league's bigger network partners since there is every reason to expect a Saturday evening shootout at Scott Field. Ditto next week when Houston comes to town. Two foes who know what they're doing and a home team that is learning what it is capable of, as well hopefully as how next time to finish something they've started.
It's like what some guy has promised us; This Is Gonna Be Exciting.