It's because the Bulldogs have made things so interesting, so far this season that 2009 frustration has been fueled. Note, I attach a year-label because we're no strangers to frustration here. In the previous half-decade (for that matter some other whole decades I can recall) it arose from inability to tally points, period. Now State is scoring, putting pressure on the opposition, making it…yes, making it fun to watch the Dogs play football again. Yesyesyes I know, it's all about winning the games and that hasn't happened the past three home-dates. But seriously, is there anyone out there who denies getting closer to beating good competition, of taking consecutive contests with a trio like LSU/Georgia Tech/Houston into the final quarter with the outcome up for grabs, is not making noticeable progress?
Ahhh, but it is the way this team has been creeping right up to that fine-line demarking victory and defeat, without stepping on over, that leaves all involved unsatisfied. Most of all a certain young head coach who doesn't like waiting for success. I do have to offer a tip of the topper to Dan Mullen for the post-game poise demonstrated to-date…because keeping control after falling so painfully short is not easy to accept graciously. Especially when, again unlike previous years, he and we alike can point to specific plays where Mississippi State could have won the game instead of not-lose the game. Doesn't that count as progress here, too? Certainly as evidence for optimism since, for all our football-mantras lauding defense, it is still the expectation of points that motivates both a ball team and fan base like nothing else can.
And this team is scoring points. In fact I personally expected by today that State would have as many markers in six 2009 games as the 183 points compiled all of 2008. They ain't there yet, with ‘just' 165 at the moment. But then they absolutely oughta have put at least another two touchdowns on the board yesterday afternoon and probably even more. And we're back to the frustration aspect again.
Count Mullen amongst our number, and good thing he doesn't go venting on message boards himself because he's reviewed enough items to start several threads. Now THAT would be exciting. Then again why bother as there's no lack of coaches holding forth today, I see, making full use of the Dawgs' Bite Sunday Therapy Center.
I suppose it can't be easy for a still-young professional who's produced his sorts of success already to admit there are aspects of this coaching game still to be learned. A particular lesson is proving painful. Mullen has by his count "seen about seven different angles" of that third-quarter, fourth-down play when a running all-out Tyson Lee pulled up to hit Leon Berry at the Cougar four-yard line. Soon as I saw the flag I knew what the call had to be; but was it correct? We didn't have press-box replay luxury ourselves but on my row none were certain Lee was over the line, and all expected a coach challenge to at least force review.
Mullen did enquire if the official was sure on the call (as if he'd have admitted otherwise) and told media later he'd just figured everyone was taking care of business. He's of another mind today. "Obviously I did a poor job as a coach not challenging the call, which ended up a game-changing call. It was a poor job by me trusting that the replay official in the box would do their job every play." Because, Mullen has seen enough on his own video to be convinced it was a fair play. Not that it matters now. "That's my inexperience as a head coach, not to challenge it."
Now understand, we've all ourselves been around the game from our varied distances to know better than blame any single play or miss-play at that point as deciding the ultimate outcome. At the same time…a 17-14 lead, ball on the four-yard line, the chance for a two-score margin? We gotta like the odds at that point to put real pressure on the visitors and let State play from a much stronger position. But, and be assured Mullen is more frustrated about this than his non-challenge, it would not have won the game right there and then. Because the coach has bigger issues with other opportunities his team didn't maximize on BOTH sides of the ball.
"We didn't play great defense. At times in the red zone we made stops but gave up too many yards upfield. Offensively we executed well when we needed to but we turned it over three times for minus-21 points." All that together was more than MSU could overcome on a very good offensive day of their own. And it's got folk fired-up today about, naturally, quarterback play. For that matter the triggermen situation was talk ‘o the town most of the late-week and only increases going into season-second half.
I had an unobstructed view of both those fatal fourth-quarter turnovers because they occurred by my quadrant of the field. Hmmm, just as I did on the decisive goal-line stop against LSU…reckon I should find another station on the sideline from now on? Lee had a decent idea firing to the right side/front pylon of the end zone for Chad Bumphis on 3rd-and-15 at the 28, but hung it high instead of rifling low where at worst it would be incomplete. Instead, double coverage had time to pick it off. Note, I'm not saying it was a point where State absolutely should have played for a go-ahead field goal, since A) another Houston TD was almost inevitable with a lot of period left to play, and B) after years of playing it too safe I don't mind seeing a more aggressive mindset at MSU. But that's just my opining.
What is not understandable is two seniors botching a lead-handoff with first down at the foe's 24 and a touchdown deficit. Lee accepts all responsibility, and knowing him we expect no less, but darn, this has become an October issue. Lee just left the ball in Arnil Stallworth's gut too long, the halfback did exactly as he should by clamping down, and upon a change of mind the quarterback tried withdrawing. Too late. We expect more decisiveness from veterans, just as on similar fumbles last week involving both Lee and Chris Relf with Anthony Dixon. Acknowledging that none are true ‘veterans' in this offense, those are exchanges that apply to any offense and something these guys have done since junior high.
Which means turnovers will remain a topic of this week's pre-game interviewing, just like last week. Let's see, in the three home games the home team is up to nine fumbles (seven lost) and six interceptions. Though we can't hold two of those agin' Lee since the throws were on-target, hit hands (Christian Ducre vs. LSU, Brandon McRae yesterday) and ricocheted into opposing paws.
Irony is, Lee's last two games have been statistically-strong with combined 35-of-53 throwing and 433 yards. Gad, in recent years that would be an excellent month for State passers. Guess it's that getting-closer thing again; see more, expect even more, get mad without it, find the most obvious target for blame-pinning. I've often wondered if there isn't a special address in heaven for Bulldog quarterbacks because lord knows they catch enough hell down here. Still State does need better from this position, and on top of that having to spend practice time this deep into a season on something so fundamental as handoffs and ball protection is aggravating in the extreme.
But if any are looking for a fast fix in the form of a quarterback change, try to relax. We've heard enough grassy-knoll notions about how Relf earned his still unspecified suspension. All Mullen would say yesterday was the quarterback was suspended for today's game for violation of team policy. We press jackals parsed at will on the ‘today's game' part as a potential clue, but today got no further explication from the coach. "We're never going to comment on discipline factors of the team. Same as every case we ever have here," Mullen said. "That's an internal situation we're dealing with internally."
State's offensive staff did deal with the on-field situation by preparing both walk-on freshman Daniel Stegall and so-far-redshirting frosh Tyler Russell for emergency duty. Mullen offered those names today in that order, which is not to be taken as a true playing-order; the coach said which would have gone in the game was also situational.
"With the other guys being freshmen, we obviously prepared them in the week to play in the game just in case of injury to Tyson." As said, emergency-use only; Lee was going the distance yesterday nigh-regardless. In fact Relf's status was slipping prior to suspension with less snaps and just one pass against LSU, none against Tech. As the season progresses the soph has struggled with pre-snap reads and after-snap recognitions, things that aren't as obvious to us as an interception but maybe more meaningful in the film room. Put another way: when installing a new system and instilling a fresh mindset, these coaches tend to favor players who have the right initial idea and figure the actual execution issues can be fixed. Or something like that.
I commented on pre-game radio that if State was going to ever play Russell this first fall, this was the juncture with two lesser defenses to throw them against. By the time Florida comes to town, no, don't burn the redshirt. Not unless the rest of the quarterbacks are damaged beyond repair. Yeah, yeah, some think we're already there and want to see the future on the field right now. I understand the emotion, but Mullen has his own ideas about how to develop both plays and playmakers without any input from the likes of me. And remember all the early-year talk of a two-quarterback system? We got a little clarification there today when Mullen said he was not going to put his young guys on the field just to, well, to put them on the field.
"I only like playing two quarterbacks when it is a benefit. Throwing a true freshman out there in a tight game, I don't always see the benefit of that situation. That's why we just played Tyson." But is this necessarily the plan for upcoming games? Now is also when I really wish we had a little access as I'd sure like a glimpse of how the younger QBs are being practiced. Oh, well, there's six games left to see if any triggers get pulled.
And upon continuing review, Mullen is not thinking just of one position on one side of the ball. Sure, Houston was a different sort of Dog-defensive challenge. But for a second week the high-powered visiting offense didn't just succeed at their specialty. Ground-pounding Georgia Tech had a huge passing day; the aerial circus Cougars kept drives going by rushing for third-down conversions. And that isn't all the annoying irony Mullen sees on tape today. The Dogs played strong in the red-zone against Houston at times getting an interception, blocking one field goal and giving up three points rather than seven on another trip. That's darn good against such opposition.
"The issue I have with the defense is we only had three three-and-outs," Mullen said today. Actually it was two since the third was the last possession of the game, but the theme holds. Houston got the ball and moved it. And, Mullen noted, despite having a Dog defender in the vicinity. Following the game the coach speculated on how many tackles were missed; today he had the accurate answer: it was 17. "We gave up way too much between the 20s to give up those red zone possessions. That's where we need to improve. Any time you have over 500 yards it's not a solid defensive performance."
So. This is where State stands halfway into 2009. Two wins, four losses, and a different sort of frustration than we've been used to at the mid-point of prior campaigns. Only Auburn has truly dominated the Dogs and that didn't happen until the third quarter. Mullen's first team is putting points on the board, not just via offense but with a defense that is at least creating some such opportunities and special teams that have a genuinely special look at last. And please do account into all evaluations that three setbacks have been to purely-potent offenses while the third, LSU, has weapons that MSU's defense is particularly vulnerable to.
Am I saying happy Dog-days are here again? Nah, not yet. Not until there are more Ws than Ls on the weekly scoresheet. And it has been instructive to notice something else. Remember all those fan comments that they'd be satisfied just to see a State team once again capable of putting up points? Well, all Mullen has done by organizing an entertaining offense is whet appetites for more points, more plays…more wins.
That's OK by the coach. The specific frustrations might be different but the general attitude is the same. This gameplan isn't about just getting close, it's about getting the job done as Mississippi State heads into the second half of 2009. This would ease most aggravations in Bulldog Country.
Well, that and a nice late-fall drought to dry everybody and everything out.