From The Dawghouse

I figure sometime Monday morning Nancy Covington will hit the ‘hold' button, buzz her boss, and say "Coach Mullen, the SEC Office is on line-one; they'd like to chat about some comments you made regarding their game officials." Heck, that call might have already arrived by now.

Because the reprimand-machinery will crank up as soon as folk over in Birmingham get a read on what Dan Mullen had to say today about the quality, or lack thereof, of official expertise displayed on Scott Field during last night's Gator-Bulldog brawl. Though this morning more of Mullen's ire is aimed at the fellow not actually on the field but up in the replay booth. This wasn't the first subject discussed by the coach in the regular Sunday conference, nor even the first question asked.

But boy, when that button did get pushed, Mullen was off and running; he said, though it was already obvious without saying, that "I watched it all night on TV replays." Nope, sounds like the Mullen men, Dan and Cannon, didn't do much sleeping after this particular contest.

Now as always let's make this absolutely clear up-front. Whatever our expressed ire, whatever Z grade given this group of zebras by coach, media, and fans, in no sense can we accurately claim the game hinged on official calls. Or non-calls. Florida earned their 29-19 victory the hard way; a very hard way in fact which is up for later discussing herein. Had either or both of the calls which left Mullen short on sleep and long on frustration today gone t'other and seemingly correct ways, it would have made the game even more intense and interesting…and this battle lacked in neither aspect as it stood. But not necessarily changed the ultimate outcome.

To specify: had review affirmed that Brandon McRae did indeed successfully strip Gator Brandon Doe of that intercepted ball before reaching the goal line, State would still have been trailing 22-13 and been pinned at the 20-yard line with 8:25 left to make up a two-score margin. And there'd been no signs so far State could have done so; not offensively at least. As I noted in the press box in the third period, MSU's best offense was literally a good and gambling defense.

Which was what set up the other controversial call, following Johnathan Bank's second pick-six play of his record-setting evening. We cannot automatically assume this would have made the score 22-19 (or 22-20 as instead of going for two Mullen would have kicked the PAT in that setting instead). But you like the odds. I do think with almost four minutes and all three timeouts left Mullen would still have kicked off, as they indeed did down 10 points and successfully pinned Florida inside their ten.

Only to have to kick-over from coverage being off-sides. Ohhh, I wish I could accurately convey the sideline fury I witnessed first-hand; it was not so much protesting the accuracy of the call as that it was called at all, given similar and more egregious Gator examples of the same ilk earlier that went unflagged. Why start enforcement then-and-there, was Mullen's point, and boy did he try making points all that quarter. The State coach spent as much time out on the field as some of his players and he's kinda lucky not to have drawn a conduct call himself…which might have pushed an overwrought bench and infuriated crowd over some sort of edge too.

By the way, I have to interject an otherwise-unreported incident that came on the re-kick. Poor Rob Elliot, already a victim of a miss-blocked fake punt that set up Florida's control-seizing score, wasn't sure if he was on the cover team or not. Seriously, and I was barely three yards from the scene, as the cover team got going Elliot jumped off the sideline, onto the field…and a couple yards ahead of the teed ball. And then he jumped back off! I and a few others couldn't resist laughing maniacally at the sight, as Elliot not only left the cover squad a man short (or maybe one too many, I'll have to watch replay this week) but he was farther off-sides than anyone on either team all evening, and no ref saw it happen!

Oh, I just used the ‘r' word didn't I? This is the hottest button in Bulldog town today, not simply from last night's faulty review but from the Houston game where Tyson Lee got flagged for passing over-the-line and TV showed it warn't so.

"I'm really disappointed with the inconsistency of some calls in the game," Mullen said. "They were offsides on three or four of their kickoffs, and we get called for it. You hope to get some consistency out of your officiating, whether (the calls were) good or bad I don't know but it was inconsistent. But that's in the live-speed of game playing."

Which Mullen can kind-of excuse. Not the erratic nature of enforcement but the fact that calls are going to be missed or miss-understood since the game happens so blazing-fast these days. Has for years now, as football and basketball refs come to know what their baseball peers have dealt with since the first time a runner and ball arrived at first base equally. But there's no tie-goes-to-ballcarrier rule in football, just the option of replay and the necessarily-vague ‘indisputable evidence' clause.

Which prevents disputations not a whit, and Mullen was of a mind to make his case again here a day (too) later. "I'm going to find out who that video replay official was," he stated flatly. "I've seen over and over the view of the ball out of his hands before the goal line."

Editorial candor requires stating I haven't see it replayed myself. I got in about 1:30 this ayem after filing and haven't seen any video of the entire game; and my angle on the fourth-quarter sideline wasn't definitive, as in that goal-line stand vs. LSU. Thus I'll rely on the word of both coach and all you who have watched it all again. And Mullen did have more words to say. "That's two (cases). I don't know why they even have replays in the SEC now, they don't utilize it. Twice that's blown calls in our games. I hope they're severely punished if they ever work a SEC game again. I can understand making a call in live-speed, there's no excuse for a guy who has the amount of time and video to get the call right. That's why you have instant replay. I think it's embarrassing for them to blow that call, I don't think that's acceptable for a guy that has an opportunity to watch all the angles."

So, Coach, how do you really feel about the issue? "The bang-bang calls, live game speed, you're going to make some, going to miss some. All you hope for is consistency. That's two now a replay has blown one of the calls in our game. I don't see how that's acceptable." Well, I can predict this diatribe won't be acceptable at 2201 Arrington Blvd North in Birmingham. And I feel badly for old friend and great guy Charles Bloom of that SEC office, who was at last night's game in fact. He'd had a tough week already with the reprimand and suspension of one conference crew after their gaffes in the, irony eh? Arkansas-Florida debacle. Now he must deal with further questioning of his league's game officials' ability, though hopefully not integrity. Remember, one of our own, Brad Freeman, wears SEC stripes so let's not make blanket blastings here.

Look. My own memory is still blistered by the sight of that fiend Dick Pace signaling end zone OFFENSIVE PASS INTERFERENCE?!?! in the 1981 Egg Bowl. I saw a touchdown at Alabama that same year, the go-ahead points, called back just because Kent Hull fell on top of a defender far away from the play, but that was enough to protect the home team. So don't go claiming I'm defending the league against what fans naturally want to see as ‘obvious' officiating bias against Bulldogs. Yeah, yeah, while I agree that even paranoids have enemies out to get them, I'm not drinking that emotional Kool-Aid. (The Clarion Ledger? ‘Nother matter as the ghost of Carl Walters is still pulling strings there, right?)

The fact is, on the whole calls tend to favor teams with, wait for it, the b-e-t-t-e-r p-l-a-y-e-r-s. Not by intent, either, but superior teams and players are—usually--able to force the pace of play, the reaction of opponents, and tilt the field/court/strike zone in their favors. Chill the emotion a minute and think about it. OK, now resume emotional attitude. The true point today from Mullen is, and our response should be, not to accuse of bias however satisfying it is; but to gripe about lack of consistency from fellows who I fear are increasingly over-matched by what athletes can do under their purview.

Paradoxically, I've never been happy with the idea of replay. Not so much because a replay ref who knows the guys making the on-field call will inevitably hesitate to show them up with overrules. It's because I can't help seeing a tendency of the field refs to rely on replay to take up some slack. As though they'll hesitate to make a call in the first place, thinking ‘how will it look on video?' before pulling the flag or not, or signaling six or not. Hey, the hankies come out quickly on off-sides or procedure penalties which aren't subject to review, right?

Oh, well. I've let this topic take up way too much time today anyway. Mullen will get his friendly memo from B'ham about not openly questioning our zebras (good luck, I fear the last few weeks have only opened that gate for the rest of this fall), while the coach will have turned his real attention to getting ready for Kentucky. Mullen is concerned enough with the matchup because the Wildcats have gotten their act together lately, taking advantage of athletes like runner-thrower-catcher Randall Cobb to kick their offense into a higher gear and whup an Auburn team that thrashed State. I don't need to remind that this ninth game of the schedule is a Dog do-or-die if there's to remain any realistic hope of a bowl berth or break-even season.

And you have to wonder just how much the amazing emotions of last night sapped State's stockpile. Re: Arkansas' post-Florida performance at Oxford yesterday. We can't talk to players until tomorrow which is first chance to judge just how much the Bulldogs left on Scott Field and what they have left to take to Lexington. This would be a perfect time for an open date; instead we have to wait another week and the Dogs pull themselves together—and shove the we-wuz-robbed reactions into a trash bin—quickly. Else they'll fall flat against a Kentucky team that should present an otherwise-reasonable matchup.

So forget official reprimands or for that matter officiating; now Mullen must turn his talking points back to the normal game-prep. Which I figure he will, even without State's p.r. staff shutting off today's topic. Goodness knows Mullen should have fully-vented that frustration today.

HERE AND THERE: Mostly here. Forecasts of a record home crowd came true as a stated 57,178 turned out on a coolish but otherwise lovely October Saturday evening. Loud? Did you ask something? My ears are still ringing and I didn't catch it.

Mullen opened today's talk by giving State fans a well-done "for creating an unbelievable atmosphere. I thought they had a lot to do with how our team played, they fed off the energy of our crowd and kept us in the game for four quarters." ‘deed they did. Now, let's see the same sort of throngs—in both numbers and fervor—start showing up for non-conference games with unranked teams that don't bring fans with them. Then maybe I'll be willing to listen to demands State spend $25-or-more-millions on minor expansion; until then, don't tell Greg Byrne to spend dollars he hasn't got on seats that won't be used more than once or twice a season. More high-dollar seating, that's the need for now.

As brutal as the game was, and it ranked up there with some of the best bashes in my own memory, State came away with no obvious injuries. Except maybe to some egos. Bulldog blockers, which still must be regarded as the most overall-improved unit on the lineup, had a tough night. "We probably had our worst game on the offensive line," Mullen said. "But that was a talented defensive line we were playing." Was it ever. For that matter I thought twice Leon Berry was about to really break a return; only to see not the Gator support come in but the bigger guys simply shove State's wedge right into the returner's path! Gawd, the athletes on that sideline are more amazing than most realize…

So, why is Florida sputtering so offensively? I'll haste to say that while commentators think Tim Tebow has lost some luster this senior season, and his stats certainly were modest last night, he's as good to my eyes as advertised. Greatness means making the necessary plays and within the somewhat-limited context of his current team Tebow does just that. But why is it limited? Sure, Percy Harvin was fabulous, but the fall-off can't be THAT great can it? I just have to think the current UF offensive staff, with a promoted coordinator, was so used to having runner/receivers who could break any play from any where last year that they can't bring themselves to invest full confidence in the 2009 candidates.

But if they're gonna repeat, or for the decade three-peat, as national champs Mr. Meyer must put the proverbial foot down, soon, and pick a horse to team with Tebow and just ride that tandem. A MSU non-football coach who knows something about Florida football figures they will. As great as that defense is, and we didn't even see the intact first unit last night—sobering thought for State's offense—the Gator go-guys are gonna have to start winning games on their own abilities. Especially that looming Atlanta rematch. My own snap-shot summary of Florida: they're like that block of ice that you know has internal flaws and cracks that nobody has been able to pick the right spot and apply enough pressure to shatter. So far…

Thanks to Joe Galbraith of media relations for the note that not only is Banks the first player ever to intercept Tebow twice in a game, much less score on the picks; until last night the Gator great had only allowed a pick-six once in his whole college career. That was Tennessee's Eric Berry two years ago.

In August, talking to Melvin Smith, I was told Banks might be one of the best cornerbacks State had signed since the Smoot-Bean years. Well the guy is certainly acquitting himself well as a safety, eh? Even if Zach Smith were to return that job appears spoken for, though I always figured Smith was more natural as a rush-linebacker anyway...

It didn't take long for message-board coaches to question Mullen's fake punt call. Because it failed, of course; few question successful trickery. No matter, the coach has not second-guessed himself a whit since Rob Elliot skidded untackled to the turf. By the way, I want to see this replay too, as I'm just not now sure the Elliot I've seen this season would have gotten to the edge anyway had had remained afoot. That Gator was coming up hard to make the cut-off and Elliot just hasn't come all the way back on that re-knit knee; nor does he appear to be running with confidence with the ball, odd because when he is properly set on special teams the guy is doing very well.

But back to the fake. "You saw the situation," Mullen said. "I'd have called it again. We didn't execute perfectly and that's on me because I coach the special teams. The blocking scheme up front was where the mistake was. But at that time of the game I would have done it again. It was middle fourth quarter, we were down, we needed a spark, we weren't moving the ball a ton. We were trying to win the game, I thought that gave us the best opportunity to make a play and win the game."

So, argue with that, especially anyone who accused the previous staff of being too risk-averse…

The clues were there to see in Tuesday's brief practice-watching period, when Chris Relf was taking the second-quarterback snaps. I posted in pre-game the same, that Relf was running the #2 unit in warm-ups and no other quarterbacks besides he and Tyson Lee doing anything. Indeed Relf returned from a two game, ten-quarter absence after halftime. Made a nice run, too, before taking a sack that put State out of field goal range.

Relf made another brief appearance before it turned into a must-pass fourth period, which is Lee's domain. Though, it's still frustrating that with Lee in too many downfield options are ruled out; it's frustrating that State can't fully maximize, say, Marcus Green running between the hashes vertically instead of only on crossing routes. That'll require a taller, pocket-comfy passer to be developed. As for Relf, sending him in effectively signals to the other sideline State is gonna run. But hey, it works for Florida, right?

For that matter, the Gators didn't show much of a real vertical passing game themselves, returning to that previous flawed-theme. But it's State we are worried about here. We also must give a partial-pass, so to speak, to Lee last night as there ain't a lot of time to toss against the Gator rush. But it's curious where Chad Bumphis disappeared to in the gameplan with Brandon Heavens taking his snaps this time around. I reckon Bumphis will return to his rightful role this week as State needs all the proven play-makers available in this matchup.

As for Relf himself, Mullen said today he's "still doing disciplinary stuff within the program, but obviously he's back playing for us. I was pleased with his approach to the game, he worked really hard in preparing for the game and did a nice job within the package we put him in there for. It was a good step in the right direction for Chris"…

Finally, it's a busy Monday for us media wretches. Besides the noon Mullen presser and available-players interviews following, Rick Stansbury is to talk later in the afternoon. Not sure which of us, myself or Gene, will cover that, but we'll work out something. It will be up to Gene to cover Saturday's exhibition game as I'll be winding my way to the media parking lot at Commonwealth Stadium by then. Oh, and hopefully you were among those who came to practice yesterday since unless some attitudes in Indy change pretty soon that might have been the only chance to see a certain freshman forward/center (who scrimmages like he wants to be a 6-10 guard) on the Humphrey Coliseum court in 2009.

Oh, and based on what I saw at the scrimmage, should Renardo Sidney be cleared as hoped, and take the court at the same time as Kodi Augustus, somebody might as well cut a basketball in half and give each a piece. Something about leather on their hands makes the green-shooting-light shine brilliantly for both.

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