"I feel excited about the plan we have for playing on a short week," Mullen said today. "We put a lot of research into it with our coaches and our players to make sure we get ourselves ready."
While Mullen never had to worry about Thursday games as a Florida assistant, he certainly had enough experience in prior tours at Utah and Bowling Green as those leagues are midweek network staples. So as a head coach he can call on lessons learned elsewhere in shortened work-weeks.
"Everything gets crammed-in, you have to get your schedule set. It's balancing practice time and rest time. A lot of times Sunday is recovery day for the players, where Tuesday is your most physical day of practice. (Now) Basically Tuesday is Thursday for us, you're two days out from a game. The hardest thing is just getting players feeling comfortable with the schedule and getting their mindsets straight in how you prepare on a short week."
Mississippi State fans certainly know something about Thursday night lights, dating back to 1992 when the Bulldogs upset Florida for the midweek TV audience. Then there were the six-straight Egg Bowls (1998-2003) played on Thanksgiving night. State is 6-8 in these games.
TO THINE OWN SELF ETC…: Defensive co-coordinator Manny Diaz played a sizable part in assembling early ideas of how to prepare for Auburn, too. Though, he points out, it was actually all the first three games that State's staff was pre-prepping for back in the summer. And, not just because MSU drew the Thursday date.
"That's something you're going to do regardless of whether you're playing on a short week or not. You never want to go into a week saying who are these guys and where did they come from. So you have a plan and know what you want to do."
With emphasis on the ‘you' part. See, while Diaz is still relatively young in this profession, he has a veteran's grasp of how to handle teams week-by-week. And here is where he does agree that the fast turnaround becomes a factor. Team-planning is just as vital as game-planning, Diaz said.
"I do believe this about short weeks, especially early in the season. The game is probably going to be won by whether Auburn's ‘Auburn-better' or Mississippi State is ‘Mississippi State-better'. It's got to be in terms of whether we do our stuff better or they do what they do better. It's not a deal where you are going to be able to do a lot of unique gameplanning. It's also week-two. We've got to get better at doing what we do. Coaches always say it, but it really will be a battle of execution between those offenses and defenses."
MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACKING: Mississippi State planned to give redshirt freshman Tyler Russell opening-night snaps comparable to preseason practices, where he and veteran Chris Relf split work many days 50/50 on the first team. As it played out the younger quarterback not only got the bigger share of snaps but the much bigger stats. He was 13-of-16 throwing for four touchdowns—most by a MSU passer since Wes Carroll at Arkansas in '07—and 256 yards. Those numbers earned Russell the SEC's Freshman of the Week recognition this morning.
Mullen's Monday verdict on Russell after game review? "He was solid," the coach said. "He made good decisions." The best decisions were to take advantage of a lot of solid assistance from the whole offense, though.
"Our offensive line certainly helped him a lot, gave him a lot of protection, to let him set his feet and get into a rhythm in the game," Mullen said. "The receivers did a good job getting open, some of the throws he got to make for bigger players where guys were wide open. When you have good protection and a guy runs a great route and gets open, that helps you build your confidence." As well as your stats.
Not that Relf was too shabby on the stat sheet himself. In fact, Mullen said there was film-room picking over the weekend. "We teased Chris he didn't have a bad throw," the coach reported. "He threw nine passes; eight of them were complete, just one of them to the other team; and the other one was dropped. So he had a pretty good day managing."
OK, so the interception technically counts as an incompletion. It still continued a trend for Relf that began last November when he was 7-of-12 in the final two games of the sophomore season. 7-of-9 was a fine way to open the junior year, especially with a 55-yard scoring pass. For that matter the first-pass pick Saturday might have served a better purpose than a short catch or incompletion in proving progress to the coaches.
"It was good to see with an older player like Chris, his first start and his first throw to be that bad, to be able to shake that off and come back on the next drive and throw a long touchdown pass," Mullen said today. "It just shows the maturity the and how he's developed from last year to this year."
So, now…how will Mullen apportion the plays this week? "We'll see. We'll see how practice goes. They both had a pretty good practice yesterday and both played well in the game. I plan on us still playing both quarterbacks, if they're doing a nice job." Then again even if/when they are getting the job done nicely, Mullen has a fondness for live coaching and plans to continue with in-game instruction. No waiting for time in the locker room to this coach.
"One of the things people miss out sometimes is when you're on the sidelines you hear the play called, you might see some things you might not see standing on the field with that 300-pound guy coming at you. You can learn an awful lot by standing there watching the play, knowing you're going to have the opportunity to run the same play potentially against the same look. Something might tip you off in the defense you might not see out there playing."
IRONY ALERT: With Russell the league FOTW, there is a pronounced irony to another SEC award. The league POTW is Auburn's quarterback Cam Newton, who not only is a newcomer to the SEC as a junior transfer. A year ago at this time he was Mississippi State's top quarterback target as a Blinn (TX) College star, based on prior experience with Mullen at yet another league program. "I recruited him hard when I was at Florida out of high school," said Mullen, who did sign Newton. The then-frosh left Florida for a detour to juco ball. "And we recruited him hard at Blinn. He decided I guess to play closer to home."
GET YER TICKETS: Athletic director Scott Stricklin said that only about 100 season tickets are unsold after the first weekend of play. He also estimated perhaps 400 single-game seats remained available for Auburn. While the Ticket Office was closed Monday for the national holiday, internet orders could still be placed today and taken care of when business hours resumed Tuesday.
The crowd of 56,032 that watched the Memphis game was not only the fourth-largest ever at Davis Wade Stadium; it was the first official sellout for a non-conference home game on record.
INJURY REPORT: Mullen only mentioned WLB K.J. Wright when going over injuries. Wright missed the second half Saturday with a sprained right ankle, though after the game Mullen said the senior could have returned. Sitting him was the safest course though. "K.J. is probable this weekend," Mullen said today. "I just met with the trainers, he'll be fine to play Thursday."
Mullen did not bring up any of last week's injuries. Reserve DT Josh Jackson (ankle) and reserve TE Thomas Webb (foot) did not dress for Memphis. Neither did rotation WR Chris Smith or backup DE Shane McCardell, both suspended for opening weekend with no reasons given. As to whether they will be activated, "We'll announce that on Thursday."
It was mid-week before Memphis that State suffered another injury, when redshirt FB William Shumpert had to have back surgery for a disc problem. His status the rest of this second MSU season remains uncertain, but teammates say the hard-hitting blocking back is doing well. "Shump's fine," reported TB LaDarius Perkins, one of his 2009 classmates.