"It's a lot to work on, but I feel great," CB Johnthan Banks said. "I haven't been 4-0 since my senior year high school. So I'm good with it!"
This is the message Mullen had for his team and for that matter MSU fans as well. Yes, the head coach said, he'd hoped for a little more from Mississippi State in its first-ever meeting with South Alabama (1-3), a Sun Belt squad playing only its fourth football season. More efficiency, less breakdowns, more points scored and a few fewer allowed.
"Coach said he didn't expect us to go out and play the way we played," WR Chris Smith said. "He expected us to dominate them. But it came back to preparation. We have to keep preparing ourselves and stay focused as a unit."
"I wasn't real happy with our overall performance," Mullen admitted. "But we won the game. Give them (the Jaguars) credit, they played hard. We knew that coming in, their kids play hard. It showed tonight how they competed out here tonight."
Fortunately for the home team, and a 19th-straight sellout crowd of 55,186 at Scott Field, the Bulldogs asserted their superior size, strength, depth, everything just enough to take care of non-conference business. Not that superiority showed on the final statistics; South Alabama had more first downs, 21 to 15, and were only nine yards behind in total offense. Much of their yardage and the only Jaguar did come in a fast fourth quarter, when the game had long since been settled.
By the same token both teams combined for a lackluster first quarter of seven combined punt and no points. It was the second period that decided everything as State pushed a pair of touchdowns across and PK Devon Bell booted to field goals for a 20-0 halftime. Over half the total Bulldog offense came in the second quarter, in fact.
What sustained State was much-improved defensive scheming and execution; and special teams that at times did look special. After getting shredded, and embarrassed, by allowing 570 yards at Troy a week ago, the Bulldog defense got back on track against a similar spread-offensive attack. "We just put all the pieces of the puzzle together from last week, lined up and dominated those guys," said DE Denico Autry.
Dominated might have been a modest exaggeration, but the fact was State had very few breakdowns and none of the gashes and slashes seen at Troy. Only one play, a 27-yard pass, went for over 20 yards. And the Dog beaten on that one, Banks, came back quickly with an interception in front of the goal line and 47-yard return.
S Nickoe Whitley got in on the turnover fun too, picking off C.J. Bennett and returning 66 yards to keep the first-half shutout. More satisfying, at least for three quarters anyway, was rushing defense allowing less than three yards per Jaguar attempt. Autry spent a good portion of his evening making contact at the line of scrimmage or even in the backfield for losses. "That's pretty much the best I've played the run. Just watching film and reading my keys, and just running to the ball."
The two USA quarterbacks were a combined 22-of-43 for 224 yards, the touchdown strike to Brynt Lavender in the fourth quarter, and those two interceptions. Mississippi State also came with a pair of quarterbacks, though not the same sort of rotation. Tyler Russell might have wanted to share more snaps though as he endured what even his supportive coach called "an off night." Russell was 13-of-27 for 171 yards and for the first time all season threw a pass to the wrong team.
In fact he was fortunate not to have two or three more balls intercepted, forcing throws into coverage. WR Chad Bumphis and Smith saved those with catches in traffic to make the line more respectable. "Every game can't be perfect," Smith said for his quarterback. "He still knows his stuff."
Mullen said passing problems were a team effort, with wrong reads by Russell and wrong calls at times from the coaches. The blocking wasn't up to expectations either. Everything was to me what you don't want to do."
Yet if Russell did not throw a score, he did score once himself on a third-quarter sneak for the last Bulldog touchdown. So did Dak Prescott, who got more snaps in both goal line and late relief. And reliable RB LaDarius Perkins settled everyone down with his 44-yard sprint in the second quarter for the first points of the evening.
The first period will be replayed purely for instruction, not enjoyment, by both squads. The only real drive of that opening quarter was by South Alabama, getting close enough to try and miss a 47-yard field goal to begin the second period. That close call might have served as State's wake-up call.
Because three snaps later the Bulldogs were on their scoreboard. Russell found Bumphis for 21 yards, in the middle of three defenders albeit, to the Jaguar 44-yard line. There was nothing lucky about the big rush to follow, just perfect execution and Perkins' fast feet as he went through left guard. A great block by TE Marcus Green opened a seam as Perkins squirted between two diving tacklers and went untouched for the touchdown at 12:18.
State's next two series also produced points. RB Josh Robinson got a drive going with gainers up the middle and Russell found WR Brandon Heavens for 22 yards to the USA 39. On third down Russell had a free play as the Jags jumped offsides; he found Smith for a 21-yard completion that didn't stop there. USA's Charles Watson jarred the ball free where Heavens could snare it in-air and get another three yards to the seven. Consecutive Prescott keepers made it 14-0 at 5:38.
A 20-yard punt return by Banks led to Bell's first field goal, of 42 yards. He added a second as the clock expired, from 42 yards as well. In-between Russell had thrown that initial turnover, picked by Tyrell Pearson; but the Jaguars gave it right back as Whitley intercepted Metheny at the eight-yard line and returned far enough to set up the three-pointer.
South Alabama used a 13-play drive to open the second half, kick a 22-yard field goal, and maintain a record of never being shut-out . The Bulldogs trumped that after WR Jameon Lewis' 49-yard kickoff return meant a short field. Russell found WR Arceto Clark for 46 of that and on third-and-short dove over OC Dillon Day's block for the sneak touchdown and 27-3 lead. Bell accounted for the final home team points with his 31-yard kick on the first snap of the last quarter.
The Jaguars got some pride points against a scratch defense with a 78-yard drive, capped by Bennett's throw to Hollinger behind LB Chris Hughes in the end zone. Banks, who collected his 15th career interception with two more breakups and a tackle for loss, said the Jaguars earned what they made. "I wasn't surprised, they had a pretty good scheme against us."
"The defense overall played very well the first half, kind of went through the motions the second half," Mullen said. "Our one defense only gave up a field goal on the day. But we've still got to get better."
The passing game certainly must after an uncharacteristic evening from Russell and his blocking. "They gave a couple of looks we hadn't seen before," Mullen said. "He was holding the ball a little too long at times. And he just flat missed some throws." Still solid defense and kicking and timely returning were more than enough to make up for the off-evening on offense.
At least this time they were. Next time the Dogs play it is SEC season again and conference competition is not nearly as forgiving. So Mullen wants to use the open date to patch all the piece together.
"We still haven't put together a complete game yet in all three phases. Fortunately though every time we've stepped on the field we've played two-of-three and that's been enough for us to win."