From The Dawghouse-Sept 30, 2012

From The Dawghouse-Sept 30, 2012

It's an interesting calendar Dan Mullen keeps these days. Or months rather. Most of us would see a late-September open date, followed by eight-straight games including the heaviest hitters, as a challenge. Not the coach. By his count Mississippi State now opens its scheduled second half. The half which determines where the Bulldogs are bowling.

This half-and-half outlook says much about Mullen's overall outlook. About how he counted August camp as, seriously, part of Mississippi State's season. From what we now know about the competitive nature he's built into the Bulldogs, yeah, there's good reason to follow this logical line. Or for that matter how much was invested in preparing this team for September in general and Auburn in particular. It all worked rather well, eh? Four wins in the books, a team gaining top-twenty attention, everyone just plain taking care of scheduled first-half business.

But now here we are leaving the metaphorical locker room for what shapes up as a second half full of fascinating possibilities. As well as potential pitfalls inherent in any SEC season. Though given what Middle Tennessee did yesterday we ought not be booking any future Ws just yet. For that matter both the upcoming SEC opponents offer aspects which will require the same intensity State invested in beating Auburn to survive.

At least everyone is refreshed for two intense months. I was startled last week to hear Mullen was letting his Dogs out of town Friday without even the standard morning weights session. Y'know, to take some edge off youthful energy before exiting, stage-left. They don't even have to officially report back until Monday morning classes. No Sunday scouting or suppering or whatever.

"We gave them the opportunity to get home, spend time with the family and go to church," said Mullen today. "I let them have a weekend to get away from it all. They're football all the time, we let them kind of shut it down." As did the coach himself, spending yesterday with the wife and kids, playing catch or shooting hoops around dinner and occasionally peeking at scores.

Speaking of which, let me detour for a moment. I can't say for sure what it was I watched a lot of yesterday, but it sure did not look like college football. Or in many cases, SEC football. Too many teams were scoring too much, too often, and waaaay too easily.

Though I do have a theory, naturally. Whether in pursuit of pure entertainment to draw fans, or because regional demographics don't produce the beasts SEC teams sign for defensive lines, teams increasingly put most of the best athletes on offense and just go for the points. But how to explain that trend cropping up even in our own league, with such dubious defenses rosters at Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Auburn, even Tennessee to some extent?

My corollary there is part of the conference despairs of building defenses of Alabama-LSU caliber so they don't try and keep recruiting for offense. Not all; here at State stopping folk is taken seriously. Florida has a good group too, no reason they shouldn't with the talent available, and even ol' Spurrier has learned to love him a good defense at his second SEC address. Like I said, all just a trendy theory, one which Jimmy Hoffa agrees with me on while Elvis and Bigfoot both scoff at us conspiracy types.

Somewhat more seriously, I posited last week that whether it were straight upsets or just uninspired performances by clearly better ball clubs, the sport was trending more like baseball. Meaning, no true trends or real consistency from one matchup to the next. Though in this case it isn't so much the difference in pitching (or umping). I wonder if the nature of today's athlete makes it increasingly difficult to have teams motivated for everybody and anybody they play. I don't mean fire-in-the-eyes inspired, but consistently sharp. I also said last week one particular team appeared immune to this flat-stretch syndrome; I was wrong. Even almighty Alabama was mailing it in at times yesterday, at least to my eye.

So it seems the trick nowadays is for coaches to have their squads as technically prepared as practical, while keeping the emotional pendulum in as tight an arc as possible. That certainly sounds like Mullen's approach to practice last week, the three days scripted to avoid rust on starters while accelerating development of the backups and youngsters. Oh, and using four games' worth of results to show those starters and regulars what had slipped even in success. As Mullen agreed today, it is one thing to perfect practice; it is another for players to see on video where a slightly different angle, an adjusted foot-placement, just a twitch better timing, would have produced much bigger results.

So, "Even though we did rest our older guys a lot, we were able to show them a lot of things how to improve," said Mullen. Not to mention individual health, which in fact Mullen did not mention today; injury updates are due Monday. Then maybe, just maybe, we'll get a cue how State is thinking in terms of what series or even what games Tobias Smith gets. Don't want to dwell on this topic today, but I also can't shake the notion of how key his ‘scripting' could be in coming weeks.

Also along the injury line of thought, Mullen said State just can't know as of now which Kentucky quarterback to prepare for. One is a thrower, the other two runners, and that'll make it tough to get everything prepped-for this week before Friday's afternoon flight to Lexington. Mullen also warns not to read too much into statistics showing State should run, run, run on this Wildcat defense. He saw a team "growing up" last night, one that was a fluke play away from a big halftime bulge and legitimate upset bid.

"We're certainly going to have our hands full, I know our players watched them, they know what they're getting into."

Setting aside specific matchups with Kat quarterbacks, it's been an interesting two weeks for the Bulldog defense. ‘Interesting' as in ‘painful to their pride' as consecutive Sun Belt squads moved the ball often and at times even easily. Here, too, Mullen finds points to apply; as in improving performance without losing sight of the bigger picture. "To be a great team you don't want to give up anything. But the key to winning is not giving up points. As long as we're not giving up points." Which this week means stopping the Wildcat spread-option and zone reads, assuming of course Kentucky runs as expected. Should Max Smith return and take the game to the air, expect the Bulldogs to continue their man-to-man trends.

"Absolutely. We have some experience out there, and when you have corners that can match up with most people that's why we played a lot more man."

It was not a long teleconference today, devoted much more to Kentucky specifics than State personnel. That explains why Tyler Russell's name did not come up. But then, it did often enough last week. Y'all can pull up the reported quotes anyway. But the obvious coach-tone is in his last outing Russell erred in an admirable way; he tried to play perfect in the passing game, looking for grand slams when solid gap-shots (to again call upon baseball comparisons) were there for the easy taking. Now why he was so far off on other throws, we still wonder if the hand is bothering Russell, but he shrugged the question off a week ago and did not talk last week at all.

I think the best point here is a less-than-efficient quarterbacking day still brought a win, and gave two whole weeks to find flaws and fixes. Good timing, in other words. It also allowed further work on package plays for Dak Prescott, Mullen did report. Which may well be needed in coming weeks of course, whether it be making the one timely play or just out-scoring the other guys. Yeah, it is entirely possible State will get into a shootout or two in the coming weeks just like everyone else seemingly has. By the way, I asked Mullen today what he thought of Saturday's scoreboards. "It was a big offensive day!" he said, adding he doesn't see any permanent cycle here. "You have a shootout one week and a defensive battle the next." So much for one theory…

Whatever the style, though, Mississippi State has a heavyweight second-half to battle through if the Bulldogs are to achieve their goals. Lofty ones too, since after all they are among the remaining unbeatens. And on a six-game win streak going back to last November. Hopefully winning is a hard habit to break…but that is not the habit Mullen is counting on to continue such streaking.

Which is why before turning his team loose, the coach reminded what had gotten them this far and how to stay on their second-half stride. "Just our overall tempo of practice and our demeanor," Mullen said today. "Not just the older guys but the younger guys, it was understanding how hard we expect everybody to go all the time. And I think we got that cleaned-up with some of the guys, and what our expectations are from top-to-bottom."

Expectations that are much more top than bottom. Now if you'll excuse, the band has left the field and fans returned to their seats. Mississippi State's second half is ready to kick off. See you in Lexington this weekend.

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