"Now, it might not be too exaggerative (spellcheck OK'd it) to believe that this Saturday can settle whether this team goes bowling at all."
A four-plus hour drive in the pre-dawn hours provides far too much time to mull over any loss, and lemme tell you I've had far too many seasons and miles practicing it. The plus-side is the perspective gained, meaning no this is not the most painful setback of my dubious tenure. Those came way back in 1981 and left me sufficiently scarred to accept just about all that's happened since. If 1988 or 2003 or 2008 didn't break anyone of Mississippi State football forever then we're past salvaging. Though, it was with grim Bulldog humor I realized, around 3:30ayem, on the stereo was Led Zep's best live album, ‘The Song Remains the Same'. Draw your own ironic comparisons…
Except in this 2013 case our State song isn't exactly the same. Oh to be sure, finding ways to lose winnable and even effectively won, SEC games is a too-familiar tune. It is the implications of such setbacks which are rather different here in the Dan Mullen era. Bulldogs have come to expect success based on the past three seasons and to some extent his encouraging first year too. So, when a current team loses a toss-up contest which again was practically won the letdown is different.
Because, the impact is larger. More than a game is lost, post-season status is damaged and as noted above potentially crippled. I'll get the bluntly obvious out of the way here. State now must sweep the remaining non-conference games and take care of Kentucky, eminently achievable; then do what has yet to be achieved by any Dog team and win in Little Rock; and pull off what is looming as a real upset in the Egg Bowl to qualify for holiday play. That, or score even bigger upsets of established SEC powers. I don't expect much less want the players to think that way, of course. Their song is and must always be different. To guys in the uniforms any and every game is a potential even likely win, and may it always be so.
For us who pay to watch the play or are paid to discuss same, it is the bigger bowl picture demanding focus. Such as, does the home sellout streak continue with a Troy game up next? We're just hitting half-way of September and also are wondering, openly too, if this will be a holidays without football. That's the painful price of last night, compounded by what is happening elsewhere in the SEC. Unlike last year where five teams didn't go bowling, there's potential to over-qualify even with expanded slots. I wasn't being a wise-guy at all last night, just stating brutal fact that those were two teams basically playing on the third weekend to stay out of Birmingham in January. Now even this has become an uphill battle for the '13 Bulldogs.
Can they win that fight? Sure, even in last-moments defeat we saw enough encouraging stuff on offense for future, well, encouragement. Not just personnel- and scheme-wise either but the general attitude that side showed. Defensively? The tackling or lack thereof in one-on-one matches baffles given the athleticism present, but at least there's the material there for continued developing.
The problem is that going into Auburn there was no margin for error. Now, it will require some over-achieving to make up for this loss and extend the bowling streak to an unprecedented (and that word says volumes about everything) four-straight years. Oh, and while there's a lot of extraneous reasons why to be noted, here's a trivial tid-bit: no MSU coach has ever gone bowling in his fifth season. Had winning years, yes, but not played post-season. Then again Mullen has re-written quite a few program pages so far, why not change this traditional tune too?
The early-season catchphrase has become ‘finish'. We all sorta understand what it means I'm sure, but today it seemed apropos to get the coach's own definition. Mullen obliged very well I'd say with the following explanation.
"It can mean a lot of things. You have to finish plays, which means when you're right there you finish out the play. Don't just schematically on a play say I have my gap; once you have your gap on defense, after I've controlled my gap I've got to get off the block and go make a tackle. You say hey I'm in the deep-third; in finishing the plays I'm in the deep-third in relative relation of the receiver and then go finish the play and squeeze the receiver, make a deflection on the ball. Hey, I made a block, but did I make a block for long enough, did I finish off the block? Hey, I hit the right gap running the ball, am I picking my legs up and finishing the run to get in the hole and get the big run? Hey I've ran an out-cut but did I really throw by when (sic), make the catch and then finish the play and get a run after the catch? The quarterback, not only did I make the right check, am I carrying out my right fake, am I making the right read?
"As a team we played great, we get opportunities to win the game. Are we finishing there at the right moment? When we create a turnover and we have momentum, the ball at midfield, is that going to be our best drive of the game at that moment? Or we're back to the wall and have a chance to finish it, drive it out to midfield and punt it deep, are we finishing the game at that moment? Are we going to finish off the game? Defensively hey, we've got them pinned deep, this is our opportunity, the best or most important time to get a three-and-out and finish the game. Those are all examples of it if you guys want. There's millions of different examples but those are just a few."
If that's just a few I'd not want to transcribe what the coach considers a lot. But the point comes through long, loud, and clear. Where all of us saw distinct plays where a single bit of better execution (a word so loathed by fans yet utterly accurate) or just an extra effort would have won this one, the coaches endured hours of review that made their frustrations far greater than ours. What, you thought this staff just shrugged the loss off and counted their cash? Then you don't know much about coaching egos. I saw some long-time assistants last night who had gut-shot expressions in post-game, but battled to hide them in front of players who needed to hear something other than hurt, anger, bewilderment, etc. Any piling-on happens individually today when the team endures that replay and sees for themselves.
My own perspective on how it happened has also adjusted. Sure, we'll bewail the fourth quarter that by all rights belonged to the Bulldogs. If only by the clock, which showed State had the ball 10:38 to (obviously) 4:22 for the Tigers. And yet the other team scored the only points in the period. Plus they snapped the ball 20 times in less than half the time to 18 hikes by State. Let's save commentary on offensive styles and philosophies for another couple weeks, OK? We'll have plenty time to debate this as the season plays on through and Mullen figures how to handle not just the quarterbacking but the gameplanning.
By the way, Mullen did clarify today the pre-game confusion over Tyler Russell's status. He did warm up and was dressed all game, but a spinal specialist would not clear Russell after pre-game check for contact. "He's cleared to run and throw but not for contact. And we're not going to put a young man's health in any sort of danger."
Then Dak Prescott went out and made plays a la Chris Relf, in the style of Mullen's first three State seasons before attempting this 2012-13 transition to more pocket passing. No, don't want to debate that again today either…though we also need qualify everything in the context that Auburn's defense isn't especially stout by SEC standards. Still these are interesting weeks ahead in the quarterbacking corner when Tyler is eventually cleared.
What I was getting at is as infuriating as that fatal fourth quarter proved, Mullen correctly reminded the game was there for the winning in the third, after taking a 20-14 lead. Another by-the-way that we did not ask about today but might Monday: why did State feel the need to go for two points the first time? Yeah it made mathematical sense to try for an 11-8 score rather than 11-7…but it was so early that it looked like, I dunno, panic? Or maybe plain hurt pride, given how Auburn stung State with their fancy two-point pass? I do know that at 1:56 left a 21-17 lead would have had at least some impact on how both offense and defense approached a series starting on the 12-yard line without the field goal option. For that matter, and this was addressed today, what's the deal with Devon Bell? In the SEC a 35-yard field goal ought to be automatic, and goodness knows—as Mullen affirms—the leg is there. What the coach blames is in fact the young fellow's sheer intensity, trying to kill every kick instead of smooth-stroking as he obviously has the ability for. Besides, Bell has given fans one thing they screamed for: consistent touchback kickoffs. But ohhh, how very large those three points would have loomed later. Or maybe in their next-to-last series at State's 45 the Tigers go for it on fourth down themselves and make it and take the lead then. We're bad about not giving the opponent a fair share of credit/criticism over their own decisions.
Even so the Dogs could have essentially seized complete control in the third quarter with just one more scoring drive on offense. Or for that matter had Taveze Calhoun somehow hung on to that leaping deflection and taken it back…and you darned betcha I turned to my peers and recalled Corey Broomfield in the '10 Auburn game. Not critically, it'd have taken extraordinary effort to come down with both those balls to be sure. It's just how history repeats so annoyingly. Talk about a sad song remaining the same.
But they didn't finish it off there and left just enough room and time for a final drive. In further irony, after Mullen staked the game on a 4th-and-short at the Bulldog 29 when all common sense said punt and play defense. This, this is why one over-wrought fan's post-game fury headed towards the locker room, demanding I write how State ‘played it safe' and lost just doesn't hold up. Mullen put it in a sophomore, still-new starter's hands and he converted deep on the wrong end of the field. And had it been 4th-and-1 again three snaps later instead of two yards, you know he'd have done the same. So much as many other calls can be questioned let's not get stupid here. That wasn't a case of a coach folding his hand under pressure.
Now, what it was, and this in the bigger picture is more disturbing from a historical State perspective, was another example of how quickly some of our conference and especially Division peers can resurrect programs at our expense. This is what has Bulldog Country well and truly roiling today. To our west and now our east, West rivals have in their first years under new management taken over teams that State had just beaten as well as failed to go bowling and won in the first opportunity. Why is it so seemingly easy for them, while State football forever has to rebuild the longer, harder way and then struggle just to hold place in the SEC pecking order? Or at least for other folk instill instant excitement on offense that makes their wins feel more fun? I had wayyyyy too long on the interstate this ayem to roll that thought around, and not for the first time. No, not at all. I have some answers but aren't ready to relate them today. Check back in November.
Because by then we'll have a clearer picture of what this roster is capable of, as well as how those upcoming opponents who stand between State and post-season play, are shaping up. Hopefully we're all hearing a happier song by then. And hey, the second cut on that same Zepplin album is "Celebration Day", remember.