This is indeed a critical day, week, and matchup for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs begin the second-half of this season 3-3 overall with much working and winning necessary to achieve bowl eligibility. They’ll have to do so against an all-conference lineup as well, six-straight SEC games for a State squad that has dropped both league contests so far. Thursday’s guest Kentucky (1-5, 0-3) is also seeking its first SEC success. Game time at Scott Field is 6:31 for ESPN telecast.
These teams are, at least for the present, the ‘permanent’ inter-Division opponents and guaranteed another meeting in 2014. After that all bets are off as the SEC continues study of changes to future schedules and even proposals of a nine-game slate eventually. Though Kentucky holds a 21-19 lead in the series, including a forfeited Bulldog win in 1976, this has been a good stretch for Mississippi State with four-straight wins; all under Mullen’s management.
Extending the streak is far from certain though. The Wildcats’ lone win was over winless Miami (Oh) back on September 7 and they’ve dropped the last four games. But first-year Coach Mark Stoops has a squad that has scored some points and made some plays this season, even against a lineup of top-20 opponents.
Mullen and staff began their scouting last week of course. “I think they’re a much more explosive offense than I’ve seen in the past, with putting up yards,” Mullen said today. “That makes them scary, because they are moving the ball on everybody they’re playing.” Kentucky’s downfall, other than of course a grueling schedule, has been extending drives to produce more points. They rank last in conference all-games conversions of third downs, right behind #13 State ironically; and have a league-low nine touchdowns scored in red-zone situations.
So Mullen has a pretty fair guess what the Wildcat staff obsessed over during their own open date. “I’m sure they spent the week on some red zone things, so they can finish off drives.” On the other side, “I see them playing some really good defense at times,” Mullen said. “And they’ve got some guys who have been there a long time.” It’s true Kentucky has been vulnerable to big plays on defensive breakdowns too, but Mullen from his own experience figures that relates as much to a team learning a new staff and new systems. By this point of the season he expects adjustments to show.
For their own part the Bulldogs have done plenty of adjusting already this half-season, mostly forced by injuries. As one coach noted last week, losing two starters in the first quarter of opening day has rippled through every game since and at times been accelerated by other injuries. State goes into the second-half with just four Dogs done, the latest being backup linebacker and special teams regular Ferlando Bohanna with a second concussion. Surgeries have starting strong safety Jay Hughes and offensive guard Justin Malone waiting ‘til next year to play again.
The coaches have adjusted to those two setbacks since of course, but other Dogs have been gimpy in stretches. Starting cornerback Jamerson Love has been in-and-out of the lineup, offensive tackle Blaine Clausell missed the last game entirely, and guard Ben Beckwith battled through on a hurting leg himself. With other offensive line situations now better known, specifically lost practice time by guard Gabe Jackson and tackle Charles Siddoway, beating Bowling Green in a nailbiter is more easily understood. State was also without sacks leader defensive end Preston Smith that night.
Mullen not surprisingly is tight-lipped on health updates pending what he sees Sunday himself and hears from the training room after every aching Dog is due to check-in for checking-up. Otherwise, “We’ll find out later this week who is able to go,” Mullen said. “The next three days we’re hoping to have people at least available for the game.”
During last week’s four practices--a change from the three held during more typical open dates--some staff and players alike agreed that because of the injuries and adjustments the ‘true’ Bulldog team hasn’t been seen. At least not intact, and certainly not the lineups fielded on opening day.
Most obviously this involves quarterbacking, where a third-quarter concussion sidelined Tyler Russell for three more full games. He’s returned to action since and got the first series against Bowling Green, in place of four-game opener Dak Prescott. But senior and sophomore alike have bought-into Mullen’s pronouncements that Mississippi State has two starting quarterbacks.
In fact, the coach made light of the weekly guessing-game by having Russell and Prescott shown together for the pre-game lineup video presentation. Mullen’s attitude does seriously reflect his pre-existing plan for 2013 to have his quarterbacks alternate much more than in ’12. Prescott’s faster and fiercer footwork has lent an element the offense needs to keep defenses tighter; while Russell has benefitted himself with slightly more open spaces for passing plays in his turns.
Plus, Russell has shown a willingness to call his own number lately if coverage drops deeper. And both play to the talents of senior running back LaDarius Perkins now that he’s finally getting to a self-reported 100% health as well. Still there’s enough unknowns and unprovens through six games to have opponents wondering what State is in offensively 2013. Defensively, though the sack and hurries numbers don’t show it, there is a trend back to more pressuring this season and the linebacker rotation has been outstanding. Replacing and recovering regulars in the secondary has been more challenging but here too plays are being made.
Interestingly though, while his aides and players acknowledge some degree of guessing-game about who and what the Bulldogs are, Mullen is certain. “I think you know what type of team you have,” he said today. Mullen regards other’s uncertainties as natural in-season adjusting. “You’re always making tweaks and changes,” he said, implying that the core identity is settled.
Where opinions are unanimous is what Mississippi State must do in the remaining six games. Outside the very top spots on either side of the league, the SEC has crumbled into a crazed jumble unlike anything for many Octobers. A strong second half can vault this club into stronger post-season position, as well as extend Mullen’s Bulldog bowling streak to an unprecedented fourth year.
By identical token any unexpected stumble can snap that string short of making history. This game in particular looms large from that perspective as a loss to Kentucky would not only leave State stuck in the SEC cellar but almost guarantee holidays at home. It makes a matchup of so-far winless league teams matter more than ever…
…and ought to add intensity in Sunday’s practice. Which is already challenging enough to Mullen because last Thursday-Friday were for installation of the gameplans. How well the Bulldogs recall and reproduce today is what concerns their coach. “For them, this is a Wednesday practice. So their focus has to be to come back and get into the routine as if we already had Monday and Tuesday practice.”
“We’ll find out when they get back today, to see how they come back and respond. And the focus is going to be critical for us. It’s coming back focused and hopefully a little bit fresher and their bodies a little bit fresher.”