It's this. What we saw this time wasn't merely great effort, as much as that was to be admired in a club that honestly can't be accused of mailing any loss in during Dan Mullen's tenure. Think about it. A few non-conference wins, maybe, but never a SEC game, and that's tangible progress in an intangible area if we're fair to the program. Nor was it some good individual play, that comes each weekend.
No, the encouraging aspect to me was a continuation of what began at South Carolina, accelerated at Texas A&M, and developed a little bit more against Alabama. Each of these weeks the Bulldogs have shown us, and them, something positive and productive missing most of the first two season-months. The first two times the offense flashed fine form much of the game; last night it was a defense that we'd been waiting to watch all fall. I have to agree with what some posters have, umm, posted lately; that the team is growing up. At last, though they don't say that part, I do. Now will it be in time to salvage a bowl berth and reclaim the Golden Egg? I'm afeared for now the training staff will have more say than the coaching staff.
So then, why hasn't it produced victories? Mullen knows. "We have to go play that complete game," he said today. "You're putting your fingers on a couple of things here and there, each game that are an issue." One which is so obvious we now overlook it, that being the schedule. Re-read the list of opponents with their rankings at the time and today. This hasn't progressed to the point of beating a name with a number yet, certainly not a top-ten or -15 foe.
But it is creeping closer. And as Mullen says, offense and defense have not been really good together in the same BCS-conference game. Not yet anyway. They have two more chances to get it together. Notice I didn't include the kicking games, as by now there's no knowing what to even hope for from that side of the squad. Yes, I noticed a couple of SEC peers had their own issues yesterday; a blocked PAT and a missed chippie for examples.
But it boggles the mind that a program with championship pretensions can be so lacking in three-point prowess. Forty-yard field goals ought be nigh-automatic at this level. Is it so far-fetched to say this entire season, for State and SEC West alike, might have gone down a different track with just one made kick on the third weekend? And who hasn't fantasized a bit that the Egg Bowl could come down to a kick, as in '99 or '07? Certainly a 3-3 scoreboard might, might have inspired the defense to make a stop on a pre-halftime series at last. A 7-3 count in the home team's favor, wellll that's even more tantalizing. And yes, Mullen said today that without that ineligible-receiver penalty State had a play set for 4th-and-goal. I'm not really proud of myself now for quipping to a media peer on third down that Alabama must've took the penalty to ‘push State out of field goal range'. It certainly wasn't a joke two snaps later.
By the same token, Mullen was not jesting last night when he bluntly said State expected to win. I've listened to, transcribed, and passed along coach-speak for all my working career so I know it when I hear it. That comment wasn't classic coach-speak; shadings of it yes but not entirely. For that matter, the looks and words on State's sideline in the waning series was not that seen and heard of a team thinking oh-well-another-L. Heaven knows I've witnessed THAT far, far too often over the years too. As Mullen said just now, everybody involved went to bed disgusted with the defeat…
…yet is returning to business today rested and refreshed, at least to hear the coach speak. "Our kids see where we're at in the big picture of things. We're really not that far away."
I don't doubt a portion of y'all are still too annoyed by another loss to accept Mullen's account, that's OK. I nor he demands everyone see the same perspective as players reportedly do. But if that DWS audience is a good gauge, progress is being made. Now that was a home crowd last night. Leading up to the weekend there were real questions about attendance; not the sellout streak, all seats would somehow get sold State would make sure.
Yet upon my own arrival at campus, around 2:50ish, it was evident turnout would be strong; and by game time the stadium was just about stuffed. In fact there were more—albeit not a lot of—unused seats in the Alabama sections for a change, though I'm also reading reports of Tide fans in premium areas that are quite annoying. Send your complaints and IDs to the administration, I suggest. Or to Bart Gregory, he lives to deal with such matters.
The Military Recognition of this game contributed to atmosphere obviously and ought not be overlooked either. Mullen didn't, as thanks to our services personnel over the centuries "I get to live my dream of coaching a football team, at Mississippi State." Anyway, GREAT JOB by the fan base of holding-up your end of the bargain Mullen has repeatedly requested, that consistent support is part of the ultimate winning equation. Now it's back on the coach and club to do their part.
As in, achieve bowl-eligibility again. We elder fans understand what scoring a fourth-straight post-season trip would mean: history. It ain't been done here before. Know what? The Bulldogs are aware, too, including freshman beast Chris Jones, who let's be glad is playing this year because it's obvious he is on the Fletcher Cox-style fast track to pro football. Jones said last night Mullen has told the team about the need to keep the bowl streak going into never-known Bulldog territory. "That's a big thing," Jones agreed. "We're going to try to put ourselves in a situation to do that."
Of course they're already in that situation, just with no margin left for loss to reach the six wins. Take this for what it is worth, but every indication is a 6-6 finish this season, with who would be the needed November victims, and how the rest of the league is shaking out, would send State to the Liberty Bowl. That's just me, understand, but I think the odds are excellent…if the Dogs do win out.
At least the deal is completely clear here. Mullen does still cast an occasional glance backwards, to both the Oklahoma State and Auburn outcomes, did so in a casual conversation last week in fact. A play, or at most two, here and there and not only are the Dogs already locked into post-season but heck, today's rankings are altered a good bit.
But, to finish strong now hinges increasingly on the most unintentionally-unstable aspect of State's squad. Bluntly, who is going to call cadence in Little Rock this weekend and in the Egg Bowl beyond? As y'all know by now the injury report isn't filed until Sunday mid-afternoon. And, practice is closed to us mere mortal medias, thus we won't officially or directly know what Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott are doing, or not, today on the practice field. I'm sure snoops will ‘accidentally' slide by that way; or ‘just happen' to bump into a coach or player and casually, you know, enquire hey, how's Dak and Tyler doing? It's the anomaly of modern media that a student or neighbor will know more about these things this evening than we beat reporters, eh? Certainly (literal) classmates tomorrow morning will get clearer updates on each than we will at the regular press conference.
What Mullen could say early afternoon was, he doesn't know. "I'm not a doctor," he said, seriously. Prescott is "day to day" still as he was all last week with the ‘burner' nerve issue, something even specialists struggle to provide any timeline on. Mullen isn't exaggerating that it could be gone today or linger for weeks, months, longer. Russell's throwing shoulder is equal uncertainty pre-reporting to the training room for a day-after look. Gad, that he suffered it while trying to help tackle after the interception.
I mean are you as bitter as I that the Alabama defender didn't just take a knee in the end zone, rather than running it out so ensuing events would add an incredible THIRD injury to Russell's senior season list? Truly, if ever a Bulldog deserved something not merely good but great to happen to and for him at the end of a career, it is Tyler. His last Egg Bowl, yeah, that'd been a fitting setting for a triumphant return-and-finish. Even better than a game-winning field goal, I'd say.
By the way, I asked Mullen on the tele-presser if there'd been any thoughts of going ‘wild' last week what with Prescott out. My meaning obviously being turning Tubby Lewis loose as a quarterback again; heck, he's thrown three passes all year and all for touchdowns! The coach said know, Damian Williams was prepped to play and indeed did, late. Say this, for a guy whose passing skills were unproven in brief August observation, he threw two really pretty passes that should have been caught by Lewis (hmmm, that's another short-slant pattern he's let a pass go off the mitts, re: LSU) and Bear Wilson who seemed more surprised than covered. Imagine all the what-ifs had he come down with Williams' bullet and fallen into the end zone for a 20-14 margin?
It's moot in that context now. But as yet-another flash of future possibilities? Yeah. Now not that I expect Williams to pull a 2009 Chris Relf Egg Bowl or anything…but is such so unthinkable now? Or that the offense as a whole, at least the healthy parts, are suddenly finding their collective stride despite a revolving door at quarterback(s)? And that a defense which more often than before played soundly schematically at South Carolina, and even made plays against the un-schemeable A&M quarterback, is gelling? Did anyone else notice how much and usually well the Brown Bros. handled their assignments last night against an offense that has battered much more veteran units? Hey, State even won the turnover battle a second-straight week against an elite offense. That's progress for sure.
Just, is it enough, and in time? Mullen was right to sound the alarm about Arkansas today, a team that won't go anywhere this winter but has become a lot more competitive of late. "That shows they're coming together." And we all know, too well, this program's record of futile visits to venues on that side of the River. That's gotta give the home-away-from-home side a little extra zest for the 11:21am hog calling. Aggieland it ain't but it can be kinda impressive in its own way.
Either way, this time next week we'll know if the Bulldogs still have bowling hopes. Also given how this unranked opponent plays the game, whether State has taken another struggling stride ahead in a season which won't produce big strides in itself…but can serve to set a stage for better days ahead. And maybe, just maybe, that one complete game Mullen and MSU is seeking.
NOTE: Regarding my comments on the crowd, all present surely noticed that throng of young fellows on the sidelines and in the stands or even just strolling campus. This was a huge recruiting weekend, planned as such in fact, and our man Steve Robertson is going to be rolling out a series of visit reports today and maybe days to come. I'm not insulted a bit if you pay more attention to his words than mine, as recruiting is as much key to all I said about program progress as developing these current Dogs. Enjoy!