"It's Time For Football"

"It's Time For Football"

They've had their fun. Devouring racks of ribs, putting on singing shows, touring the town. Even, in Dan Mullen's case, directing the famed Peabody Ducks in their prescribed paces. Yes, "We've had a great week here so far," the coach said. "And hopefully finish it the right way with a win tomorrow, which always makes your bowl experience that much better."

Yes, the only proper way for Mississippi State to complete a week in Memphis—and end the 2013 season—is to leave the AutoZone Liberty Bowl with the winner's trophy. Not that anything Tuesday will spoil the larger experiences Mullen's team has enjoyed, to be sure. They will return home with the usual sorts of swag, the seniors get to play one last time with teammates. And all the practices, campus or here, will pay off for the 2014 team.

But it is always easier ending one chapter and starting another as the winner. So, Mullen said today at the final pre-bowl press conference, the attitude now changes to game-mode. "We're excited to flip the switch and get on the field again and play tomorrow."

Besides all the fun things, how has the working attitude been? "I think it's been very good. Our guys understand what it takes, the change in mindsets that you have to have. We talk to them about that all the time. Number-one, you're here to win a football game. Number-two, you're here to have fun. But it's in that order. And when it's time for football, it's time for football."

"I think our guys, especially our older guys have done a great job of being locked-in when we're doing the football stuff. Because you know, they've been to bowl games before, they understand there's plenty of time to have fun. But when it's time for football, it's time for football. And I think we've had pretty good execution, we've got to translate it."

"Bowl games are always challenging. The team that wins the bowl game is the team that is able to execute. You know, shake off the cobwebs of playing, and adjust to the speed of the game and the intensity of the game. It's been a month since we played; how fast we can translate back into game mode is critical."

Having won the last two games, it seems like the guys have a different energy going into this bowl game than last year? "I think it certainly helps finishing on a positive note at the end of the season. But I think our guys also know how important this is, to go win this game. We don't play a game now until August 30, so you have eight full months until we get to play again. I know our guys want to leave with that positive feeling, not just coming into a bowl game, you want to have that positive feeling going into the off-season."

Are you hoping for a ‘home game feel' tomorrow? "Well, we are certainly hoping that way. Our fans, when we've asked them to come out and do things before they've been able to come through for us. So I certainly hope we have a lot of traffic heading over the state line today. And this is a huge community, there's a lot of Mississippi State people here that come out and support the team. It's supposed to be a beautiful sunny day, a great day for college football and a great day to come see this team. This is the last time they're going to get to see this Mississippi State team. Each team kind of has a one-year shelf life, and this team and all they've been able to accomplish this is the last opportunity to come see them."

What do you see particularly in this Rice team and who would you compare them to? "They're conference champions, I guess in our league that's Auburn that you compare them to. They're a team though that you look at them, and they're different than a lot of teams we've played. They have a lot of seniors on their team, a lot of great leadership. There's not a lot of weak spots on their team. They have the recipe of winning a championship, which appears to be lot of really, really good football players and a couple of superstars on top of that, that have great senior leadership. And guys that believe in their program and were set on a mission, to accomplish becoming conference champions."

"You look at that type of team, Dave (Bailiff) has done a great job with their program. He's built a solid program that has put them in position to win championships, something we're striving to do. They certainly have as good a talent as teams that we face week-in and week-out in the SEC."

In your five years you've gone to four bowl games, most in school history, what comes to your mind about that? "Great! We've got a lot of work still to do. As coaches, I'll be honest with you, we're enjoying this season, I'm enjoying what this senior class has done for us, what this team has done for us, they fought the adversity. And we're excited to play the game."

"I told our coaches they're off New Years Day. And January 2 we're right back at getting to work for next year's program! So you don't really enjoy…I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish so far, but there's so much more we want to accomplish still out there."

What is at stake tomorrow, with a winning season on the line? "It's huge. You know, it's eight months until you play again. You always have that feeling, last year I think our team losing that bowl game, you kind of spend a lot of time with that pit in your stomach. You want to get back out on the field and go win again. So I know our guys understand that. And obviously to finish with a winning record, for this senior class, I guess for a four-year span to go have four-straight winning seasons is not something that has happened very often at Mississippi State."

"That is something that is pretty special. A lot of guys go to programs and get to do stuff that's been done before. Hey, they're the next person to do it. Here at Mississippi State a lot of these players they're the first ones to do it. They're the foundation of the future and that's really special."

What can tomorrow mean to Mississippi State in this recruiting base? "I think it always helps. This is a huge, talented area for football players. We have a lot of players from this area, whether it be in Memphis or just south of the border and in I guess either northwest Mississippi or western Tennessee is a great football area for us. But I also think they're getting to see the team this week, the success we've had an on a consistent basis. Getting to four-straight bowl games is always huge in recruiting. Because guys are coming to Mississippi State with the opportunity to do something special, do something that hasn't been done before. And I think guys like that. I don't want to be the next, I want to be ‘the'. Guys enjoy that and why we've had some success."

How is Dak Prescott? "He's great. He's back 100%. What it was was a nerve issue, which is all time-oriented until he can get his strength back. If he's not 100% strength back he's pretty close. You're probably not going to get 100% back until the off-season just because we've had practice. You know, once you start to kind of immobilize yourself for the several weeks he did, he's not going to get 100% of his strength back. But he has full range of motion, full everything. I guess as football terms go, at this time of year when you've been playing for five-straight months he's as 100% as you're going to get!"

What changes did Geoff Collins bring in chemistry and including everybody in the process? "It is. It's all eleven guys working together on the field. Obviously the energy, the excitement you want to play with on defense, he's done a great job. Our whole defensive staff of developing guys. A lot of times in practice they yell at me because I'll say OK, one-defense go, two-defense go. There's no two-defense; there's 1A and 1B because they play equal reps. In getting that depth, getting everybody involved in the defense that it's not just the starting eleven take pride, or there's 15 guys that rotate. We rotate upwards to 30 guys on our defense and they all play a lot. So they all take an extreme amount of pride in their performance every single week."

Was there a moment or game this season that the team flipped a switch? "I don't know if there is one deal. I think probably after the fourth quarter of LSU, you know we were in a position to me to go win. We had a chance to score, we come away with no points; they responded and scored, we immediately turn it over and we lose big in the fourth quarter."

"I think everybody at that point was really disappointed in how that game finished. And just decided they were ready to go battle and ready to go fight. I think from that point on everybody saw where we were at."

"And there's little thing that help. The fact our guys were devastated to lose the way we lost to Auburn where our guys felt we won that game for 59 minutes and 38 seconds and lose on the last play pretty much. And see the success they (Auburn) had and see how close we were. To go to South Carolina, we're leading in least number of turnovers and I think outplayed them in a lot of ways and turned the football over and make critical errors. The same with A&M, have opportunity to win. And Alabama, play that game close and have some opportunities we don't capitalize."

"I think of a lot of the young guys got to see with all the injuries we had to deal with that we're not as far off. That we can go play with just about anybody, we just have to learn to finish, we have to learn to win. The guys have to learn to go make plays. And as you went on and got to play Arkansas, they're driving for the go-ahead score. Nickoe Whitley makes a season-saving play to strip the ball on the goal line. From that point on everybody else seemed to step up and go make plays, whether it be Damian Williams or Taveze Calhoun. Everybody just kept making more and more plays to go win games and that was huge."

Is State also playing for the big, bad brand of SEC football? "Well, I know everybody in our league takes a lot of pride in it. But it also puts a huge target on your back. I imagine all the guys at Rice are sitting there saying hey, not only do we get to beat Mississippi State tomorrow, we have the opportunity to beat a SEC school. I think everybody in our league gets it, especially in bowl season there's not league that carries the target like we do with people wanting to beat you. And we're very fortunate (to play in) the great bowl games."

"You look at who we're playing, a conference champion, and obviously a great challenge. So it is exciting. I know our guys take a lot of pride representing our University, a lot of pride in representing the state of Mississippi. And they take pride in representing the southeastern Conference."

What has this season meant for Mississippi State as a program? "Well, I always talk about that consistency in winning. The opportunity right now to have four-straight winning seasons, with going to four-straight bowl games; we've won four out of five in our rivalry, the Egg Bowl game. I think that just shows the stability of a winning program. And when you have that stability you're going to have the opportunity to have great seasons."

"Not many teams get to win championships. Look at the program that Coach Bailiff has built at Rice in that way. They've consistently won and here they are now they're conference champions. That's the recipe how to have a successful program. So it obviously means a lot to our program. It means we're headed in the right direction, to me. And what we're doing is working at Mississippi State."

"For us, my job is to win football games and promote the University the right way and do all of this stuff. But the great enjoyment is the development of young people, and just seeing these young people come in and have the success on the field, in the classroom is so huge. And yesterday watching guys going into the (NFL) playoffs with the Packers and the Eagles, for me I have guys on the Chiefs I root for. It's neat to see those guys have opportunities to go play. I think Anthony Dixon made his first start yesterday. That's a really neat deal and they're going on. K.J. Wright is with one of the top teams in the NFL, a starting linebacker. You see the success guys are having in the program as a whole."

"The program is about the people in the program and the overall success they're having. Not just at Mississippi State on the field but in the classroom, and the futures they're having. It's pretty special and that's what I take the most pride in."

Rice has said their concern is stopping the run… "They're concern is stopping the run?! They're the team that's like #16 in the country! Well, in the game of football if you can run the ball, you've got a good chance to win the game. I think we're two teams that are both balanced. They run the ball extremely well, they can throw it very well too. They're not a all-run, no-pass team; they're not a triple-option team that just runs it every play. They are a very effective passing team as well."

"That's always one of the biggest concerns. Because on the defensive side of the ball if you can't stop the run their entire playbook is open to them. Because now you're going to have to start committing more and more people and that's going to open you up more in the pass game. So if you can stop the run you have the opportunity to make a team one-dimensional."

You were at Utah, can you see similarities with Rice in that they want to play ‘big boy' football too and not just try to win in a shootout? "No, they're a very, very physical football team, they have great size. You don't win ten games and a conference championship by not being a great football team. And you watch them, they're very sound on offense, very sound on defense. They're not a ‘Star Wars' type team and do a lot of crazy stuff. They have a lot of trick plays but everybody does. Their base scheme is very sound. They don't blitz a lot on defense, they're not all over the place. They go line up and say come after us. They're going to line up on the perimeter and play man coverage on your wideouts and say go ahead and try to beat us. It shows the type of program they've built there, that their guys believe in their system and their talent and their program that they've brought to their University."

Can you talk about Rice's corners? "They're as good to me as we've seen this year. You know, we play some pretty good corners week-in and week-out in the SEC, and they're as good a corners as I've seen this year. What makes them so tough is it's not one, it's two. If it's one it makes it pretty easy don't throw at #15! A pretty easy coaching point there! But the fact they have two great corners on either side really allows them to stop the run and be very aggressive with guys. Because they can say OK, we're going to go win on the outside, we're going to give you one-on-one matchup and we're going to create a numbers advantage in other parts of their defense."

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