MSU’s win over LSU a dream come true for Bulldogs Robinson and Sobiesk

One of the last to emerge, Josh Robinson walked out of the locker room with a determined look on his face, his eyes darting all over. He’d just run for 197 yards and beat LSU, and all he wanted was to find his friends and family.

ZIBZSJNBVSEFHCW.20140921012108The Louisiana native was supposed to go to the media room for interviews, but he was oblivious to the reporters who were watching and waiting a few steps away. He hardly realized what was happening as he walked/ran through the gate and out into the concourse where hundreds of Mississippi State fans were gathered.

The reporters who had been waiting followed Robinson to get pictures of him with the fans. This was an emotional moment for State’s starting running back. It was a homecoming.

Those who were there aren’t even sure if a reporter actually asked a question. Robinson just saw that there were some familiar media faces around him and he started talking. There were fans behind him, fans beside him and fans circled around the media who had somehow found their way to him. Someone started rolling a camera. Voice recorders popped on.

“I had to make a statement tonight,” Robinson said to no one in particular. Then his voice caught. He wiped tears away with a towel from the locker room. He choked out the rest of his thoughts as they came. “It’s just showing you how God works, showing the wonders of what He can do. Whatever you plant, you will harvest.”

Robinson is a passionate guy. Whatever the emotion is, he feels it all the way. It shows when he plays. So, when this game meant a lot to some of MSU’s players from the state of Louisiana, it really meant a lot to Robinson.

The emotion, in this case, equaled 197 yards, two touchdowns and 13 yards per carry.

“I had the mindset that I had to take over the game and have a great homecoming, you know. I came back to my home state.”

See, Robinson wasn’t recruited by LSU. Les Miles and the Tigers figured they’d be ok without him. So, for him to be the star in the backfield that night, and for his teammates to hold those who LSU deemed worthy to run the ball to 89 yards total, meant the world to Robinson. And he did it in his home state, in front of the people he grew up with.

“I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I was 10,” he said. “Just to see it, just to see how God works – it’s a blessing.”

That surreal scene for Robinson came over an hour after the game had ended.

But just moments following the final whistle, another one happened as a player approached the crowd.

Few people, if any, have taken more heat the last few years than MSU’s field goal kickers. Dan Mullen has constantly stuck up for them, while the rest outside the locker room have sometimes been less willing to do so.

Sophomore Evan Sobiesk came into 2014 as the assumed starter at placekicker. But when he lined up for the kick against LSU in the second quarter, it was his first field goal attempt of the season. For all the talk, he hadn’t kicked a single field goal since last season. Not in a game, anyway.

UPPGYCHZVVXWUSN.20140921012108But when he finally got the chance, he nailed it. Later on, he drilled a second one right down the pipe. He made every extra point, too. In a game MSU won by five points, Sobiesk’s six points worth of field goals were the difference between victory and defeat. He was responsible for 10 points all told.

When the game ended, MSU’s entire team ran to the section of Bulldog fans sitting by the field. It was one of the biggest wins in years for State. Certainly the biggest one of the Mullen era.

And when the players came to the fans who had crossed state lines to cheer on their team, they heard one chant coming out of the stands.

“SO-BI-ESK! SO-BI-ESK! SO-BI-ESK!”

Of all the heroes, all the stars, all the big plays and all the history in that win, it was the sophomore kicker who got his name called. And he earned it.

“That…” Sobiesk began as he tried to articulate the feeling in the moment. “That was pretty awesome.”

“I always knew I could do it,” he told reporters after the game. “I can’t really take any credit. I give credit to my long-snapper Winston. Dak’s the holder. The line is big up front. In reality, I’m just taking three [steps] back, two over. It’s everybody else that does everything.”

In his moment(s) of glory, Sobiesk deferred praise to those around him. But his head coach was quick to give him credit; the credit he thinks Sobiesk deserves.

“No one believes me when I say they’re really good at practice,” Mullen said with a laugh in his voice. “That’s nothing we haven’t seen in practice. Let’s get everybody to blow up Twitter about how great he is.”

Like Robinson, Sobiesk had dreamed of this moment. He told reporters about it as Mullen’s wife Megan snuck up behind him to give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She was as happy for “Sobes” as her husband was.

Sobiesk continued the answer the question he’d been asked, saying he grew up going to LSU games, despite being from Mississippi. His older brother had attended and graduated from LSU. His best friend in high school is a junior in Baton Rouge now.

“So this was a pretty cool experience,” he said, “being able to come back and actually play as a player.”

The win meant a great deal to a lot of people. Robinson and Sobiesk know that as well as any.

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Anatomy of an upset: How MSU took down LSU, surprising everyone but themselves

I think even the people who predicted it were surprised it actually happened.

Certainly, the 102,000 people at Tiger Stadium were surprised.

The only people not surprised that Mississippi State beat LSU was, well, Mississippi State.

“We really expected to win,” Dan Mullen said after the game.

KTIHMEUBJZWQBEH.20140921012108And he meant it. He honestly did. He also didn’t consider it an upset, he added as an afterthought. Despite the fact LSU was No. 8 in the country and the Bulldogs were unranked. And State hadn’t beat the Tigers since 1999. And they hadn’t won in Baton Rouge since 1991.

Underneath every maroon jersey was someone who walked into Death Valley at night without considering the possibility they might not win. To call it an upset would be an affront to those players, though the technicality of an unranked team toppling a Top-10 giant does make it true.

But, while no one realized it at the time, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised Saturday night.

Mullen conceded last Monday that his team hadn’t truly shown much on either side of the ball. It was also known that this game had been a point of preparation for some time for MSU, and that may be the key.

MSU did things it hadn’t before, but it was just as successful doing things they had done all year. What was so impressive was how easily they did all of it.

ATFKGWSWZURJTCE.20140921012108On second down of LSU’s second possession, MSU safety Kendrick Market was deep in the secondary near State’s sideline before the play. A few moments before the snap, he lurched into action, yelling something at his teammates as he ran toward the line of scrimmage. The ball was snapped and immediately thrown to a receiver not five yards away from Market. It was a screen, and the Tigers had enough blockers to cover the cornerbacks already in the area, but they hadn’t banked on anyone else being there so soon.

Teammates say Market is the hardest hitter in MSU’s defensive backfield and he showed that off when he shot into the running lane the receiver was supposed to have and dropped him to the ground.

Something Market saw pre-snap tipped him off. He knew the screen was coming and he stopped it from succeeding.

All night long, sophomore linebacker Beniquez Brown was quietly the loudest communicator on defense. Before nearly every play, he’d use a wave of his hand to tell the other 10 guys on his side of the field if the next snap was going to be a run or a pass, and he was right just about every time. As a result, MSU held the Tigers’ vaunted rush attack to only 89 yards, a paltry 2.5 yards per carry. To compare, the Bulldogs racked up 302 yards on the ground at a clip of 6.2 yards per rush.

On offense, junior quarterback Dak Prescott had a career night, something he credits not to his athletic ability, but to film study.

“I pretty much knew everything they were coming with before the snap of the ball,” he said. “It paid off.”

POCXKHEDRDQOSZN.20140921013357When Prescott ran 56 yards through the field for a third quarter touchdown, it was no surprise to him that the play was there. He’d seen the opening on tape back in Starkville.

In SEC football, a high-stakes game of poker, Mullen managed not to show his cards before he had to this season. But to those of us paying attention, he may have tipped his hand a bit.

For as happy and full of smiles as he was Saturday night, he was oddly the same way five days earlier at his weekly press conference. Before his team’s first conference game, a road trip against a Top-10 team in front of 100,000-plus people, Mullen should’ve been stressed. Annoyed at taking time away from preparation to speak with media.

But Mullen came in cracking jokes, talking to reporters about his favorite ‘80s music before he stepped to the podium. He laughed his way through the press conference that followed.

The rest of us were looking at rankings, but he saw the actual match-up for what it was. He saw a team he could beat. Don’t get me wrong, he respected LSU, but he had more faith in his own team.

ZIBZSJNBVSEFHCW.20140921012108And really, it goes much farther back than last Monday. In spring practice early this year, it was the same way. Mullen has the best collection of players and coaches he’s had in his six years at State, and he knows it. The team knows it. The staff knows it. They’ve known it for a while.

It just took the rest of us a little while to see what that meant.

Right before kickoff Saturday night, cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend was jumping, dancing and yelling with players on the sideline.

MSU opened the game by holding LSU to three-and-out then came strong with a touchdown drive on their first possession.

By the time 20 minutes had come off the game clock, the Bulldogs were up 17-0. Everything was going right and they knew it.

On the sideline in the second quarter, every one of them was smiling. They knew they were in control. They could feel it, and they weren’t surprised at the position they were in.

When halftime hit, MSU led 17-3. They were halfway to history.

Senior linebacker Christian Holmes ran by on his way to the locker room, slapped me on the back and looked at me with a big grin and bigger eyes, asking without having to say any words, “Do you see this?”

The gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on those players. They knew the history and what a win would mean to thousands of people. But, despite the fact they had never been in this position before, they knew how to handle it, too.

Senior defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls yelled to his teammates on the way back onto the field after the intermission.

“It’s zero-zero! We haven’t done anything yet!”

With momentum, a lead and the whole country watching, MSU came out in the second half and fumbled the ball away on the very first play. LSU scooped it up and took it in for a touchdown.

If there was a moment for the MSU of old to show its face, that was it. What had seemed like such a big lead was down to one score.

For the first time since kickoff, Tiger Stadium came to life. The Maroon and White fans in the endzone went quiet.

Before the kickoff following the touchdown, Prescott went to the sideline and assembled his teammates.

“I will respond,” he told them. “Just trust me and have my back.”

Prescott probably didn’t need to tell them that. They trusted him regardless and certainly had his back. But it was important to him to say it, and it was important to them to hear it.

Two minutes and four seconds later, Prescott crossed the goal line to finish his 56-yard touchdown run and re-capture momentum and control.

“That was a Heisman play,” one of the cameramen on the sideline said. “They’ll be showing that run all year.”

Yes it was, and yes they will.

By the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, it looked like MSU was going to win easily. Athletic department staffers and officials had surrounded the bench area, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughs and those same “are-you-seeing-this” eyes.

But shortly after, current CFO and former tight end Duncan McKenzie stood stiff and alone by the bench as LSU started to mount a comeback aided by an MSU fumble.

It looked like the famous Les Miles-Tiger Stadium voodoo was about to ruin everything.

However, even that wasn’t enough for LSU. MSU re-grouped, made their stand and ended the game the way they wanted: with the lead.

“Weird stuff certainly does happen here on a Saturday night,” Mullen told reporters with a big smile after the game.

DDNSBIQEDAXZHCJ.20140921034107What’s funny, is that he’s the weird thing this time. LSU doesn’t lose at home on Saturday night. But they did. Unranked teams don’t dismantle Top-10 opponents on the road. But this one did.

MSU doesn’t beat LSU. It doesn’t happen. But on Saturday night, it did.

Prescott, a Louisiana native, said it’s just the beginning. But he also knows what Saturday night meant.

“It was huge. To coach Mullen, the A.D., everyone at Mississippi State, it was a big win,” he said. “It’s exactly what I wanted to do when I committed to Mississippi State.”

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MSU soccer prepares to open SEC play against Ole Miss

Mississippi State’s soccer team lost its first four games of the season. Since then, its won three of its last four. Those are the ups and downs expected in a team with 18 freshmen and 28 people who have only been playing together for about a month. However, the recent stretch seems indicative of things starting to click for Aaron Gordon’s team in his second year as head coach.

“I think we are definitely getting somewhere,” junior Shelby Jordan said. “We’ve been getting better with every game. I’m really looking forward to playing this weekend because I think, finally, our team is really getting to where they’re kind of understanding what exactly Coach wants from us. I think it’s starting to come together.”

GVOKEYOELUNTAWZ.20140914205828This weekend, of course, SEC play begins. To make it even better, the Bulldogs open conference play against Ole Miss. MSU’s head coach is from Texas, but he’s quickly learned what the in-state battle means to those around the programs and state.

“It’s like any rivalry,” Gordon said. “Lines are drawn by color. In Mississippi, it’s clear the division is two schools, two different colors. I think it’s fun to be a part of.”

Although, Gordon cautions putting too much into it. Over-talking the subject can sometimes get into players’ heads and prevent them from playing as well as they can. He makes sure to let his team know it’s important, but he doesn’t overstate anything.

To him, the biggest thing is being a better team, which he thinks is happening. He’s quick to point out that while the first eight games of the season can be split into wins and losses, the final results aren’t entirely indicative of how MSU played.

In fact, he said, the one game where State got blown out, it was a close a competition as they’ve had had all year.

“I’d compare it to two football teams being even, but the quarterback has a bad day and throws three interceptions,” he said.

Gordon has been pleased with the improvements, but his focus is just as much on the big picture as small.

“Let’s put it in perspective,” he said. “28 players playing eight games, we’ve been together for a month. So, a brand new team, 2/3 are young, anything more than what we’ve had would be icing on the cake. We’re building a lot of things behind the scenes that are gonna set us up well for the future.”

While soccer is the main dish, let’s talk a little Mississippi for a side.

McKenzie Adams, midfielder/defender, Madison, Mississippi

What does the MSU-Ole Miss rivalry mean to you? It’s huge. It’s just crazy because every time MSU plays Ole Miss is any sport it’s just a crazy rivalry game. It’s all over Twitter and it’s just crazy. I lived in Starkville until fifth grade. I grew up coming to all the games.

What makes you proud to be from Mississippi? Everybody’s really, really nice and I just love the Bulldogs and I’m glad I don’t go to Ole Miss. I like fried okra a lot. I like the tailgating all the time.

 

Kayleigh Henry, defender, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

What does the MSU-Ole Miss rivalry mean to you? That’s a big deal. My sister goes to Ole Miss and we didn’t talk to each other for a while when she decided to go there and I decided to come here. It’s a really big deal and it’s more just protecting our state. It fires me up even thinking about Ole Miss. It’s the pride and protecting what I think is ours.

What makes you proud to be from Mississippi? Everything about it. More the hospitality. I know that’s a cliché, but everybody is so nice and really welcoming and warming. Everybody is just so loving and it makes you feel good inside. Mississippi is really different and has its own unique culture about it and that plays into why it’s the greatest state in America.

 

Shelby Jordan, defender, Jackson, Tennessee

What does the MSU-Ole Miss rivalry mean to you? It’s a big one. I feel like it’s been a thing for a long time. Every time they come in here, it’s a big deal.

Why do you think people are so proud of Mississippi? I feel like Mississippi people love their state because everybody’s so nice here. If you’re an outsider that’s coming in, you meet all kinds of fun people down here.

 

Aaron Gordon, head coach, Dallas, Texas

What does the MSU-Ole Miss rivalry mean to you? Without a doubt, what the rivalry means to me is, I want to beat Ole Miss because when we have really talented players in our state I want them to come here. I think it starts and ends with the rivalry itself. We get one chance to play them a year. Last year, I had a bitter taste in my mouth at the end of the season.

What does it mean to your team? As many kids as we have on our roster from Mississippi and neighboring states, they get it. They understand it and they know a lot of kids on the other team. In both cases, probably both sets of coaches looked at similar players.

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Preston Smith on his good luck charm, his daughter Lauren

In the early hours of New Year’s Eve morning, Preston Smith sat awake in his hotel room in Memphis. The Mississippi State defensive end was in town for the Liberty Bowl and the game was that afternoon.

But his daughter was being born that morning: Lauren Marie Smith, his little princess. Had she come a few days sooner or later, he might have been able to make it. Under the circumstances, Smith sat there with his phone in his hand listening as those at the hospital passed their phone around and took turns telling him how beautiful she was. They sent pictures of his newborn daughter. The first time he saw her she was popping up on a screen.

“She looks just like me,” Smith later admitted. “I can’t deny it, no matter what. My mom loves her.”

Preston Smith in the Liberty Bowl

Preston Smith in the Liberty Bowl

He loves her, too, expectedly. And like any father, his life changed that day. Permanently. Life will never be like it was before New Year’s Eve and he’s OK with that. Smith calls baby Lauren, now eight months old, his good luck charm. His life wasn’t in need of a turnaround, but he got one anyway.

Smith’s private life remains relatively private, but as an SEC football player, his soon-to-be-professional life is very much in the public eye, and it’s due largely to his daughter that Smith has received so much attention.

That night, on the high of becoming a dad, Smith was named Defensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl. In the three games played since, he’s earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors for every single one.

In the four games since Lauren’s arrival, Smith has two blocked kicks, two interceptions, four quarterback hurries, two sacks, a forced fumble, three tackles for loss, 15 tackles and even a touchdown.

He’s done OK.

“He took his game to a different level,” teammate and senior defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls said.

And Smith credits that to motivation from Lauren.

“I want to provide for my daughter what I didn’t have as a child,” Smith said, alluding to a career in the NFL. “It’s one of those life things that my mom probably couldn’t afford it because she was a single parent. I just want to provide her with everything she wants and spoil her. She can be my little princess and I’ll give her a kingdom wherever we may land.”

Smith has always had talent on the field. He was good enough to play as a true freshman in the SEC, after all. But the need to provide for someone other than himself has added a bit more seriousness to what he does, despite the fact he never stops smiling off the field.

His defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has seen the change in the little things.

“Everybody sees the flashy plays,” Collins said. “The thing I’m impressed with is every singe play. The fundamental plays, the technical plays, he’s making those plays. In the past he had the flashiness, but now the routine plays, he’s making those at a high level.”

While those watching from the outside have really only seen the change the last few weeks, those on the inside had more than an inkling of what was coming for Smith. Sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones hasn’t been even a little surprised by his elder’s success.

“No,” Jones said. “The beginning of the year, I told Preston, ‘You’re gonna have an outstanding year.’ We’ve been talking about it a lot. I told him, this is gonna be his year.”

And, so far, it has been.

But that smile Smith has stuck on his face when asked about his awards gets somehow bigger and brighter when he talks about his daughter.

Technique, motor, energy, fundamentals – there are plenty of words to be thrown out as reasons for his success. And they’re accurate. But the reason they came is where the truth lies. Baby Lauren.

“She means the world to me. That’s my first child. I brought her into the world,” Smith said. “She brings so much joy to my life. Every time I see her, she smiles so hard. When I went to pick her up from daycare this morning, she was just waking up. She looked at me and smiled so hard and reached out for me to pick her up and hold her.”

Lauren got to see daddy play for the first time when MSU hosted UAB earlier this month. With her as motivation, she’ll likely be watching him play for years to come.

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Why is Preston Smith so good? Offensive linemen answer the question

By all indications, Preston Smith appears to be good at football. Mississippi State’s senior defensive end has won the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week award all three times it’s been given in the 2014 season, and he was named Defensive MVP in his last game of 2013 (a Liberty Bowl win over Rice).

“I guess somebody made him mad or something,” teammate and running back Nick Griffin said. “He’s taking it out on everybody.”

LJJASAWLMCBOXRS.20140906202212So, why is Smith so good? Well, he’s 6’6” with arms longer than that and weighs somewhere between 275-280 pounds. That helps. He’s athletic, again a plus. He’s strong, experienced and confident. All good things. That much we know watching from the stands and on TV.

But it’s one thing to watch him, another to actually try and block him.

I asked MSU offensive lineman Justin Malone what it’s like trying to keep Smith out of the backfield in practice.

“I hate it,” he said shaking his head. “I hate it.”

See, Smith is a bit of a unique case as linemen go. Defensive tackles, Malone says, are going to hit the offensive linemen. He’s prepared for that. Defensive ends are going to try and get around the offensive linemen. He’s prepared for that, too.

But Smith?

“Preston, he could either hit me or run around me,” Malone said. “He can just make me look like a fool if he wants to, if I don’t do what I need to do. It’s a little harder than other guys.”

That’s part of Smith’s strength and why his coaches love having him on the field. He’s an end, but he’s got the skillset to do whatever those calling the plays want him to. He’s not just an edge rusher. As MSU center Dillon Day has learned, MSU will send Smith through the middle of the line, too.

“Being an inside guy like myself,” Day said, “you’re not really used to guys with that much speed. So, when he comes looping in, it’s something you’re not used to, someone being that fast. We’re used to the meatier guys.”

But Smith has the strength to do it, and it shows on tape. LSU left tackle La’el Collins has the unenviable task of blocking Smith when they play this weekend, and he told reporters Tuesday night what he expects.

“He’s a real, real good athlete,” Collins said of Smith. “He has a really big motor. He goes hard. He does a lot of great things to help their defense out. A great football player.”

Not that Collins is scared, a talented player himself, but Smith is more than just a few awards, according to those who have to go against him.

Said Griffin, “He doesn’t look that big until he’s like right up on you, then it’s like, yeah, aw, man.”

While others on MSU’s defensive line were more heralded coming into both their careers and the 2014 season, Smith has been the star of the unit. To this point, he’s had the best first quarter of the season of any defensive lineman in the SEC.

The way Malone tells it, the production isn’t a fluke. If anything, he says, Smith is just going to get better. He does everything so well.

“He’s quick,” Malone said. “He’s technical. He knows his plan, knows what he can do, knows what he’s capable of and he knows how to utilize it. He knows all the things about himself and he’s confident in what he has to do. That confidence is gonna push him over the edge of anybody he has to go against.”

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In their words: MSU’s Mullen, LSU’s Miles expect big-time game in Baton Rouge

There are 12 games in a season, but there are eight of particular importance if you’re in the Southeastern Conference. So say Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and LSU’s Les Miles, at least.

The two face each other in Baton Rouge this weekend and it’s the first SEC game for each of their teams. To listen to the two talk on Monday, it’s a big game. It’s big because it’s the start of conference play and it’s big because the opponent for both owns a great deal of talent.

If Mullen and Miles are to be believed, Saturday night at LSU ought to be quite the battle between Bulldogs and Tigers.

mullen-interviewed1We’ll let them preview their matchup as they best know how.

“We were in a tough environment last week,” Mullen said, “but it’s going to be an even tougher environment playing at LSU on a Saturday night. That is always a tough environment to go in to. That is a team that brings so many weapons to the table. “

Said Miles, from his press conference video on LSUSports.net, “There will be more energy because it’s an SEC team. More energy because it’s two undefeated teams … It’s a talented Mississippi State team. They’re 3‑0. Dan Mullen has done a great job there. Should easily be a ranked team. I can’t imagine that they’re not. They have all of the abilities – offense, defense and special teams – that you would see in a ranked team.”

High praise. It came back to Miles in kind from Mullen just a few minutes later.

“On defense, they have given up seven points in the last 10 quarters,” Mullen recited off the top of his head. “They are giving up 200 yards total per game. I know that is No. 1 in the SEC and probably in the country. So it is obviously a huge challenge for our offense. Statistically, this is the best LSU defense we have ever played going into the game. On the other side of the ball, they have an enormous offensive line and wave after wave of enormous tailbacks to pound at you to make it a big, physical game. They have the leading receiver in the SEC in big plays. They are a Top-10 team in the country and playing on the road on a Saturday night is a big challenge for us. We are going to have to play at a very, very high level to find a way to win.”

Courtesy: LSUSports.net

Courtesy: LSUSports.net

Miles, too, was ready to heap more specific praise on a team he’s seen every year since arrival in Louisiana.

“Dak Prescott,” Miles said, “as good of a player as there is in his position in our conference. He’s running for about 100 yards and throwing for a little over 200 yards a game. He’s accounted for nine passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. They have a running back, Josh Robinson who gets 100 yards per game. They can run it, throw it and offensively they are a big, strong physical group and we will have to play well and tackle well. Defensively they’re allowing 80 [rushing] yards per game. They’re opportunistic. They have five interceptions and three fumbles. Defensive line – Preston Smith among others are big, strong, mobile guys and will be a great challenge for us. We look forward to playing quality teams. This is a very quality football team.”

But what of recent history? LSU has won 21 of the last 22 games against MSU, and Miles is undefeated against State since his hiring in Baton Rouge.

Sure, both coaches say, those on the outside keep track. But they live inside the 60 minutes (or more, possibly) on Saturday night.

“You look at Mississippi State,” Miles said, “they call to you play best. I have no problem standing in front of my team. That is not an issue in any way, unrealistic expectations. We’re going to have to earn the victory, and we recognize that.”

Mullen, too, said his team is not preoccupied with things that happened before half his team can remember.

“All that matters is this week,” MSU’s coach said. “Every game that has ever been played there has no impact on this game. Every game we have ever played here has no impact on this game. Every game we will play against them in the future has no impact on this game. It is all about this week and our focus on this one game. That is what we talk to our guys about, and it is what our focus is on. With an experienced team it is pretty simple for them to understand that this is all about this one game on Saturday and not anything else.”

Miles, on his end, certainly has no doubts MSU will be ready for the game, history lesson shared or not.

“I think they know exactly what they want to do,” the Tigers’ head coach told reporters about the Bulldogs. “I think they’re focused. There is, again, a talented team there. It’s not just a quarterback. Guys that can catch it, offensive line that can block it, running backs that can run. It’s a talented team.”

The winner gets to keep their undefeated record. The loser finds themselves in a hole after just one division game.

“If we win this game,” Mullen said, “we are going to be where we want to be in the SEC race. It is always important to win your first game in conference play because that really gives you a big jump start in the conference.”

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Dan Mullen press conference live blog: LSU week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will meet with the local media for his weekly press conference. Mississippi State beat South Alabama 35-3 over the weekend and plays at LSU on Saturday at 6 on ESPN. Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe will be on the call.

Live updates from Mullen to follow. In the meantime, enjoy the latest installment of This Is Our Plate, a weekly segment highlighting Starkville-area restaurants.

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Mullen is here and reviewing their win over USA. Says they had a list of things they needed to, and while they didn’t accomplish all of them, they still would.

Looking ahead to LSU, Mullen says, “It’s really a tough environment to go into, especially when you look at all the weapons they have.”

Add that, “Statistically, it’s the best LSU defense we’ve ever played.”

“On the offensive line, they’ve just got wave after wave of guys … They’re Top 10 easily, one of the best teams in the country.”

Mullen says that while they did all they had to to win the first three games, “We still haven’t shown all of our offense, yet. The same defensively.”

On MSU’s losing streak to LSU, Mullen says they tell players, “It’s all about this one game on Saturday and how we play on Saturday, not anything else.”

Asked about some occasional struggles in the secondary, Mullen says, “I think, all year, we’re playing good defense. I can’t say we’re playing great defense because of the big plays we’re giving up, but when you take away the big chunks and look at the majority of our plays, we’re playing really, really good defense.”

Asked about the division, Mullen says, “There’s nowhere in the country like the SEC West. I don’t think, at any level of football, there’s a division like this with the percentage of quality teams.”

“Half of the Top 10 teams in the nation are in the SEC West right now,” Mullen continues. “I don’t know if there are many conferences with five teams in the Top 25.”

On preparing to face LSU, “We’re gonna need more defensive linemen this week with that power running of LSU.”

Mullen reiterating the effort needed to win the SEC. “You’ve got to execute every single play of the game. Not just some of the plays or most of the plays. It’s gotta be all 60 minutes.”

Mullen: “If we win this game, we’re gonna be where we want to be in the SEC race. It’s always important to win your first game in the conference.”

“They have talent and explosiveness on offense,” Mullen says. “And a suffocating defense.”

On injuries and participation, Mullen says safety Justin Cox is “probable” for this week. Says Jamaal Clayborn was back at practice after death of his grandmother.

Finally, Mullen says, “If we win, we’ll get two weeks of good publicity … If we lose, we get everybody telling us how bad we are. I can guarantee you, we won’t be as good as everyone would say we are, and we wouldn’t be as bad as everyone would say we are.”

 

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With SEC play looming, the season changes for MSU

For the first time, it felt like football season in Starkville on Saturday. It was cool and it was clear. But Mississippi State was in Mobile, Alabama. There, near the coast, it was 90-something degrees and it was as muggy as early August. So did the football weather in Starkville count for MSU?

No, the Bulldogs played, and won, in South Alabama. That moment didn’t hit until they stepped off the bus in Starkville late Saturday night. That ‘Now This is What Football Feels Like’ moment.

QUVSECQMIZGQGYI.20140913230532Following non-conference games against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama, Dan Mullen’s team is about to hit the meat. Dak Prescott and Benardrick McKinney spent all summer preparing their team for this, the beginning of Southeastern Conference play. State stepped off the bus and into cool air on Saturday with five-straight SEC battles lying in front of them.

“The preseason is over,” Prescott told reporters outside the locker room in Mobile. “It’s time for SEC now.”

It starts next weekend at LSU and the stretch will take MSU all the way into November before it pauses for a week, only to pick up again with three more weeks of southeastern heavyweights bouting on the gridiron.

While it was 65 and fall-like in Starkville, I got in my last moment of summer in Mobile on Saturday morning. It was very calm walking along the bay. A few small boats passed by, but the massive barges and their colossal counterparts in the water sat still. All but one of the cranes in the shipyards lining the water hung stationary.

The coffee was hot, and so was the bench I sat on. It was nice having that moment, one of the benefits of road trips where you find yourself with random 45-minute periods to waste as you wish.

But after this peaceful Saturday morning, I knew, the shipyard would come to life. Massive constructions weighing near a hundred tons would fire up somewhere deep in their insides and get moving, somehow floating despite all the weight they carried.

Seemed fitting as the team I was there to watch was enjoying its last similar moments of relative calm. Down in South Alabama, MSU had dipped away from the coming Football Weather. But, starting as soon as they got back Saturday night, the action picked up. Mullen, Prescott, McKinney and their teammates must find a way to hold the same weight as those tankers while somehow managing to stay afloat.

“When you get into SEC play,” Mullen said, “you’ve gotta learn how to win.”

KHVTSLWDUJBFXQP.20140913234756To this point, MSU has done that. When it needed momentum-stopping or seizing plays in the first three weeks, it got them. Touchdowns, interceptions, big sacks or blocked kicks – the Bulldogs stepped up when they sniffed danger.

But now, as Mullen and Prescott alluded to, they won’t be playing games with one or two of those key moments. Every play is that big, from here on out. The game can be won or lost at any point and it’s unlikely you’ll get a second chance if you don’t come up when you need to.

It all sounds very difficult and depressing, but the Bulldogs have no reason to believe they aren’t prepared or that they won’t make those plays.

MSU is averaging 44 points and over 500 yards per game. They’re holding opponents to 12 points per game, have created eight turnovers and have already scored two non-offensive touchdowns.

Prescott, completing 60 percent of his passes, has thrown for 696 yards and nine touchdowns, while he’s also run for 273 yards and two touchdowns. He even caught a touchdown, a 24-yard throwback pass from Jameon Lewis on Saturday.

RLOCFQHIYQERIRQ.20140913230532Junior running back Josh Robinson is averaging 7.5 yards every time he touches the ball, though he has yet to have to carry a workman’s load as rotation has kept his legs fresh.

Preston Smith is having as good a start to the season as any defensive end in the country. The senior has two interceptions, two blocked kicks, two sacks, three passes defended, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble through only three games.

Defensive production has come from all over as MSU has 10 players with double-digit tackles, and Smith isn’t one of them. 11 sacks as a team, plus 17 quarterback hurries, five interceptions and three blocked kicks.

Yes, there’s plenty to like. Plenty to offer optimism for the Bulldogs.

But summer is over. Quiet, lazy days on the water are done.

The SEC slate is here.

“We got to LSU just like we wanted to be,” Prescott said. “3-0. It’s time to go show them what we’ve got.”

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Family, friends and MSU figures remember Jack Cristil

And now, the end is here

And so I face the final curtain

My friend, I’ll say it clear

I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

I’ve lived a life that’s full

I traveled each and ev’ry highway

And more, much more than this, I did it my way

6803Thursday night, September 11 in the Humphrey Coliseum, Mississippi State said its final goodbyes to Jack Cristil, the Voice of the Bulldogs.

“Jack would want us to finish on a positive note,” his longtime radio partner Jim Ellis said. “He loved Mississippi State and he loved being right up there at that booth. He would think it’s very fitting that we’re sitting here tonight.”

Ellis was one of many to speak in tribute to legend who passed away this week. University President Mark Keenum, athletic directors both current and former, coaches, players – fans, all of them, of Cristil. Friends and family, a dozen men and women by night’s end had spoken.

To the close the memorial, MSU professor of music Michael Brown played a solo song on the trumpet – Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way.’ A more fitting end would be difficult to find.

Regrets, I’ve had a few

But then again, too few to mention

I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway

And more, much more than this, I did it my way

As each person rose to spoke, some themes were consistent throughout. Nearly all could remember listening to Cristil’s voice as a child.

John Cohen, MSU’s baseball coach and a former player, grew up with his dad always listening to MSU games on the radio.

“Who is that,” John asked his father one day.

‘That’s Jack Cristil,” Dad responded. “He’s the voice of Mississippi State.”

“What does that mean, dad?”

“The coaches coach,” father told son. “The players play. The announcer paints a picture with his words.”

Keenum remembered how happy he was growing up in Mississippi on the occasions when Cristil called his high school football games. He’d record the game so he could listen later.

“That great, gruff, baritone voice is silent,” Keenum said Thursday. “But it still rings with crystal clarity in our minds today.”

Greg Carter played basketball at MSU, and while he rarely got to hear the broadcast himself, he knew all he needed to just hearing from family. Carter would call his grandfather whenever the team had a game on TV, an exciting thing in those days.

“That’s nice. But I’d rather listen to Jack call it on the radio,” his grandfather told him.

“After games,” Carter told the crowd about his grandfather, “he’d call and say, ‘Jack said y’all played real well.’ Or he’d call and say, ‘Jack said y’all didn’t play so great. You need to do better, son.’”

Ellis, who went on to work with Cristil for years, was just a kid the first time he heard his future partner on the radio. First, it was a football game. Second, it was basketball.

“I was mesmerized by Jack’s voice. I remember it,” Ellis said. “You turn the radio on and you know it’s Jack Cristil. You didn’t have any doubt.”

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew

When I bit off more than I could chew

But through it all, when there was doubt

I ate it up and spit it out

I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way

There are two things all will say about Cristil. First, that he was as professional as they come. He always spoke truth on the air. And second, that despite his on-air impartiality, Cristil absolutely loved the school he worked for.

“We sometimes talk about athletics as a window into all aspects of the university,” Keenum said. “Jack was the one who so often flew open that window.”

And as much as Cristil loved MSU, State loved him just as much. More, perhaps.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever had a person connected to MSU that has been appreciated and loved like him,” former basketball coach Kermit Davis said.

Said Ellis, “Jack really loved this university. I don’t know how many times he told me, ‘I’ll never be able to give this university as much as it has given me.’”

Ellis remembers the advice Cristil would often give him, the message he made sure to remind him of.

“Always remember who you work for,” Ellis recalled Cristil telling him. “You work for Mississippi State University. You want to be loyal and helpful and positive with every coach. You want to be the same way with every athletic director.

“But they’re going to leave someday. They all do. There’s going to be somebody in their place and you want to be supportive of them, too.

“You never are broadcasting for a coach or an athletic director, but you’re always broadcasting for this university. This university is bigger than any one person. Remember that.”

In 1953, Cristil was hired by then-athletic director Dudy Noble. It was one of many outstanding hires by Noble across the department over the years, though Ellis said it was surely the one which made the most impact of any hire Noble made.

Finally, 58 years later in 2011, the legendary run came to an end.

Former MSU athletic director Larry Templeton, standing next to Cristil’s daughters, remembers the end.

“One of the toughest days of Jack’s life took place when he called and said, ‘This is it. It’s time for me to turn the microphone off.’ … But we didn’t turn him off,” Templeton said. “From the bottom of these girls’ hearts and this family’s heart, we say thank you.

“I think the most appropriate way to end this is to say there are heroes and legends. We have heroes in helmets. We only had one legend that taught us to wrap it in Maroon and White.”

Said current athletic director Scott Stricklin, “His voice, his iconic phrases and his presence will remain on this campus and in our hearts.”

So many who spoke Thursday tried to find words as appropriate as Cristil’s over the years.

“The Mississippi State family was blessed by his presence,” Keenum said. “The good that he did and the joy that he spread will be among all of us as long as the Bulldog family continues to gather and cheer the Maroon and White. Godspeed, Jack Cristil.”

“He said after one game,” former player and football coach Rockey Felker remembered, “‘This one will be forever remembered,’ and Jack will be forever remembered.”

Ellis, in closing, put it as well as any.

“His gift of saying the right things at the right time has wrapped all of us in Maroon and White for decades.”

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried

I’ve had my fill, my share of losing

And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that

And may I say, not in a shy way,

“Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way”

As the memorial reach its final minutes, Cristil’s daughters stepped to the podium.

“I’d like to talk to you not about Jack Cristil, but about Jack as my daddy,” Kay Cristil Clouatre said.

While those who grew up listening to Jack knew him for his broadcasting talent in football and basketball, his greatest passion was not on a field or court.

“He loved his family,” Felker said. “You knew that.”

His wife, his daughters and the extended family from there meant more to him than any outcome could have. Jack was full of talent, yes, but even more, he was full of love.

Kay told the story of her teenage self who had a crush on one of the players on MSU’s football team. Like any young girl, she wasn’t in the business of sharing that news with her father. But, somehow, Daddy had found out. Rather than tease his daughter or blow it off as the silly thoughts of a teenager, Jack silently found a way to make his daughter’s day.

On the plane home from a game out of town, Jack asked the player if he’d write his daughter a note. “She’s got a crush on you,” he told the young man.

Kay remembers her mother coming in to wake her up. She told her that daddy was home and asked if he could come in her room. He had something for her.

“He walked in and handed me that note. I thought that was the greatest thing in the world,” Kay told the crowd Thursday. “That’s what daddy has meant to me all these years. Not Jack the Announcer, but just Daddy.”

After Kay, Rebecca Cristil Nelson stepped forward to talk about her father. Her message was short, one of appreciation for those who supported her dad over the years and for those who have reached out in the days since his passing.

“I did not inherit my Daddy’s ability to express in the inexpressible, but we are so thankful for the kindness you have sent our way,” she said. “Thank you for loving my daddy.”

For what is a man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels

The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!

Sid Salter, MSU’s Chief Communications Officer and author of Cristil’s biography, knew the history of MSU’s legend as well as anyone. And in penning his life story, Salter had a window into Cristil’s soul, what made him the man he was.

“There will never be another Jack Cristil,” Salter said Thursday. “He was unique, original and talented in a way that can’t be replicated.”

In one of many conversations and interviews with Cristil, Salter asked a simple question which could have had a more complex answer.

But, Cristil being Cristil, he gave the answer Salter should have expected.

What do you want people to say about you? What legacy do you want to leave?

“Simple,” Cristil said, “That he told it like it was.”

Yes, it was my way

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How MSU learned leadership and has kept momentum

The first two weeks of Mississippi State’s season have been all about momentum. Finding it, securing it, and most importantly, not losing it when it starts to swing the other direction.

“That’s what you want in a veteran unit,” Dan Mullen said. “When you feel momentum start to swing, you stop it.”

KNWHSFHPYVPADCN.20140906202212It’s hard to imagine there being much momentum in the opener, when MSU beat Southern Miss 49-0, but the Eagles were slowly starting to gain some in the final minute of the first half. State’s players could feel it. And when USM chucked a pass down the field near MSU’s endzone in the final seconds, senior safety Jay Hughes jumped into the air and picked it off. Momentum held.

In the second half, Hughes stepped up again, along with senior defensive end Preston Smith, who already had an interception of his own. USM was threatening to break the shutout when Smith got his hand in the air and blocked the field goal attempt. Nearby, Hughes scooped up the loose ball and ran the length of the field for a touchdown. Once again, momentum grabbed back.

Against UAB the following Saturday, the Bulldogs had more miscues than they would like. But after each, coaches say, someone stepped up to make a play and right the mental ship. Dak Prescott found a way to get his team in the endzone after UAB touchdowns. The defensive line came up with big plays of their own. On a day when MSU’s secondary was struggling, it was a lineman (Smith again) who stepped up and snagged an interception and returned it for a touchdown. It came right after junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney had drilled the quarterback and sent the ball sailing into the air.

Junior running back Josh Robinson grabbed first down after first down on the ground, working his team to pay dirt and giving his defense a breather.

The turning point in the game, the moment which led to MSU finally breaking it open, came when sophomore safety Kivon Coman broke through the line and blocked a UAB punt. It was the break MSU needed to get rolling.

“That was huge,” Mullen said of the blocked punt. “[USM was] coming out with a lot of energy to start the half, we get a blocked punt and a touchdown. We kept the momentum. Every time it started to slip a little bit, we grabbed tight and didn’t let it slip at all.”

PWBQDJZXSGSZQNA.20140906202212Mullen often commented last year on the transition in leadership. For so long, guys like Chad Bumphis, Johnthan Banks or many of the other veterans were the ones who came up with those momentum-changing moments. When something needed to happen, they stepped up and did it.

Last year, those guys were, for the most part, gone. Behind them was a roster of people who had always had someone else make the play. What they had to learn, Mullen said, was that the responsibility was on their shoulders. If they didn’t do it, no one would.

Now, he says, MSU’s players have finally begun to approach the game that way. All 11 people on the field at any given time think they’re about to change the game. When things go wrong, they work as a unit to fix it.

Only two games into the season, Mullen can already look at those moments and know he’s got a veteran team, a roster of players who believe in themselves and each other.

“Nobody was looking for somebody else to make a play,” he said. “Guys were getting things done.”

Hughes says they’ve known for a while what they had, though. Back in the preseason, even in the offseason when Prescott and McKinney were leading voluntary practices, there was little doubt that MSU had grown significantly. The Bulldogs are much more mature than they were to begin 2013, as most of those players are still in the locker room.

“The coaches saw it,” Hughes said.

And really, it started to show at the end of 2013. When MSU needed a play in overtime to beat Arkansas, true freshman quarterback Damian Williams scampered into the endzone on the first play.

In the Egg Bowl, the first overtime in the rivalry’s history, Prescott was the one to get the score. The defense followed up by forcing a turnover and sealing the win. Seemingly every piece came together in the Liberty Bowl when MSU dismantled Rice and set double-digit records.

It took a while for things to start clicking last year, Mullen said, but it’s carried over and his Bulldogs are prepared like they weren’t before.

LJJASAWLMCBOXRS.20140906202212For example, Smith’s interception and return for touchdown against UAB came not from athleticism (though he’s got a surprising amount of that) but from maturity and experience.

“The funny thing is,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said, “that defense, we hadn’t called in about eight months. We were sitting there, saw the formation and said, ‘That would be the right defense to call.’ We called it and the kids handled it. We talk about being a mature team, having a lot of guys with experience. Preston knew exactly what to do, played his progression, ended up making a ridiculous John Banks-type interception.

“It was a beautiful play. Proud of him.”

Said Smith, “I think it’s a big change in momentum when both sides of the ball are scoring.”

Junior cornerback Taveze Calhoun, who has had plenty of highlights on his own, explained how much Coman’s blocked punt in the second half against UAB meant.

NGOTKWKNTGPUXCZ.20140906202720He’s referring to that specific play, but really he could be talking about any of the plays he and his teammates made the last couple weeks. He could be talking in advance about what’s to come.

It’s a touch cliché, maybe, but it’s what they expect of each other, coaches and teammates.

“Big-time players make big-time plays,” Calhoun said, “and he made a big-time play to help us get over the top.”

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