Unheard of hype surrounding Top-15 matchup of MSU-Texas A&M

For only the second time ever, Davis Wade Stadium will be home to a game featuring two Top-15 teams. On Saturday, No. 6 Texas A&M arrives in Starkville to face No. 12 Mississippi State and the attention from those in the world of athletics will match the historic nature of the event, a notable day in Starkville, the state of Mississippi and the SEC Western Division, as six of the seven divisional heavyweights play each other while all are ranked in the Top 15.

unnamedAll of this comes for MSU after it dismantled LSU at night in Death Valley nearly two weeks ago, the first win over the Tigers since 1999.

The result? MSU has become one of the ‘It’ teams of college football, a riser seemingly everyone wants to get the story on. The Bulldogs went from unranked all the way to 14th in the country after beating LSU and moved up another two spots just by twiddling their thumbs during an off week the following the Saturday.

Just this week, State will have coaches and players on ESPN Radio, ESPN.com, SEC Network, SEC Nation, College Gameday and a wealth of appearances on regular ol’ ESPN the channel.

Sports Illustrated is staying in town the entire week. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports gets here Tuesday. Dan Mullen is hopping on the Jim Rome Show and NFL Network on Wednesday, Sirius/XM Thursday morning, CBS Sports radio with Doug Gottlieb later that day and SportsCenter on Friday.

Dak Prescott has bookend interviews this week with College Gameday Tuesday and Tim Tebow Friday in the stadium, the connection of two Mullen quarterbacks, with an unending list of appearances in between.

SportsCenter is setting up outside the same stadium on Friday morning, ESPN is running all-access with Mississippi State across its family of networks for the entirety of Thursday.

By Saturday, beyond those already mentioned, USA Today, the Associated Press and even the Washington Post will have made it to Starkville.

And all that is without mentioning coverage and interviews by the local media, who visit with coaches and players on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

unnamed-1Oh, and what of the “off” week when Prescott was named winner of five national awards? The junior quarterback by himself accounted for appearances on SportsCenter, Scott Van Pelt, Championship Drive with Rece Davis, SEC Now and SEC Nation.

“Dak is the leading man for a team that has captured national imagination,” Pat Forde wrote early last week.

“Dak Prescott just announced to the world that he is a Heisman candidate,” Tim Brando said on FOX Sports. “He torched LSU.”

All told, Mullen and Prescott will have combined for over 40 appearances and interviews between the final whistle of their win over LSU and kickoff against Texas A&M.

“I might not get to sit down and eat as long or as much I want to,” Prescott joked. “But it’s alright.”

As wild as the hype and attention has been, it will only increase if MSU remains successful. Win this weekend, and State likely hosts its first-ever Top-10 matchup in Davis Wade when Auburn comes to town.

Even if they lose, another strong performance by Prescott can keep those in the media dropping that H-word after seeing him play. Junior running back Josh Robinson, after rushing for 197 yards against LSU, is putting his name in the conversation of the nation’s best runners and sophomore receiver De’Runnya Wilson is quickly becoming one of the SEC’s breakout pass-catchers.

Not to mention those who have already earned some share of stardom on defense like junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney and sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones.

unnamed-2Bill Martin is the director of media relations for MSU, the man charged with coordinating and facilitating all these interviews, and said the volume of requests he’s getting now is even greater than when he was at LSU with Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu, the ‘Honey Badger.’

Kyle Niblett is Martin’s No. 2 man in football and said he hasn’t seen anything like this since he was at Florida with, of course, Tim Tebow.

Scott Stricklin, MSU’s Athletic Director, has never seen attention like this in Starkville, period.

Appropriately enough, while all the attention on the outside has been focused on MSU, all the attention on the inside at State has been focused on Texas A&M. They are a good team, after all.

But, in between practices, film sessions and coaches meetings, Mullen is able to take a moment to appreciate the big picture.

“Everyone around the country gets to see what Starkville, Mississippi is all about,” he said with a smile on Monday.

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Live blog: Dan Mullen press conference, Texas A&M week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will meet with the local media for his weekly press conference. Mississippi State is 4-0 and ranked 12 in the country following its first off week and plays Texas A&M in Starkville on Saturday at 11 a.m. on ESPN.

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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As we wait on Mullen to arrive, we’ve been given an updated depth chart for the weekend. With Dillon Day suspended, guard Ben Beckwith is listed as the starter at center while sophomore Jamaal Clayborn is listed as the starter in Beckwith’s place at left guard. The other three spots (Blaine Clausell, Justin Malone and Justin Senior) remain the same.

“We’re excited to get this week gong,” Mullen says. “A lot of exciting things happening around campus.”

On SEC Nation coming, Mullen says, “Hopefully all our fans and students are up early.”

On to Texas A&M, Mullen calls the Aggies, “An explosive offense, one of the best offensive lines in the country.” Adds that they are “a much improved defensive team.” Says they do will against the run and has a good pass rush.

Mullen says they’ll try to manage the tempo of the game, “but you know you’re gonna have to score to win the game.” Said A&M is averaging 51 points a game, “So we need to score 52.”

Asked specifically about Josh Robinson, Mullen says he loves his personality and is proud of how much he’s matured. Says someone who is so positive can sometimes go too far with it and that Robinson has learned how to manage himself.

On A&M QB Kenny Hill: “He really anticipates throws well down the field … There’s a lot of confidence that goes in that. For a guy to let it rip before a receiver comes out of his break shows a lot of knowledge in the system.”

Mullen adds that Hill is an elusive runner and can keep a play alive, even if you have guys in coverage.

As for the early kick on Saturday, Mullen says the only thing they change is moving team chapel to Friday night instead of Saturday morning.

Mullen: “We want to give our fans a team that can compete for a championship. We’re in that position and we need their help.”

“When people say ‘What’s the hardest stadium to play in in the country?’ That’s what we want [Davis Wade] to be.”

On not having Day at center, Mullen says this is where all the rotation they do becomes important. Guys have played different positions and everyone has played in games, so they ought to be prepared.

Following the off week, Mullen says guys ought to be rested after getting a lot of time off.

Mullen: “I’m excited to see Tim [Tebow]. But the last time he was here, John Banks had two pick-sixes, so I’m not sure how excited he is to be here. No, I’m just kidding. He’ll probably get mad at me for saying that.”

Mullen was asked about A&M’s susceptibility to giving up big plays to opposing offenses and said it can be dangerous to try and exploit it that. “If you take too many shots and you don’t hit them, it can really stall drives.”

Mullen says he likes Kevin Sumlin and A&M’s offense. “I study what they do an awful lot.” Says they’ll sometimes steal things from what they do, which he says is a sign of respect.

Going back to Sumlin’s days at Houston, he and Mullen have played each other a lot, so Mullen says they’ve always been a bit careful about what they say to each other.

More on the A&M offense, Mullen says they make a lot of short throws and screens to reel you in, then they’ll try and hit you with the big play down the field once you crowd in.

Mullen says they expect right tackle Justin Senior (knee) to be back today, likely full-go. If he’s limited today, he’ll be 100 percent tomorrow.

 

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Ben Beckwith on the LSU win, SEC awards and more

Following Mississippi State’s win over LSU Saturday, senior offensive lineman Ben Beckwith was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week by the conference. On Wednesday, he sat down with reporters to talk about the award, the big win and a bit more.

CSFCXTJTXTGLJCV.20130926144346Ben Beckwith: I just want to start off by saying that was a great win. It was great for everybody. Our team played great. Josh had an awesome game. I was proud of him being from Louisiana. Dak, all them. We played hard for them.

I was telling people earlier: it was expected. Coach Mullen was talking about it earlier. Back in Florida when they won in 2010, the locker room was going nuts, going crazy, because they didn’t expect to win that game. But Saturday, we came to the locker room and it was just like a normal game to us. Everyone was excited, of course, but some of us had a bad taste in our mouths from how it ended. It showed how much of a mature group we have.

We were like, yeah, we won, but we expected to win. We did what we expected to do. It was an awesome win and we’re just addressing stuff that needs work on every week. After you win, it doesn’t matter, you still have stuff you have to work on.

Question: You said it was expected. You expected to dominate like that?

Ben: Yeah, we honestly did. Not just because I’m talking to y’all. We went in there knowing. We watched film all week on those guys. They’re a great group. We just looked at ourselves. We had the preseason, as people were saying, but we had people doubt us as an offensive line, saying we weren’t what everybody was expecting. We met as a group and said, ‘This is our game. We’re gonna dominate. We’re gonna go out there and show them. We’re a group to recognize. Our whole team was like that. Our defense, D-line, our secondary, our quarterback – everybody on our team just wanted to go say, ‘Hey, this is us. This is who we are. This is what you’re gonna get every week.’

They’re a great team, I’m not downplaying them at all. We felt it all week. There’s not a person in our locker rom that ever doubted we were gonna dominate those guys.

Q: So you won SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week, and you were the first former walk-on to do it.

Ben: It was awesome. I found out Tuesday night. I got a text saying, ‘Turn it on SEC Network.’ I turned it on. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought maybe I was in some trouble or something. I saw it on there and it was awesome. I didn’t really know how to take it. I just kind of sat there in awe. It was awesome. My running back makes us look good, our running back. It’s an award for our group. It shows we all played well. I couldn’t have done it without my guys around me. Dillon, both the Justins and Blaine, we all played a great game.

That award, it’s awesome to get, but it shows you how far we’ve come as a team. We had two people get an award in one week from Mississippi State. You didn’t hear that a few years ago.

EIDFFURFHEJPFBH.20140922192019Q: What was the state of your phone after that?

Ben: It was crazy. I got like 20 phone calls. My Twitter was blowing up. It was just nuts. I got I don’t know how many followers on Twitter and Instagram. It was awesome though. It was cool because everyone was showing me love. It made me feel good about all the work I’ve put in over the years, how far I’ve come. It was kind of like saying, ‘Yeah, it was worth it.’

My mom, she called me and she was almost in tears saying, ‘You’ve worked so hard. It’s gotta be awesome to get this award and reassure that you’ve worked this hard and got this far.’ It’s reassurance.

Q: Does the win do the same thing for the team that the award did for you?

Ben: You can’t put into words what that win meant. I’ve been here five years, it was insane. I went out a winner in Baton Rouge in Death Valley at nighttime. You can’t ever take that away from me or any of these seniors or anyone on the team. It’s something I’ll never forget until the day I die. I’ll tell everybody about it. I’ll definitely never forget it. It definitely tops the award. If I’d have got that award and we lost, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me.

Q: With Dillon Day out, Coach Mullen said you’re one of the guys who will replace him at center. What’s that adjustment like?

Ben: The difference is maybe timing, because you’ve got somebody on top of you. I talk a lot anyway. Some people tell me to shut up sometimes because I’m always up there pointing at stuff. It’s really not that much difference. It’s a timing deal, getting everybody where they need to be. I think the main reason they want to put me there is because we’ve gotta have somebody with long hair at center. It’s really not that much different. It’s a few technique differences.

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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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