Battle of elite rushing attacks for MSU-Arkansas Saturday

On paper (or on a computer screen, since no one uses actual paper anymore), Mississippi State and Arkansas appear to be pretty similar teams. Each has two players in the top 10 of the SEC in rushing yards. Each has a strong front seven, and the secondaries of both teams have had some inconsistencies.

ZGNXUNKZOLPOLSX.20141004202651But even with all those similarities, the differences are clear. The Razorbacks under head coach Bret Bielema are running the ball with a traditional pound-the-opponent-into-submission I-formation attack. The Bulldogs, under head coach Dan Mullen, are doing it with their variation of the spread, featuring a dual-threat quarterback, an option game and a ton of mismatches.

The biggest difference, though, is one Bielema discussed this week leading up to their match-up this weekend: Arkansas is trying to get there. MSU already is there.

Asked about the future of his program, Bielema had an example at the ready. “Look at Dan,” was his response.

The Razorbacks were winless in the SEC last year, Bielema’s first in Fayetteville, while the Bulldogs are currently No. 1 in the conference and the country in Mullen’s sixth season in Starkville. But the difference isn’t quite so great as it seems. After all, MSU needed overtime to beat UA last year in Little Rock. In fact, that’s the motivation Bielema has used with his team this week.

“Not meaning this is in a bad way,” Bielema said, “I asked our guys if they’ve improved that much more than we have.”

In Starkville, Mullen has driven one point into his team’s head (and legs) in practice this week: no more lethargic play. It almost cost them the game at Kentucky, and this week a talented Arkansas team comes to town who is bound to get a conference win at some point.

However, delving into the match-ups, it seems this would be a tough time for that to happen, despite the battle the two teams had last year.

Bielema’s team is built on the straight-ahead rushing attack. MSU’s front seven, only allowing 118 rushing yards per game, would love nothing more than to just spend all night Saturday stopping the run. It’s what they’re best at. State’s defensive line runs 10 deep with players they trust and the linebackers are among the best in the country.

If MSU’s defense has had a liability, it’s in the secondary, and that’s where the challenge will lie this weekend. Arkansas doesn’t pass often, but they’re efficient when they do, and deadly when operating off the play-action game.

“It’s a new challenge for us we haven’t seen in a couple weeks,” MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.

Said sophomore linebacker Beniquez Brown, the player responsible for reading opposing offenses pre-snap, “What they do is hard. That play-action will get to you. They’ll run, run, run, and then they’ll get you.”

PWBQDJZXSGSZQNA.20140906202212Brown, a film rat, said he’s picked up some tendencies when watching film, but that they’re the toughest to read MSU has seen. He said Wednesday he had identified one of the formations they use to do the play-action. The problem? They’ll actually run the ball out of that formation, too.

The Razorbacks went through some growing pains last year, and still have some symptoms of growth this year, but they’re quickly becoming the type of team Bielema wanted.

Mullen summarized it pretty well on Monday.

“They are a big, physical outfit, and they have two of the best tailbacks in the country,” Mullen said. “They have a quarterback who can really throw the football and is very efficient. Because of how well they run the ball, they get some pretty good looks for him in one-on-one coverage. That presents a huge challenge for us this week.”

As big as the challenge will be for MSU’s defense, though, Mullen seemed more concerned with how his offense will perform against a drastically improved UA defense from a year ago. It was the first thing he addressed Monday.

“They present a great challenge with the physicality and speed of their defense,” Mullen said.

Their front seven could remind you of MSU’s to a certain degree. The Arkansas defensive line is big, fast, strong and adept at getting into the backfield. And while not quite to MSU’s level, they’re pretty good at stopping the run, too, giving up 137.9 ground yards per contest.

Dak Prescott said he sees an athletic group of linebackers when studying on tape, as well as some aggressive safeties.

And that may be where MSU gets its chance. Arkansas’ secondary is ninth in the SEC in passing yards allowed, and that’s with the benefit of a clock-eating offense to protect it. State’s rush attack has been stellar, but it may be Prescott’s arm and receivers who could be the difference on Saturday.

Not to say it will be easy, of course. MSU has the best offense in the SEC, averaging over 500 yards per game, but they won’t be the first talented group Arkansas has seen.

“They run to the football very aggressively,” Mullen said. “With the style of defense that they play, they have been very successful against a lot of potent offenses this year. Besides a couple of big plays at the end of the game, they were able to slow down Texas A&M, which is one of the best offenses in the country.”

Mullen mentioned their success against a very strong Alabama offense, as well, but it might be that last comment where his offense can find a crease.

ACFEUTLFUNHOAMO.20140831031619MSU has done a good job of creating big plays, and UA’s defense has had a tendency to give up a few of those big plays. If MSU can hit some long passes with guys like De’Runnya Wilson and Gabe Myles and Malcolm Johnson, it will only make things easier for Josh Robinson, the SEC’s leading rusher.

What happens Saturday? Again, on paper, it ought to, at the very least, be an entertaining game. One thing, however, isn’t listed on the state sheet.

This will be the first home game for a No. 1 ranked Mississippi State team ever.

That has to count for something, right?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Prescott, Robinson forming an impossible-to-defend duo for MSU

In the Elk Mountain area of Colorado, just southwest of Aspen, stand two 14,000-ft. high mountains. Reaching into the sky right next to each other, the peaks considered to be Colorado’s most-photographed spot are called the Maroon Bells.

Unlike most of the granite and limestone mountains making up the Rockies, the Maroon Bells are made from a sedimentary mudstone, giving these peaks a distinctive maroon hue in the right light. Except in the winter, of course, when the 14-ers are blanketed in white snow.

Between their color and their names, Mississippi State fans and their maroon and white cowbells may have a natural appreciation for the mountain vacation spot. In fact, if you look from the right place, the Maroon Bells along with Maroon Lake (an aquatic field carved from glaciers in the Ice Age) look like a rocky version of Davis Wade Stadium with its new north endzone and grandstands lining the field.

As pretty as the view is, though, the Bells are equally dangerous. A sign at the bottom of the peaks refers to them as the “deadly bells” which “kill without warning.” Further along the passage of warning, the Bells are referred to as “unbelievably deceptive,” which is where MSU and its football team come back in.

The Bells are far from the biggest mountains in the Rockies, but the pair is certainly among the most dangerous for those who wander across their path. Failing to take them as a serious threat generally comes with negative results.

Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson have earned similar warnings to those who confront them. The Bulldogs junior quarterback and junior running back, respectively, have formed a near-impossible-to-stop duo for Dan Mullen’s team. Both are incredibly difficult to bring down as runners, and Prescott’s development as a passer has made him even more dangerous.

Combined, Prescott and Robinson have 3,439 yards and 36 touchdowns out of MSU’s backfield in only seven games.

Much of it, those around them say, is because they’re so good. But, as opposing coaches and players have said, part of it is just because they’re so difficult to defend.

RGSULKZUNPCJHYU.20141011224422When Prescott gets the snap, is he handing it off, throwing it, or running it? If he’s supposed to throw it, will he eventually see an opening and decide to keep it for himself anyway? If he does hand it off, what are the odds Prescott goes downfield to catch a pass, which he’s done several times the last two years? Then, of course, there’s the option game, where Prescott and Robinson are both running at a defense who has no idea who will ultimately take the ball upfield and is plenty fearful of both.

Prescott has four games this season with at least 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards, twice as many as anyone else in the country.

Then there’s Robinson by himself, who can almost never be brought down on first contact. And often the second, third and even fourth guy to arrive fall short of tackling MSU’s “Bowling Ball.”

Against Kentucky last week, the blue jerseys looked like they had him surrounded on the left sideline. Instead, Robinson shrugged off a handful of defenders, switched field and powered his way 22 yards for a first down on the right sideline. That’s part of the problem, too. You never what direction he’ll take, and even if you do, there’s no guaranteeing he doesn’t change it at the last second.

Then, of course, there’s the play-action game, delayed handoffs, reverses, pitches, screen passes and the like. All while also accounting for the litany of big-bodied and speedy receivers and tight ends MSU has running around downfield.

What’s a defense supposed to do?

“It’s something to new to me,” MSU’s junior offensive guard Justin Malone said. “I’ve never seen a quarterback like Dak combine with somebody like Josh and be able to do the things that they do together. You don’t know whether you have to deal with Josh running around and hitting you and having to bring him down, or Dak passing the ball, running the ball. It’s things they have to be ready for. It’s a lot of help for us because it’s hard to stop.”

MSU co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy said simply, “It gives you opportunities to do a lot of different things.”

Through that multi-talented duo, MSU is the only team in the country to have two players with 10 rushing touchdowns, as Prescott and Robinson each have exactly 10.

WOKKEDOOMWDQCKH.20141011224235Prescott is the only quarterback in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing yards, checking in at No. 7 with his 664 yard total. Of course, the guy with the top spot is Robinson, who leads all SEC rushers with 887 yards (and an impressive 7.3 yards per carry).

“They’re capitalizing on their bell cows,” Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said, “Prescott and [Robinson].”

His Razorbacks, the only other team with two rushers in the top 10 in the conference, have to try and corral MSU’s stars this weekend, something no one has yet been able to do.

Studying State’s offense, Bielema’s picked up how Mullen can take a basic formation and turn into something surprisingly dangerous.

“They do a lot of spacing with their personnel,” he said. “They run a lot of 11 personnel (three widoeuts and one tight end). They line ‘em up in empty, they line ‘em up in traditional 11 formation, but also with the tight end flexed out so it looks like a four wideout set.”

And that’s just what happens before the snap. Once the ball gets into Prescott’s hands, Bielema says, the battle really starts.

“He breaks tackles, he makes people miss, he runs with his shoulder pads down. I think in the throw game, they use his skill-set very well,” he said. “Whether it’s on the move or play-action, they allow him to do some things. And I think the third thing is he’s just playing with great confidence. You can tell by the way he carries himself and the way players rally around him.”

Malone spends the better part of his life in practice and in games blocking for Prescott and Robinson, recognizing the nuances of protecting both from defenders. With most quarterbacks, he said, offensive linemen know they just have to protect 4-6 seconds and the ball will be out. With Prescott?

“If something happens, he’s going to extend the play, and I have to stay on that block. Could be 10 seconds, could be 20. But also, if something does break down, we know Dak can get out of there.”

And blocking for Robinson? The awareness needed to block for him is almost on par with the talent needed to tackle him.

“Other running backs, if there’s not a hole, they’re probably gonna take a loss or they’re going try to bounce things outside,” Malone said. “Josh, if there’s not a hole, he’ll try to run right through my back and he’s powerful enough to do it. When I get on my block, I’ve gotta move my man out of the hole. Otherwise, Josh is gonna move me out of the hole. He’s gonna create the hole and create space for himself.”

ZDVJJNGRKEBDTAO.20141011224421At this point in the season, it’s not a surprise when Robinson and Prescott make impressive plays, either with arm or legs (or butt, in Robinson’s case).

Both did well in spot appearances early in their careers, but now that they’ve taken full-time roles together, State’s duo of Prescott and Robinson has become as impressive and dangerous as the Maroon Bells in Colorado.

“They kind of feed off one another, I think,” Bielema said.

The good news for the Bulldogs, though, is they only have to face MSU’s bell cows in practice.

As one Colorado hiking guide described the Bells, “They’re dog-friendly!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Live-blog: Dan Mullen’s press conference on Arkansas week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will hold his weekly press conference in advance of No. 1 Mississippi State hosting Arkansas. MSU is 7-0 following last week’s win over Kentucky and will play the Razorbacks on ESPN2 at 6:15 Saturday night.

Live updates to come. In the meantime, enjoy this week’s episode of This Is Our Plate where we made soft-shell crab at The Veranda.

————————————

Mullen is here.

Opens saying he’s pleased with the win over Kentucky, particularly because it’s another example of a time when people stepped up to make plays.

“But that’s way behind us now. We’re looking ahead to a really, really good Arkansas team.”

Specifically, Mullen says Arkansas has an impressive defense and defensive line who gets up the field. Says they are fast and physical.

Offensively, “They’ve got the biggest offensive line in the country, including pro football.”

On defending Arkansas’ run game, Mullen says the Razorback QB is very efficient and takes advantage of the attention the run game.

“They’re a huge challenge.”

Mullen adds: “Congrats to our women’s golf team being ranked No. 1 in the country. That’s pretty awesome. Big time.”

Is it time to start thinking playoffs?

“It starts week one for us,” Mullen says, referencing the difficult schedule in the SEC. “We’ll worry about trying to beat Arkansas, and if we’re able to do that, our focus will turn to UT Martin.”

His point, of course, being that they only worry about the next game up. “I know it sounds like coach talk, but it’s what you have to do.”

Asked about miscues by “1-B” defense, Mullen says he and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins were equally displeased and concerned with fixing the issues.

Mullen says “1-B” defense gave up twice as many yards and points in half as many plays as the “1-A” defense against UK.

On punt returns and freshman Jamoral Graham: “We feel comfortable with Jamoral back there.”

Said MSU has other options, though not as many with Jameon Lewis banged up, but “we felt pretty confident with Jamoral back there.”

On field goal kicking, Mullen says the decision between Evan Sobiesk and Logan Cooke was “right on the edge” before settling on the freshman Cooke. Mullen said Cooke has the biggest leg and actually made a 57-yarder in practice. They consider Cooke the long-range kicker and Mullen also said if the game came down to a really long field goal, they didn’t want that to be Cooke’s first kick.

Funnily enough, Mullen said it was his advice that may have messed Cooke up on the field goal. Mullen told him before hand, “This is your first kick and people have a tendency to kick it way too hard because they’re excited and nervous. Then, he went out there and just kind of tapped it. I guess he took coaching too well.”

On injuries: Mullen said everybody who has been healthy remains healthy, which would indicate Dak Prescott is fine. Said Jameon Lewis is still getting back to 100%.

Mullen asked about Anthony Dixon: “It’s that personality he has. He walks into a room and he’s always upbeat and excited … He’s got a spirit about him that you feel when he walks into a room.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Bowling Ball, a Turtle and a mechanic: Three stories from MSU’s win over Kentucky

Bowling Ball

“Dan Mullen had half the internet tweeting about my butt,” Josh Robinson told reporters after the game.

DXEUCRBIUOEAQKL.20141026001359He’s halfway right. Those watching No. 1 Mississippi State beat Kentucky 45-31 in Lexington were already sharing thoughts on Robinson, MSU’s running back who finished with 198 yards and two touchdowns, as well as his hindquarters before the game in question ended.

Then, Mullen added to it, unaware that the internet topic du jour for the media up in the press box was the back side of his star junior.

“His rear end, it’s pretty round,” Mullen said after the game, eliciting laughter from the reporters in the room. “It is! They call him bowling ball. He is kind of that way.”

Yes, yes he is. On Saturday afternoon and into the night, Robinson looked that way more than ever. ESPN’s stats folk determined 140 of his 198 yards came after contact. He was knocking Wildcats over like pins, and they’re no pushovers.

The main highlight (and there were many) came when Robinson broke a handful of tackles on his way to the left sideline, discovered there were too many blue jerseys and decided to reverse field, breaking another couple handful of tackles as he rumbled, stumbled and eventually fell for the first down near the right sideline down the field.

“Have you ever had a run like that,” one reporter asked him later.

“Go to YouTube,” Robinson said, “and type in J-Rob. You’ll see that a lot.”

He was confident and having fun after the game. Those two qualities are part of why reporters love talking to him and they’re a huge part of why he’s so successful on the field.

They’re also the main reasons it took him so long to actually get on the field. To be honest, Robinson had an attitude problem throughout the early part of his career. Which is weird to say, because he’s got a great attitude. But it’s one that had to be fit in a mold to work in football.

He’s emotional, which you could see when he cried during his post-game interview after beating LSU (when he rushed for 197 yards, his previous high before Saturday). That event itself was quite the show, as he inadvertently conducted the interview in the middle of a sea of fans and family, thanking and hugging everyone around him as he opened his heart to those asking questions for cameras and stories.

And sometimes, those emotions got the best of him, not always in the same way. At times, frustration would grow because he would put in so much and feel as if he hadn’t been rewarded. At others, his unrelenting optimism didn’t exactly fit the mold of hard-nosed, grind-it-out, bury-your-feelings-and-sacrifice-your-body football.

In the past during workouts, conditioning and even in practice, Mullen said, “he had his goofy attitude, which he always has. He’s a fun-loving, goofy kid, but that was 24/7. It was like, ‘Hey. This is not goofy time now. This is time to work.’”

Robinson has always been immensely talented. It’s why he’s at MSU, even though so few others saw it as early as Mullen and his staff.

In fact, in high school, it was the quarterback on Robinson’s team (now playing at LSU) who was the prized recruit of the group.

“But we loved Josh,” Mullen said.

And they loved him the whole way through, working with the talented and upbeat runner to hone his energy properly.

Finally, and in timely fashion with an opening in the lineup, those things started happening for Robinson this summer.

“He was very different,” Mullen said. “This offseason, he was the same fun-loving, goofy kid, but when it was time to work, he was locked in and really worked hard, pushed himself to new limits this offseason. That’s when he started to gain everybody’s trust.”

It’s worked out for everyone, as MSU is No. 1 in the country at an undefeated 7-0, while Robinson has already totaled over 1,000 all-purpose yards and double-digit touchdowns.

The best part for Robinson: he still gets to have fun. After the game, he photo-bombed Mullen’s interview on CBS. That was moments before he scooped up Coach’s son Canon in celebration and gave him the kind of hug where a kid is torn between uncontrollable laughter and suffocation.

Plus, he got to talk about his butt.

“I think that’s why the women come to the game, to be honest,” Robinson said. “Trying to look at me and Dak in our tights.”

Turtle Power

With just over two minutes left in the game, Christian Holmes sealed the win for MSU. The fifth-year senior linebacker caught the onside kick – UK’s last real hope to make a comeback – and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown, earning a lead State was sure to keep.

It was a wonderful moment for Holmes, called by Turtle by both friends and strangers. He’s one of the most popular people on campus, athlete or not. Twitter erupted in shouts of “TURTLE!” after he scored, complete with the emojis of a green turtle for those who had it on their phones. He earned the nickname when he showed up to camp as a freshman with a shaved head and a round, muscular physique, looking exactly like one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

PUPPHLYLRQBTJLI.20140906202212But, as well-loved as he is, his popularity never seemed to translate to stardom on the field. Not the obvious kind, anyway. He started as a linebacker, where he spent three years (including a redshirt season), then he switched to tight end as a junior, coaches hoping to use his athleticism there, before switching back to linebacker this year.

Though, while his impact on offense last year was minimal, he was quietly one of MSU’s most important players. Mullen made a point regularly to share that almost no one played as many snaps as Turtle. He was the go-to guy on every special teams play. Kickoff and punt coverage. Kickoff and punt return. Even getting in on field goal action here and there. Holmes earned his keep on special teams, and he was one of the best at doing so.

Then, finally, he got his opportunity. As a senior this year, his talent on special teams has translated to defense, where he’s become one of the key members of MSU’s “1-B” defense.

But naturally, it was special teams where he made the play of the game as Holmes’ Bulldogs struggled on the road Saturday.

Turtle, Mullen and his teammates broke down the onside kick return from their view.

“All I could think was catch the ball and run,” Turtle said. “It was my opportunity to make a play.”

”There’s no way he was going down in that scenario, you know that,” Mullen joked, remembering his thoughts as he watched the return. “As long he had the ball high and tight, he was over by the sidelines so I figured if they hit him, he’d go out of bounds. But I watched, and he kind of kept going, and I kept waiting for him to get caught, and he kept going, and I kept waiting for him to get caught, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, he might actually make it all the way right here.’”

Said Holmes, “All I could think was, ‘Don’t let the kicker catch me.’ So when I saw the endzone, I just dove.”

After allowing a moment for celebration, the referee approached Turtle: “’44, you’ve never scored, huh?”

“I said, ‘No.’ I had the ball high and tight.”

“Can I get the ball,” the ref asked.

“I was like, ‘Oh, yeah! Here it is.’ I was just so excited I didn’t know what to say and do.”

“It was a great play by Turtle,” junior middle linebacker Benardick McKinney said. “He’s gonna talk about it all week, I’m not gonna hear the end of it. Big time players make big time plays at big time moments, and he came up big for us and made a huge play.”

“You never know who’s gonna make the last play of the game,” Mullen said. “In the end, honestly, I think Christian Holmes’ touchdown was the last play to win the game.”

“He should be SEC Special Teams Player of the Week,” Robinson said.

The Mechanic

Most people really only know Kaleb Eulls because he’s been around for a while. Or because his coaches and teammates talk about him. Or, deservedly, for that time in high school he saved a bus full of students from a gunman. Though Eulls himself would rather not talk about it. Not because its traumatic, but just because he doesn’t like attention.

LRZWMBBUPRQZYUY.20141026001400But people rarely talk about him for being good at his job, and that’s why he’s such a good defensive lineman. It can be hard for some on the outside to understand why those on the inside consistently heap praise on Eulls, but that’s the role he plays. A senior defensive tackle, his job isn’t to get the numbers. It’s to open things up for his teammates so they can fill the stat sheets.

So, when he played what is likely the best game of his career Saturday in Lexington, he naturally deflected praise.

“It means a lot to me,” Eulls said, “but I’m not doing it for myself. I do it for the guys. I work hard and grind for them every day. I can’t take the credit for myself. I’ve got teammates and coaches I wanna thank much more than myself.”

That is, more or less, everything he said after the game in the media room. Not because he’s not personable. He’s a joy to be around. But talking about himself is just unnatural for Eulls. It’s why the position suits him so well.

That, and his considerable talent. Saturday afternoon, his five tackles and two sacks were crucial, as it was State’s front seven who stepped up time after time when a play was needed.

It’s fitting for the player who is the team mechanic. Eulls loves working on cars (and hates flying on airplanes), and he’s become the in-house troubleshooter and auto-fixer at MSU’s football complex. He gets a kick out of doing it, and his teammates, many driving old or beat-up cars, desperately need it.

Just like on the field, Eulls uses his talents to help others, not himself. It’s part of why he means so much to those around him.

Mullen, asked only about the impressive game Eulls had played Saturday, was fighting back tears by the time he finished his answer. That senior defensive end is the kind of player Mullen built around to attain this level of success. It’s thanks to those like him that the Bulldogs are No. 1 in the land.

“Kaleb, to me, is one of my special guys,” Mullen told reporters after the game. “Always will be for the rest of my life. I love Kaleb Eulls. I love everything about him, the type of kid he is. To be where he’s at, from where he’s from, is what makes college football special. If you don’t know where he’s from, do some research on Kaleb Eulls and see where he’s from and what he’s done in his life and you’ll see why he makes college football special.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

MSU’s win over Kentucky both beautiful and ugly, energetic and lethargic

Kentucky can be an odd place. It’s beautiful as a state. Unique in its points of pride and experiences. But playing a football game in Lexington, at the University of Kentucky, can be a challenging endeavor.

Something about the whole place sort of lulls you into a state of lethargy you can’t quite shake. Those who had been to Commonwealth Stadium before talked about it in the weeks leading up to Mississippi State’s game there.

“No one plays well at Kentucky,” one person told me last week, speaking from their own experience.

In a quirk of scheduling, MSU’s seniors this year have played at Kentucky three out of their four years. They know all about it.

Senior running back Nick Griffin’s tweets were a good window into the state of mind it brings.

“First thing you see when you get to Kentucky is a horse,” he tweeted after MSU’s charter jet flew over the Keeneland race tracks on their way in. But he added the addendum, “A beautiful horse at that.”

On the drive through North Carolina, Tennessee and the southern part of Kentucky to get to Lexington, I had some of the same thoughts. It’s beautiful. And it’s almost as hard to get in as it is to get out.

Barreling through mountains, hugging the curves of winding roads through the valleys between massive hills, blurs of red, orange and yellow foliage flashing past in the trees along the way, it’s easy to be mesmerized and fear for your life at the same time.

Looking to your left, a small creek winds it away underneath you, leading your eyes to the right, where a semi-truck flies past you as it steamrolls down a hill, the massive weight of its contents carrying it faster than the cruise control can stop on such a steep incline. Fear and tranquility right next to each other, one trickling by with nowhere to be nor a time to be there, the other a hare with its tail on fire streaking toward a flat-landed finish line.

When the game started Saturday night, MSU was more creek than hare, trapped somewhere in the middle of a lazy afternoon and a heavyweight boxing match.

“Something was different about us,” junior quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We didn’t have the same vibe, same attitude.”

FDIFKAACFBYVLOC.20141026001400That much appeared to be true. Prescott didn’t play poorly by general standards, but with the lofty expectations he’s created for himself, he was disappointed with his performance. He was 18-of-33 passing for 216 yards. He had one touchdown and one interception. He also had another 88 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Again, good numbers, but down from his usual hare-like performances.

MSU’s defense, a strong suit in its wins over three-straight top-10 teams in its last three games, was almost completely lethargic, giving up 504 yards, including 401 through the air.

Senior defensive lineman Kaleb Eulls, in his third trip to Lexington, was one of the lone bright spots of the group, racking up five tackles and two sacks. After the game, he shared the same thoughts so many others had previously: it’s a hard place to play, for some indescribable reason.

The crowd was huge, but maybe it’s because they didn’t show up until almost right at kickoff. It’s an incredibly enjoyable gameday experience, but unlike so many of its SEC colleagues, Lexington is a city, not a college town.

Of course, for MSU, there was the matter of playing its first since game Earth’s inception as the No. 1 team on the piece of land called America. Didn’t help that they had two weeks to think about it, either.

“I think they played a little tight, at times,” Mullen said. “Hopefully, we can get all this ranking stuff behind us … I think our kids are going to be over it now.”

Asked if pressure would increase from another win, Mullen quickly shot down the notion, saying they got those jitters out. His team made it through the mountain interstate, survived the scare of the semi truck bearing down behind them, and emerged unscathed, if not particularly relieved to have made it.

“We’re 7-0,” Prescott said. “4-0 in the SEC, and that’s all I’m really worried about.”

QLTBZYMKUPZOYNB.20141026001359Only junior running back Josh Robinson seemed to never be fazed, the relentlessly upbeat and energetic “bowling ball” of MSU’s backfield. And he looked like one as he bounced around the field, paving a path through and between Wildcat defenders curvier and more difficult to navigate than Interstate 75 on the way into town. Only he could have pulled off some of those moves, rumbling 23 times for 198 yards and two scores. He seemed like State’s only hope, at times.

But don’t be mistaken, Mullen says. MSU may have been a touch off, but much of that had to do with Kentucky being on. Their recent history can make teams feel as carefree as their bourbon and scenery do, but beneath the colored trees is hard stone, earth pushed together by millennia of tectonic movement and thrust into the air as silent guardians of state lines.

“I tell you something, I think that was two very good football teams,” Mullen said. “They’re a very dangerous team. I think you’re going to see that team and Mark [Stoops] continue to grow with the program. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them have a fantastic rest of the year.”

The game was beautiful and ugly at the same time, MSU pulling off the 45-31 win and getting out of town to go back home and get some sleep.

One player ran to the locker room beneath the stadium singing the chorus of a song from a Mississippi entertainer: “Please take me back home – to Mississippi.

Not that Kentucky isn’t great, but it sure was tough.

“An ugly win will always and forever be better than a pretty loss,” Griffin tweeted after the game.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Behind the scenes at SEC Tipoff: MSU basketball drawing from success of football

Last fall, Mississippi State’s football team finished the regular season 6-6, having to win its last two games in overtime to avoid a losing record. Now, the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the country, the highest ranking in school history where Dan Mullen and Dak Prescott are in the middle of what could be State’s best season ever.

“It’s an amazing story, isn’t it,” CBS college basketball reporter Seth Davis asked as the interview began.

“It really is,” MSU’s head basketball coach Rick Ray responded, sitting on the other side of the camera.

unnamed-3In Charlotte for SEC Tipoff, the revamped SEC basketball media days, Rick Ray and his players wandered the halls, studios and converted hotel rooms as they answered question after question. Vic Schaefer, head coach of MSU’s women’s team, did the same on Tuesday with his two players.

And everywhere any of them went, people were talking about football – about the No. 1 team in the country. Mississippi State.

Schaefer and Ray have been to these events before, and both coaches are as popular and well-liked by the media and fellow coaches as any. But the receptions they received this week went far beyond the usual. People they’d never met were exclaiming upon their arrival.

Schafer walked into a social media and marketing room (where the group responsible for ESPN’s commercial on the Left Field Lounge was set up) and was immediately greeted with enthusiasm when they saw his maroon MSU polo.

“Hey, Mississippi State! No. 1 in the country!”

On Wednesday, Ray and Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy appeared on the Paul Finebaum Show together, though it had very little to do with the fact that they are rivals. Finebaum wanted to talk about the best football state in the nation at the present time.

“There is great excitement on both campuses.”

unnamedIt could have easily been frustrating for Ray and Schaefer, who have their own teams they want to talk about, their own excitement to share. But the more each talked about it, the clearer it became what an impact a great football team can have on an entire school.

Beyond strangers in the hotel stopping them to congratulate them for having the best team in the country (“Do you guys have great high school football in the state or something?”) and the enhancement to the brand evident by the fact Sirius/XM hosts can’t wait to get the MSU coach on the show, there are positive changes on the inside of the program resulting from the gridiron successes.

“Any time you’re in the spotlight, it’s good for the whole university,” Ray told a crowd of reporters in the main media room. “This isn’t just about football. It goes to all of our programs. A lot of times there’s jealousy between staffs when one is having success. At Mississippi State, it really is a family.”

That’s the right way to look at it, certainly. It’s the way the football team responded when MSU’s baseball team finished second in the country two summers ago. Ray and Schaefer, because they are supportive rather than jealous, are able to take advantage of the success of Dan Mullen’s football team.

Both of the coaches have recruits on campus for football games throughout the fall, and Schaefer himself has credited the atmosphere at a football game last year to securing the commitment and signature of one of his players.

“Since I got here,” Schaefer said, “we’ve only had two players who came to campus that we didn’t get. Mississippi State is a great place. You gotta get people on campus.”

Said Ray, in reference to big football weekends, “It’s the only time you’re gonna have 80,000 people in Starkville. You’ve gotta take advantage of that. When we have guys come in and we’ve got College GameDay here and all these fans showing how much they support you, it’s a great tool for us.”

unnamed-1And then there are the examples set by MSU’s football team. Very little is expected of Ray’s team on the outside, who the media picked to finish last in the SEC this week. But, as you’d imagine, he’s not concerned with that. His point guard I.J. Ready told reporters last week that the basketball and football players spent time together this summer with each having the same thought: our team is going to surprise people.

“I think the football team is a good example of what we can do,” Ray told Finebaum. “They were picked to finished fifth or sixth in the west. Now, they’re the No. 1 team in the country.”

Like the football team in 2013, Ray felt he had a team last year that was young, shorthanded and relatively inexperienced. Now, like the football team this year, he’s got depth, experience and the opportunity for someone to become a leader. That right there is a big part of it, of what Ray takes from the football team – Dak Prescott. He’s the team leader every coach dreams of having. When Ray talks to his players, he talks about Prescott. About being selfless, holding others accountable, encouraging your teammates and putting them on your back when the moment hits.

The comparisons of his team to Mullen’s aren’t as far off as they seem, either. In the hallways of ESPN’s studios, that was some of the conversation Ray had.

Mullen’s offense is based largely on having a talented dual-threat quarterback. Ray’s offense is based on having a skilled person in the four spot. Mullen has Prescott, and while most people around the SEC don’t know him now, Ray has Travis Daniels, who he calls the most skilled non-point guard on the team. He’s huge, built like a brick wall, but has the shot and the handles of some of the best guards in the league. With size in the post and skills on the perimeter, Daniels is yet another big-time dual-threat player on campus.

Ray also has players he thinks are ready to step up and be leaders. And in an evolution reminiscent of Mullen’s receivers through the years, Ray’s team finally has height and size, flipping the balance of roster from under 6’7” to over.

Junior forward Gavin Ware couldn’t hold back his excitement when chatting in passing with Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson.

“We got some height now,” Ware told him with a grin. “You gotta watch out.”

unnamed-2As for Schaefer and his club, his team has some of the same outside pressures the football team did in the preseason.

“Coach, high expectations for your team this year,” one reporter stated as preface to her question.

“The next step is on the horizon in Starkville,” ESPN analyst Maria Taylor said as she sat on the SEC Network set with Schaefer.

Schaefer’s Bulldogs, like Mullen’s in 2013, struggled a bit through portions of the season, playing great at many times and poorly at others as new parts worked to figure each other out. Then, just as football won it’s last three games in a row, Schaefer’s team made a season-ending surge, tearing through the Women’s NIT all the way to the Final Four, some of the most exciting games Humphrey Coliseum had seen in some time.

Now, nearly all the pieces from that run are back, plus he’s added one of the best recruiting classes in MSU history.

Maybe all the similarities are why it’s so easy for Ray and Schaefer to talk football. It’s a cliché for either to say that winning is contagious, but it’s also pretty simple for the two to draw comparisons to their football brethren.

“It’s relatable to our players because they know those guys,” Ray said.

The excitement is easy to feed from.

“Man, Mississippi State,” the clerk at the team hotel said when the MSU contingent checked out Wednesday morning. “Big-time football. Did you guys see it coming?”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Live updates: MSU men’s and women’s basketball media day

This afternoon, Mississippi State’s men’s and women’s basketball teams will have their on-campus media day in advance of their seasons starting in a few weeks.

I’ll share updates as the day moves along, starting with women’s basketball first, then updated with men’s basketball at the top when Rick Ray and his players come in.

As we wait, the latest installment of This Is Our Plate is linked below to pass the time (we made the Filet of Oscar at The Grill)

——————————

Alright, Rick Ray is here. Time to get the men’s portion started.

Bm5DiiLCUAAxAP0On injuries, Ray says in the past they “would have been devastating” to the team’s depth, but said this year, they’ve actually got a deep enough roster to make it through.

As for the injury to Craig Sword (back), Ray said there’s a good chance he won’t miss any games. If he does, it’ll likely be two or three max.

Ray also touched on football’s success in his opening comments, saying their success is due to leadership and hard work, which “is a good teaching point for our guys.”

Moving on to his team, Ray says two qualities stand out: length and athleticism. Both of which he says his team hasn’t had much of previously.

When Sword returns, Ray said he’ll play a fair bit of point guard. Not as a permanent move, but just so that MSU has a bigger and more physical option when MSU plays against some bigger point guards at different points in the schedule.

Lot of discussion on newcomers from Ray. He says freshman guard Demetrius Houston is one of if not the most athletic guy on the team. he’ll be relied on early if Sword misses time.

Ray has also been complimentary of Travis Daniel, a big, long and physical player who Ray expects to mostly play at the 3-spot because of his ball skills and smooth shot. He’s a good mismatch kind of guy.

He also mentioned forward Oliver Black as someone who is pushing junior Gavin Ware and giving him competition, something he’s never really had before. He expects that to make everyone involved better players.

Ray said the depth this year will give them the opportunity to go with something of a jumbo lineup where they’ll have Sword at point, Fred Thomas and Daniel at guards and guys like Ware and Black in the post. Certainly much more size than MSU has previously had.

Ray talking about his schedule now, says he scheduled good teams like Oregon State, Florida State and Utah State, “because I think we can win those games.”

Those on the outside may not be overly confident, but Ray seems to have a reserved excitement about his team. He clearly believes his team to be very good, and likely much better than it seems most expect.

“We had success in the non-conference last season, but struggled in the conference. So if we have success in the non-conference, which we fully expect, we have something to look forward to and keep these guys grounded.”

On Fred Thomas: “I think he is an outstanding defender. He’s a legitimate All-SEC player, I don’t see any reason he shouldn’t be … He’s got an uncanny ability to move his feet. What’s made him an even better defender since he got here is he’s got strength now.”

As Ray closes it out, he tells us how happy he is about the new video board. Going from standard definition to HD, a nice switch.

 

——————————–

Women’s coach Vic Schaefer is the first to the podium as this shindig begins on the floor of The Hump.

“I think everybody in maroon has come to learn the expectations that we have and excited to see the brand of basketball we have here at Mississippi State.”

Beyond the newcomers, Schaefer says, MSU has four starters returning who will be playing the top-20 signing class.

With those newcomers and the returning stars, Schaefer acknowledges it will be more difficult this season to play the underdog role.

“We’re not gonna fly under the radar with any coach in our conference. We’ve got respect throughout the league. I don’t think anybody’s gonna take MSU for granted.”

“You might as well embrace those expectations people have for us,” he added. “We’re trying to prepare for a great season.”

Asked specifically about senior guard Kendra Grant, Schaefer says, “She needs to play well for us to have a good season.”

What can take this team to the NCAA Tournament?

“Our seniors have to play like seniors,” he lists first, then says sophomores need to make big jumps from their freshman year, and the freshmen have to live up to the hype.

If that happens, he says, “It’s a recipe for a lot of success.”

I like this quote from Schaefer on who gets to play: “That basketball doesn’t know if you’re a freshman or a senior. That’s how I am. I’m all about production.”

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cohen visits with media as fall baseball begins

Good timing? Mississippi State football is off this week and MSU baseball begins fall practice on Tuesday night. With action on the diamond coming up, local media visited with head coach John Cohen to get a little preview.

FPCDONOAJKJCEBI.20120225203711Of note, one of the most obvious changes is the new ball in college baseball, which has a lowered seam more similar to the MLB.

Cohen said it does make an impact, but he still expects Dudy Noble Field to be a tough place for hitters.

“I don’t think it’s a dramatic difference. I just think it will alter how far the ball will go a little bit,” he said. “We’ve noticed a little bit of difference in BP, but it’s not dramatic.”

To that end, Cohen did say he expects MSU’s offense to improve this year, particularly with the infusion of some power hitters, many of whom redshirted last year.

“We’ve got a little bit more power,” Cohen said. “I think we’re going to be a little bit better in the run-scoring area. I think that’s something we needed to improve on.”

Much of the leadership necessary in that area will come from senior first baseman Wes Rea, who Cohen said made some big strides over the summer.

“Wes’s attitude has been phenomenal,” Cohen said. “He’s made so many adjustments in every part of his life. Especially in conditioning, he’s just worked so hard.”

That conditioning is another thing Cohen harped on, saying this is the best shape he’s ever had a team be entering fall ball. He gave credit to strength coach Brian Neal for that improvement.

On that note, Cohen also said the team is relatively healthy, the only notables being pitchers Will Cox and John Marc Shelly, who Cohen said they’ll have to re-evaluate after the fall. Pitcher Paul young is one who Cohen expects to be good to go by February.

Of course, it is still the middle of October. MSU’s football team is No. 1 in the country after beating Auburn and Cohen, a football fan who grew up in Tuscaloosa, has been taking notice.

“I can’t imagine anything being more exciting than what we saw on Saturday,” he said. “I just want to take a minute to mention what this does for all of our student-athletes.”

Cohen himself was once ranked No. 1 in the country as a player at MSU back when he was playing baseball. He remembers what it’s like to play for the top team in the country.

“I think you’re so focused in on what you do, that you don’t know,” he said. “That’s a neat thing for me, watching the media frenzy that’s going on now, what’s enveloping our university.

“You wonder if the kids on the inside are experiencing everything we are, because you can get lost. But Dan [Mullen] has done such a good job of keeping them focused. It’s fun to talk about [as a player], but I tell you what, when you’re around your coaching staff, you know you better not let them hear it.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Starkville, MS, Max and Hanna reunite for Auburn-MSU football

14 months ago, Max and Hanna were babies living together in an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This weekend, the two were reunited after over a year apart, and oddly enough, it was because of college football.

unnamedSee, Max was adopted by a Mississippi State family living in Starkville – Wes and Meaghan Gordon who work at MSU. He came home October 27, 2013.

Hanna was adopted by an Auburn family living in Birmingham – Mike and Ashley Hill, whose family on Ashley’s side owns Toomer’s Drugs in Auburn on Toomer’s Corner. Hanna landed in Washington D.C. on September 11, 2013.

On Saturday, when MSU hosted Auburn for a battle of top-five SEC teams, Max and Hanna saw each other again, playing together underneath a tailgate tent 100 yards from Davis Wade Stadium. Quite a change in surroundings since the last time they were together.

Max is two years old, while Hanna turns two in December, so the incredible circumstances surrounding their reunion mean relatively little to them. They’re just happy to share cookies, nibble on chicken fingers and run around in the grass.

Their parents, however, couldn’t stop smiling. The fullness of feelings inside them wasn’t an easy thing to describe, though it wasn’t difficult to tell how happy they were Saturday afternoon.

“This time last year, I was a wreck,” Meaghan said. “My kid was halfway across the world.”

unnamed-2It was a two-and-a-half year process for Max and Hanna to find their families, a lengthy ordeal which began before they were even born. It was during that stretch when the Gordon and Hill families met. They were working with the same adoption agency and became friends as they spent time together and used each other for support.

In fact, after meeting each other, the families were able to meet each other’s children in Ethiopia when they flew across the world to adopt them. When Mike and Ashley went to visit Hanna and complete the necessary steps on the Ethiopian side of the process, they brought presents for Max from Wes and Meaghan and even got video of him.

“The first time we heard Max’s voice was a on video they sent us,” Wes said. “That was really special.”

Two weeks later, Wes and Meaghan did the same for the Hills on their visit to Addis Ababa.

At the time, the families’ greatest interest was in getting their children home, as each had to wait nearly three months between visiting them at the orphanage and getting their visas approved in the U.S. But that didn’t stop them from looking just a little bit ahead to the future.

“We used to talk about it,” Ashley said. “I said, ‘One day, we’ll have them at a game together.’”

The Gordon and Hill families tailgating Saturday

The Gordon and Hill families tailgating Saturday

And it happened Saturday. Whatever rivalry there is between the two teams was kept squarely on the outside of that tent, though each has their own reasons for strong allegiances.

Ashley grew up steps away from Auburn’s campus, while her Birmingham-native husband Mike quietly is prideful of his alma mater – MSU.

“I flew to New York in 1996 to watch State in the Final Four,” he said. “That was my senior year.”

Wes was an athletic trainer for MSU’s football team when he was in school, and it was his freshman year in Starkville when he fell in love with a cheerleader named Meaghan.

All these years later, the two families really shouldn’t know each other, and they certainly shouldn’t have been tailgating together. But Max and Hanna made it happen.

“Max is pretty happy,” Wes joked. “The Bulldogs got a win and he got to see his girlfriend.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

MSU’s success now the result of belief from fans then, say Mullen and Stricklin

Scott Stricklin still remembers when the idea for Maroon Friday came up. Now Mississippi State’s athletic director, he recalls someone in the meeting telling him that nobody was going to do it. State fans wouldn’t wear maroon every Friday just because they said so.

“I was like, ‘We’ve got to try,’” Stricklin says. “We had to do something.”

Not long after, he remembers the first time MSU asked its fans to wear the same color for a game – a white-out when the Bulldogs hosted LSU in 2009, Dan Mullen’s first year as the head coach.

“There was a real fear that no one would do it and we’d look stupid,” Stricklin recalled. “It was raining when that game started so everyone had ponchos on, but the rain stopped for the second half and all the jackets came off. We looked around and thought, ‘Wow, we did it.’”

IYDIGWDNMPEICCT.20141011224422Since then, it’s gotten to the point where MSU’s athletic department designates a color for every game. Most recently, the lower level wore white and the upper level maroon when MSU beat Auburn Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. After the first few white-outs and maroon-outs, people were coming to Stricklin and saying, ‘Hey, you haven’t told us what to wear yet,’ so they had to start designating colors for every home game.

“People wanted to participate at a high level,” Stricklin said. “Our fans were hungry to do whatever it took to make us successful.”

It may sound a little silly on the surface. Or at least some would conclude that, in the case of T-shirts and victories, correlation does not equal causation.

But things like that really are what turned the direction around for an MSU program which, when Stricklin got to campus, had been struggling seemingly across the board.

Mullen has told the story this week of his reaction when he got to Starkville in December of 2008. Basically, he told everyone in the department, “You are the problem.” Mullen said the lack of belief was an issue. So was the complacency and the ease with which people were willing to do things “the way we always have.”

The new head coach didn’t hold back at all when he decided to let everyone know how he felt about them.

“He probably didn’t have the bedside manner you’d want,” Stricklin jokes now.

While perception had to (and did) change within the department, the biggest goal was bringing about revival in a somewhat deadened fanbase, a group who was exhausted in its search for something to believe in.

DBMCDFHRPHHHSKW.20141011201253In 2009, before his first season, Mullen asked the fans to believe in him. And they did, setting attendance records, selling out game-after-game and, of course, wearing maroon on Fridays. They did it despite the fact they were cheering for a team which went 5-7, at home for the holidays again.

But the signs of something worth believing in were there. At that whiteout in 2009, MSU was one yard away from taking down the highly-favored Tigers of LSU, which was about 98 yards closer than they had been in quite some time.

Four years later, something else big happened at Mississippi State, though it had nothing to do with football directly and Mullen wasn’t even there (although he was watching on TV from his vacation home in Georgia).

Walking through the streets that night after the game, maroon was everywhere. In the roads around the stadium, hanging out on sidewalks, underneath tents, sprawling over railings at restaurants and bars, cheers of “HAIL STATE!” rolling through the air everywhere from hotel lobbies to gas stations.

That night in June of 2013, Omaha, Nebraska was the western-most suburb of Starkville. 20,000-plus MSU fans had shown up to watch their Bulldogs in the College World Series with the National Championship on the line. Many of them couldn’t even get into the game, but they wanted to be there. They had to be there. As Stricklin put it, they were hungry.

And something happened during that two-week stretch as State bulldozed it’s way to the Championship Series. MSU has always been good at baseball, the school’s most storied athletic program, and fans believed the baseball team could be great, but something about seeing a Mississippi State jersey step onto a field with the National Championship on the line struck a chord within them.

Somewhere between Wes Rea belting a home run in Virginia in the Super Regional and Dak Prescott blasting ahead for a touchdown in Louisiana three weeks ago, that belief became bigger than baseball. It applied to everyone in every sport.

cws-picture-061212I remember sitting in the lobby of the team hotel around 3 a.m. local time. Chad Bumphis, MSU’s all-time leading receiver, was sitting next to me. He kept saying the same thing as I was writing a story about the magical two-week run.

“Mississippi State just played for the National Championship.”

The words sounded funny in his head but made him smile as he said them. It didn’t even matter MSU lost the final game. They were there.

In the early hours of the morning, as the celebration of something incredible continued around us, those were the thoughts I tried to put into words.

“This run, this experience, is far bigger than baseball.

In doing something no one in Maroon and White had done before, it became a Mississippi State benchmark.

Academics and athletics, football and softball, men’s and women’s.

These Bulldogs proved it can be done.

No one had to tell themselves they believed. They did believe.

Just as the state of Mississippi can claim generosity, hospitality and countless professional successes over any other shortcomings, so can Mississippi State now claim time at the top in spite of any days at the bottom.

When you’re a kid, you always believe your team is the best in the country, that they can win it all.

With age, realism and awareness set in. You know what limitations your team has.

But now, for the first time, Bulldog fans have made it within reach of doing what they imagined as children.

The baseball team knows it can win it all, and now everyone else has seen.

Quarterbacks and defensive linemen watched their diamond counterparts and said, ‘Mississippi State really can win a National Championship.’

Tennis players, basketball coaches and those from every sport saw the realization of dreams.

Now they don’t just have to say, they know, it can be done.”

Fast-forward to present day, and Mullen’s team is currently No. 1 in the country, one spot higher than the baseball team finished that summer. It’s appropriate that John Cohen, the man who coached that World Series, stood in the wings and watched as Mullen met with the media following his win over No. 2 Auburn Saturday night. Cohen and Mullen built this together, part of the new guard at Mississippi State.

“I think the last two or three weeks has been a lot like the Omaha run,” Stricklin said, referring to the string of upsets over Top 10 teams and the monumental support of the fan base. “It gives you a lot of confidence. The next time you have one of those dreams, you know it can happen.”

BDKQDMUEFOASHMN.20141012002434And those fans – the fans were the key, as Mullen has said several times these last few weeks.

“It’s not win first and then fans will come,” Mullen says. “If the fans come, then the wins will come later.”

Those fans bought in. They believed, showing up for the white-out in 2009, soaking wet and watching as their team fell just short. Five years later, sunshine or pouring rain, they’re enjoying the benefits of that labor.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment