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.

———————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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With SEC play looming, the season changes for MSU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SEC slate is here.

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

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Family, friends and MSU figures remember Jack Cristil

And now, the end is here

And so I face the final curtain

My friend, I’ll say it clear

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

I’ve lived a life that’s full

I traveled each and ev’ry highway

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

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

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

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

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

Regrets, I’ve had a few

But then again, too few to mention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean, dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I bit off more than I could chew

But through it all, when there was doubt

I ate it up and spit it out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried

I’ve had my fill, my share of losing

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

To think I did all that

And may I say, not in a shy way,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For what is a man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, it was my way

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How MSU learned leadership and has kept momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The coaches saw it,” Hughes said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Live-blog: Dan Mullen press conference for South Alabama week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will have his weekly press conference with the local media. Mississippi State beat UAB 47-34 last week and travels to South Alabama this week for its first road game. Live updates from Mullen’s time to follow.

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Mullen: “Let me start by sending our condolences out to Jack Cristil’s family. That’s a huge loss for everyone at Mississippi State.”

He adds on Cristil, “He was an institution at this University. Bulldogs everywhere have heavy hearts with his passing. That’s a Bulldog forever. It’s a big loss for all of us.”

Injury news: Mullen says everyone is “good to go” except for senior safety Justin Cox who is questionable with “a leg.”

Breaking down the UAB game, Mullen said the offensive needs to be more consistent and also more explosive. Though he says, “we did control the ball well. In the second half, we did some much better things … Got some things fixed at halftime.”

Mullen: “Preston Smith should be looked at for the Thorpe Award now that he has two interceptions.”

He’s particularly happy that they’ve scored two non-offensive touchdowns so far. Momentum changers.

On South Alabama, Mullen says “they are one of the most veteran teams in the country.” Jaguars have 16 starters who are juniors or seniors.

“Certainly going to be a very tough challenge for us.” He adds that it will be MSU’s first road trip of the year and first true road game since last November at Arkansas. Says guys have to get into the routine of a road game.

On true freshman Jamoral Graham, Mullen says “I’d like to see his role increase in the offense now that we’re gonna play him.” Likes what the receiver did in the return game, now needs him to be ready for more.

On USA QB Brandon Bridge, who was previously at Alcorn State and played MSU: “I remember him running wild. I do remember a blur of him running by me on the sidelines.”

It’s pointed out to Mullen that 12 different people have caught a pass so far. Mullen says it speaks to the depth and part of what they do. They want to rotate to keep guys healthy and energized over the course of a long season.

“It’s been fantastic for us … When they know they’re gonna have the opportunity to play, they’re gonna be prepared.”

On defense, Mullen says they looked at situations and asked how they got out of position each time. Decision-making is part of the process and teaching guys to make the right calls.

“We’re gonna get all that stuff fixed.”

More on Preston Smith: “He’s got such length … He can cover so much ground … The thing that really he’s changed this year is he’s added the size and the strength to be an every-down physical player … He’s explosive off the edge in pass rush and you add that to the natural size and length he has.”

On offensive line and being without Damien Robinson: “I haven’t seen any glaring errors. I haven’t seen anything that is reason for concern.” He says there’s a lot of room for improvement, but he’s “pleased” with how the line has played so far.

On the kickers, Mullen says: “We believe in them. You can’t buy into the negative stuff surrounding them.”

He said kicks across the board Saturday were wonky, including kickoff. Said, “It was like Tiger Woods going out there and Happy Gilmore-ing it.”

But outside of that, he says, “they’re doing a pretty darn good job overall.” Says there has been a negative aura, accidental toe balls, botched snaps or holds and just a series of little things which have made things look worse than they are.

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Remembering Jack Cristil, the Voice of the Bulldogs, a Mississippi State legend

“Remember, kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.”

—————————————-

Jack Cristil

December 10, 1925 – September 7, 2014

GZWFENDIDBFTXRL.20081006201841Everybody has a Jack Cristil story. Whether it’s a personal interaction or the memory of their favorite radio call, the news of his passing was greeted not with sadness, but with appreciation of a full life lived and the sharing of stories from a legendary career and person.

His time as the Voice of the Bulldogs began in 1953, long before many who knew him were even alive. It ended with his retirement in 2011, on the road in Knoxville for Mississippi State basketball.

I remember it clearly. A group of friends sat in my car in a parking lot in West Point before a wedding reception. We weren’t just waiting to hear the result of the game, an MSU win. We ran late because we wanted to hear Jack’s last words. We wanted to hear him say, “Wrap that one in Maroon and White” just one more time.

Like Jordan’s last game or Gretzky’s last skate, it was something you had to be a part of, an event which demanded your attention and respect. That something so big, so great was ending held weight. It was the last chance to experience an artist at work. A two-hour basketball game became a tribute to the career of an icon.

Jack-and-ElvisFor 58 years, Jack was the Voice of Mississippi State. More than just the voice: Jack was Mississippi State sports. The two are synonymous and he was the way everyone experienced the game for so long.

Families, father and son, sat together around the radio to listen to Jack and the Bulldogs. When State fans remember those games, when they remember those moments with family, they remember Jack.

His medium was so unlike the way games are delivered on TV today. Jack was in your home, but never intrusive. He was a storyteller who worked in real time, relaying tales as they happened. Kids got to stay up late to listen to him on the radio. Farmers took his voice with them on the tractor, families rode with him in the car.

Even when watching the game in person, my dad always brought a headset to the stadium so he could listen to Jack call it on the radio. He was as good as real life, if not sometimes better.

He was recognized by his baritone voice and flawless inflection, but it was his dry humor and honesty which helped make him so enjoyable. Jack was the consummate professional. He loved Mississippi State, but his job was to describe the game with detail and accuracy. If the picture he painted was positive, you knew it was true. If the verbal canvas was colored in a negative light, you had to believe that, too.

He was never one to hold back and his wit was as sharp as his voice was smooth. He rarely, if ever, told a joke in the practical sense. But those who listened, who paid attention to his words, found themselves in a regular state of laughter and entertainment.

FPUPTDZWMJJBOYE.20110224135201What his last words in life were, we don’t know. Those are for his family, for himself. But a man who lived and spoke in public, his final words on air came that night in 2011 after one last game, one more Bulldog win.

It was appropriate that the moment, to those of us listening, was all about Jack. When to Jack, that moment was all about those of us listening.

“I’m not going to talk basketball for the next couple of moments,” he began as the final words came. “I certainly would like to have a personal message with you. I have been privileged and blessed for the past 58 years to have the opportunity to represent Mississippi State University as their broadcaster for football and basketball. All good things, as they say in the trade, have to come to an end sooner or later. Please accept my sincere, my genuine, my honest and heartfelt thank you for all the kindnesses that you have displayed to me over these past 58 years. It has been one genuine pleasure to be associated with such a magnificent university as this with its administration, its faculty, its students and the Mississippi State family.

“Please, ladies and gentlemen, accept my genuine, my honest, my heartfelt thank you for all the kindness, the courtesy and the encouragement that you have given to me and to my family over these years. The Mississippi State University family is second to none, and as family, I know you understand. Thank you very much. May God’s great blessings be upon you and your family. Thank you.”

unnamedHis body has taken its final breath, but Jack will never leave Mississippi State. So long as he is remembered, he’ll never be truly gone. Legends never die, and this one is wrapped in Maroon and White.

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Eight-year-old Ashton Brewer gets his first experience at an MSU game

Ashton Brewer is eight years old, a huge Mississippi State fan, and as a melanoma patient, he’s in a rough state of life.

He’s also, like most boys his age, occasionally preoccupied with cheerleaders.

“Maybe we’ll run into some,” his mom joked with him.

Ashton just smiled and looked down. He was hanging out in the Gridiron Club by the field before MSU played UAB, his first ever State game.

“He’s girl crazy,” his mom told me before looking back to him. “Aren’t you, baby?”

Noooo,” he said, drawing out the word as he blushed and looked to one-month-older cousin to make sure he wasn’t laughing at him.

Ashton, left center, with cousin Christian, right center

Ashton, left center, with cousin Christian, right center

Minutes later, we were walking out onto the field. A few steps ahead of them, I saw around the mouth of the tunnel before they did.

“Guess what, guys? I see the cheerleaders.”

Ashton and his cousin (and best friend) Christian looked at each other with big eyes and huge smiles.

As we turned the corner, a half dozen cheerleaders swarmed, hugging the two boys, talking to them, asking if they were having fun and taking pictures with them. They didn’t know it was Ashton’s only chance at seeing a game and meeting them, but his dreams came true hanging out with those young ladies.

Ashton and Christian got to walk around the field during pre-game and meet some players, most of whom were two, three or even four times as big as them.

“Christian wants to be an offensive lineman.”

“Oh really,” MSU offensive lineman Rufus Warren said. “So you’re gonna be playing with me one day.”

Standing at midfield, long snapper Winston Chapman introduced himself to Ashton before going through warm-ups as usual.

“Where do you want me to send it?” Chapman asked Ashton as he got ready to snap the ball to punter Devon Bell. “Left hip? Middle of the chest? Anywhere you want it, I’ll hit the target.”

Walking around the stadium on the way to their seats, Ashton and Christian were amazed by the massive structure and absolutely baffled at 1) the number of people gathered in one place and 2) the $75 million it took to build the new endzone in Davis Wade Stadium.

“You’d have to live to 100 to make that much money,” they told me

Ashton’s dad Daniel isn’t actually a huge fan of any particular team, though the Bulldogs are his choice if any, and this is his first time to an MSU game, too.

“I only got lost once trying to park,” he proudly told me.

But Ashton’s grandfather went to State, as did many of Daniel’s friends, and Ashton has spent his whole life being raised as a Bulldog. He hardly had a choice, really.

“They’re the only team I know,” he said.

“So it’s MSU or nobody?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

unnamedWhen he was born, Ashton’s entire back was covered in one massive mole. At only nine months old, the surgeries to remove it began. Their hope was to get rid of all potentially cancerous spots before they could become problematic.

Unfortunately, the early work wasn’t enough. Ashton has been in and out of children’s’ hospitals his entire life to work on a number of issues, but he was ultimately diagnosed with melanoma. Now, he’s holding on as long as he can.

It’s a difficult thing for those around him to grasp. The pain is so unfair. What’s the reason? How is this just? Suffering in the innocent is impossible to rationalize.

But as much as those of us who meet him, know him and hear about him are sad for his pain and angry on behalf of him, Ashton himself shows no sign of anguish. The one person who has to feel the pain doesn’t seem all that bothered by it.

He’s just sitting at the table happily drinking a Coke at the game and blushing as he’s asked about the cheerleaders.

“You’d never know anything was wrong,” his mom said watching him. “He’s so happy. Like a normal kid.”

But Ashton isn’t a normal kid. He’s far greater than that. In a stadium surrounded by 60,000 people and on a field with 200 football players, Ashton is the strongest among us. Ashton is brave, beautiful and wonderfully alive as he waits for kickoff. In this moment, he is happy, and that’s all that matters right now.

He had something to give him joy in an otherwise difficult life, while his parents have something to hold on to. That MSU won is of little consequence, though Ashton must be happy to see his Bulldogs come out on top in his first game.

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Size and strength highlight MSU’s new-look receivers

For as long as most can remember, Mississippi State has had a strong, physical running game. Now, it seems the wide receivers have caught up to their friends in the backfield and are every bit as big, tough and imposing.

WGROXZTSCFFGVZC.20140831032036Slot man Jameon Lewis is the star of the pass catchers, the 5’9” senior who started the season as the SEC’s leading returning receiver. But around him, a garden of tall, strong and fast receivers has sprouted up, a full complement of tools to be used by Dan Mullen and receivers coach Billy Gonzales.

Last week in the season-opener against Southern Miss, for instance, it wasn’t Lewis who led the way. Instead, it was sophomores De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross, who combined for four touchdowns, 12 feet, seven inches, 420 pounds and a couple handfuls of broken tackles.

The receiving corps looks far different than it ever has under Mullen.

“We’ve got a great bunch of receivers,” second-year linebacker Dez Harris said when sharing what he sees in practice. “I really feel like we’ve got a lot of playmakers out on the field. A lot of people who can really make plays, get open and potentially put the ball in the endzone.”

That last part is the key, of course. And last Saturday, five of MSU’s six offensive touchdowns came through the air.

Add in senior Robert Johnson, sophomore Fred Brown, freshman B.J. Hammond, junior Joe Morrow and even pass-catching tight end Malcolm Johnson and MSU has more receivers over six feet than Mullen’s first four years combined.

FOQKBDFAGSPGJRG.20140831035115The problem if you’re an opposing defense is easy to spot and difficult to answer: who do you cover and how? What happens if you let Lewis loose in single coverage? Can you afford to stack the line against MSU’s stout rush attack and take a chance at giving up a big play down the field?

The principle of the spread, Mullen will tell you, is to get mismatches. But even simpler than that is what is quick becoming a strength for State – give opposing defenses too much to worry about.

Sophomore cornerback Tolando Cleveland has seen the progress of the receivers himself, and he’s been particularly impressed with the improvements Wilson and Ross have made between their true freshman and sophomore years.

“They’ve gotten a lot better from when they came in,” Cleveland said. “They’ve gotten a lot stronger. You see it a lot, you see them getting better on the field.”

On Ross, Cleveland said the big receiver from Texas is a difficult matchup for anyone in practice.

“I wouldn’t play too much man on him,” Cleveland said, “because he’s a shifty guy. He can move, he’s fast, he’s strong. He’s just all-around. You’ve gotta know that about the guy.”

And Ross isn’t even a starter.

But Wilson is in the stating lineup, the surprise star of last year’s freshman class.

“I see a lot of improvement from him from last year to this year in being a wide receiver on every down, not just a play maker,” Mullen said of Wilson. “I know he’s got good size and decent speed, and he’s got great ball skills, but understanding the fundamentals and becoming an all-around player. I think our receivers as a whole are much better, and he’s one of those even as a young player that’s really bought in to what we’re doing. I’ve seen significant improvement on the practice field, and it’s good to see that start translating into the games as well.”

VZAFXFDJODUEOMJ.20140831031744One noticeable difference, especially in the young receivers, has been added muscle to go along with their already towering statures. Wilson and Ross both appear more filled out, something they credit to new strength coach Rick Court pushing them in the offseason.

The result, they say, is what everyone saw last week: broken tackles turning long catches into long touchdowns.

“Coach G stresses that a lot about one man not tackling us,” Ross said. “We take a lot of pride in that. When people try to bring us down, we just keep fighting through it.”

In at least a few instances Saturday, even two men weren’t enough to bring them down.

MSU isn’t likely to become a pass-first offense, and the receivers will tell anyone who listens that the most important job they have is blocking downfield. But with the variety and complement of pass catchers the Bulldogs now have, Mullen will get to open up his offense in a way he hasn’t before.

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Live blog: Dan Mullen press conference, UAB week

At 12:30 today, Dan Mullen will meet with the media for his weekly press conference. Mississippi State beat Southern Miss last weekend 49-0 and will face UAB on Saturday in Davis Wade Stadium.

We’ll have live updates here from Mullen when his press conference begins. Until then, enjoy the debut episode of This Is Our Plate in the video at the bottom of the page.

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Mullen is here, opens by saying all in the program are praying for Jameon Lewis and the loss of his little brother.

Looking at last week, Mullen says he was “pleased,” but thought “there were a lot of things we could do better.”

Said there are errors and little things you sometimes see in game one that he didn’t see, which makes him happy.

Mullen says UAB “Looks very different on film from last year,” so watching tape from last season doesn’t help. Mentions the Blazers had two running backs go over 200 yards against Troy last week and expects UAB to try and be physical and pound the ball.

Defensively, he said UAB is very multiple and tries to confuse offenses with a lot of different looks.

Talking about defensive end Preston Smith, Mullen says the senior had a great offseason, “played consistently well” on Saturday and understands what it takes if he wants to have a future in the NFL.

Adds that Smith’s overall understanding of the game is huge. Said he got the interception last week because he read the screen USM was trying to run, held back and found himself in the right position.

Talking now about the offense, Mullen says “I thought we did a pretty good job” of doing some of the up-tempo stuff. Says the depth he has on offense makes it a viable option.

Back to the defense, Mullen says the unit played well last week, but had a few too many missed tackles and needs to run to the football better.

Asked if Dak Prescott didn’t run much by design, Mullen mentions that Dak only played, basically, one half, plus MSU got up early. Said there were only two quarterback runs called during the game.

“Our running backs had some good runs, and if they’re running well, I’d rather feed them than Dak.”

Mullen on sophomore receiver De’Runnya Wilson: “I see a lot of improvement from last year to this year in being a receiver … I’ve seen significant improvement on the practice field and it’s good to see that translate into the game.”

More on UAB: “I see an improved complete football program coming into this Saturday … They run the ball very, very well and that helps you on defense … I saw a very aggressive defense, guys making plays, in position, making tackles. They give a lot of looks to confuse you. This is a very different team from last year.”

On placekicking, Mullen says it’s hard to evaluate. On the one field goal, “he had no chance based off the snap.” Happy that all seven extra points were made. Added that both Evan Sobiesk and Westin Graves were 4-of-5 in practice yesterday.

More on Jameon Lewis: “He got back today, we’ll see how he does … he knows the offense, he knows that stuff, so I don’t worry about missed time on the football side of things. We just want to know how he is emotionally … and be there for him. A lot of times, football is a great escape. The field is your safe place in the world, it’s where guys feel comfortable.”

Lastly, Mullen confirms sophomore running back Ashton Shumpert was only on a one-game suspension. Sounds like he’ll be back this week.

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