Cowbell ringing machines created by MSU engineering students

“Clang, clang.”

“Who’s there?”

I’m a writer and I cover sports because math and science are completely over my head. In spite of (or maybe because of) those facts, I was asked to serve as one of the judges for Mississippi State’s Bagley College of Engineering Cowbell Challenge. This competition wasn’t about making a great cowbell, but making a great cowbell ring. Without hands.

A project best left to the minds of student engineers who had to accomplish the required task of creating a machine that can “ring a standard size cowbell [10” or 11”] using a 12-volt car battery or any other battery smaller in size and voltage automatically and continuously for at least 15 seconds.”

The judging was done based on that criteria, as well as creativity, use of space (must fit inside but take up most of a 3x3x3 area) and aesthetics. Joining me as an athletic representative in the judging group was MSU softball coach Vann Stuedeman, who provided moral support when it sounded like the engineers were speaking in tongues as they explained their machines and processes.

I’ve got pictures and explanations below, and there’s a video of a few of the six contraptions you can see here, courtesy of new media relations superstar Andrew Piper.

Apparatus No. 1 was the overall winner, though there were no losers in my book. Especially not when I’ve been made to feel sophomoric by, well, sophomores. I regret I am unable to provide better descriptions of how these things were built, but the most complicated thing my mind can break down is a 3-4 vs 4-3 defense.

Anyway, here are the devices in the order in which they were demonstrated, all designed and built by students from the various engineering departments on campus.

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Team 1

Students: Neil Pierce; Timothy Wilson; Kristian Harvey

Words I Heard: Uses a 12-volt drill motor. Has a variable resistor to control voltage, meaning you can change cowbell speed. Has light-up LED lights in Bully’s eyes. Sealed bearing keeps it together. Braces on back.

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Team 2

Students: Hagan Walker; Lee Sargent

Words I Heard: Runs off an iPhone app they created (ringing started from phone). Activated by Wi-Fi. Uses a motor from an air compressor. Has a train and track in honor of the train tracks which used to run through campus where The Junction is now.

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Team 3

Students: Bradley Michael; Marco Izqueirdo

Words I Heard: Jigsaw motor. Car battery. Plays the fight song during ringing. Can charge an iPhone. Inner workings inside the box beneath the field. Dak Prescott on the other video board. “It cut into our ramen budget.”

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Team 4

Students: Andrew Bode; Christopher Collins

Words I Heard: Uses a window motor from a 1999 GM car. Crank-rocker linkage. “Respect the Bell” is the off position. Has cupholders. The Cowbell Ringer 3000. “If you’re trying to Hail State, this will help you do it.”

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Team 5

Students: Nicholas Willis; Meaghan Smith; Benjamin Eisman

Words I Heard: 8 rpm wormgear motor. Uses a wheel design with 16 teeth. Little over two rings per second. Built with the traditional style of ringing in mind. Runs off AA batteries.

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Team 6

Students: Zachary Collins; Nick Petras

Words I Heard: Cowbell Ringer 3001 (take that, Cowbell Ringer 3000). Design inspired by work in Robotics Club. 8-volt battery used on drones. Window battery from truck window. “You need the back and forth to get the ding and ring.”

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‘New and improved’ MSU basketball debuted Thursday night in exhibition win

In exhibition play, Thursday night was the early screening of the newest sequel of Mississippi State basketball. And even without two of its biggest stars in point guard I.J. Ready and attacking guard Craig Sword, this was one of those instances where the sequel is actually better than original.

In this case, that’s because this version is what the original was supposed to be. I suppose you could say Rick Ray has a bigger budget this time around. That much is clear just seeing his team take the court.

For the first time since he arrived, he’s actually been able to build a full roster. The last two years, if he had three players on the bench it was crippling. Now, it’s hardly noticeable as he’s got an entire team of long, athletic and skilled players.

The key in all this is that Ray, for the first time, is actually going to be able to play the kind of basketball he wants.

BWKVRVXZIBTSFVC.20141107030009Full-court pressing defense, leading to transition offense. Motion offense when situations allow. It’s a pretty straightforward plan: hustle. And he’s finally got enough bodies (and length) for that to be effective for an entire game.

Delta State head coach Jim Boone learned as much when his team fell to the Bulldogs 72-51 Thursday night (and took until there were less than three minutes left in the first half to break double-digits).

The team he played that night was completely different from the one he studied on tape all offseason. Especially on defense.

“Long, athletic, quick. Really gave us problems running our offense,” Boone said. “Very good defensive effort I thought. That’s the biggest difference from what I saw last year.”

Said junior guard Fred Thomas, “That’s what we harp on every day in practice. Defense, defense, defense.”

Much of that had to do with MSU’s size, too. Ray’s roster went from only having a couple people checking in at 6’7” or taller, to now an entire team averaging about that height, with nearly half of them coming in on the over side.

“It’s really refreshing to start the game and you actually have some length,” Ray said, “but more importantly, when you sub, you have some length.”

The quick infusion of talent was obvious Thursday, as some newcomers made strong first impressions.

True freshman guard Demetrius Houston, a 6’7” player himself, showed why Ray said in recent weeks that he might be the most athletic player on the team. His ability to get to the rim matches (and could eventually surpass) that of the junior Sword, and he shot surprisingly well on Thursday, too, scoring 12 points and hitting a perfect 2-for-2 from the three-point line.

Junior swingman Travis Daniels, while he seemed a bit nervous in his first game in well over a year, showed the advertised size and skill, a 6’8” guard comfortable both bringing the ball up the court and taking on big men in the post.

Forward Fallou Ndoye (11 points, four rebounds, three blocks) looked like the perfect compliment to Gavin Ware in the post.

And oh yeah, Gavin Ware. Or, as he said it, the New and Improved Gavin Ware.

Looking slimmer and more energized, Ware racked up 19 points in as many minutes, hitting nine of his 13 shots and dominating the game.

“I’m more in shape, more fit, more able to help my team be successful in the long run,” he said. “I think this is the new and improved Gavin Ware.”

One of the most important things for his success, both Ware and Ray said, is having players around him to take the pressure off of MSU’s talented man in the post. Having other actual bodies in the paint, having guards who can drive, shoot or pass, in short, having other threats on the floor, makes a world of difference for the team, especially Ware.

“He’s got moves,” Ray said, “legitimate post moves. When you give him time and space to make post moves, he’s pretty effective.”

It helps too, Ray said, that Ware has developed a nice a mid-range shot, being able to hit 15-17 footers if given space.

“He’s really good,” Boone said. “I told him after the game, I love the way he plays. He’s very physical, but he’s got a really soft touch around the bucket.”

The schedule will certainly get more difficult as the season goes along, but a team as young as MSU will only get better, especially when it gets two of its big-time starters back.

But even without those guys, Ray’s got them feeling good.

“Coming back on the floor, smelling the hotdogs and popcorn, you just felt like it was game time and we brought it,” Ware said.

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How, why and where Josh Robinson got the nickname ‘Bowling Ball’

Picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it is a man in alliance with truth and God. The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

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Emerson’s delivery is a bit more involved and serious sounding, but what he says makes sense: when we come across things in need of explanation, we compare them to things we already know.

In his world, the world of Nature, language and imagery are derived from those things which he sees around him. The same happens in sports. To explain things which are difficult to explain, we make comparisons.

VKVYHRHTTFCEPLO.20140906202212Once the proper imagery is found, the result is often nicknames for the people playing those sports. The bald-headed and muscular-yet-rounded linebacker Christian Holmes at Mississippi State is called Turtle. It’s even better when he puts pads on and his bare head sticks out of the shell. Fellow MSU linebacker Matt Wells is one of the fastest members of State’s defense. He’s called Cheetah.

And now, in a newer world with more than Nature to draw from, it’s not just plants and animals we use for comparison. Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson is called Megatron for his Transformer-like physique and skill. Retired defensive lineman William Perry was called The Refrigerator, much more to do with his great size than an ability to preserve foods.

Of course, not all nicknames are so clever.

“We had a kid named Jogger,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said of his college years. “He used to jog from drill to drill. I still talk to Jogger.”

For athletes, though, that’s where those nicknames often come from – practice.

“There’s a camaraderie to it,” Mullen said. “I think they just kind of come from something funny that happens and they throw it out there.”

So, what of MSU’s junior running back Josh Robinson, widely called Bowling Ball?

UHSBBHDUUIWOXJP.20141102032530The imagery is obvious. A short, round and strong runner, Robinson knocks down defenders like pins, rolling down the field like a ball down a lane tossed out of the backfield. Quarterback Dak Prescott isn’t just handing a ball off. He might as well be winding up for a strike and hurling Robinson himself into the fray.

But even Robinson isn’t sure where the nickname came from.

“I think you gave me that nickname,” he told me after MSU’s win over LSU.

Nope. Wasn’t me. Though I’d be happy to take credit.

We can at least find the original Human Bowling Ball, one of the first men in football to garner such a nickname, long before Megatrons and Refrigerators were running around.

The second-to-last pick of the 1971 NFL Draft, Don Nottingham was a small-ish rookie fullback who Baltimore Colts coaches and players were taken surprise by.

As an old Baltimore Sun article put it, “The Colts, then reigning Super Bowl champs, didn’t know what to make of the odd-shaped rookie from Kent State. Size aside, Nottingham stood out in training camp for his high-pitched voice, feet as wide as snowshoes and a fearsome love of contact.”

Standing at 5’9” and 220 pounds, Nottingham probably looked similar to Robinson, who currently rounds out at 5’9” and 215 pounds.

Don Nottingham. Courtesy: Baltimore Sun

Don Nottingham. Courtesy: Baltimore Sun

In practice one day, as the Sun tells it, Colts linebacker Ray May grew tired of trying to tackle the low-running Nottingham and accidentally awarded the nickname in a frustrated yell as he got up from being flattened for the third play in a row.

“You can’t get lower than no damn bowling ball!”

And there it was. Nottingham has been known as nothing else since then. Teammates, coaches, fans, family and even broadcasters referred to him as Bowling Ball the rest of his career.

As it turns out, Robinson got the same nickname in precisely the same way exactly 40 years later.

Robinson’s first year at MSU was 2011, and it was then that defensive players in practice had the same reaction.

One of State’s linebackers retreated to the sidelines after a play and offered a refrain similar to May’s so many years before.

“It’s like trying to tackle a bowling ball,” the beat-up linebacker complained.

Who that linebacker was is now forgotten, but Kyle Niblett on MSU’s media relations team was there to hear it, even if he’s not sure who exactly said it.

AJHRPKFMLJENSLR.20140831031523Three years later, as Robinson rolled through defenders, Niblett saw someone on Twitter say he looked like a bowling ball on the field. Niblett tweeted similarly and the name started to stick.

By week four, it had grown so much that Robinson was there in the post-game fracas at LSU explaining his 197-yard performance the same way.

“Why do you think they call me the Human Bowling Ball?”

The answer, as Emerson explained it, is pretty simple. Robinson looks like a bowling ball out there.

“He’ll hit anything standing and knock it down,” former Colts coach Don Shula said.

He was talking about Nottingham, but he could just as easily have been describing Robinson decades in advance.

Either way, let’s just say he was talking about Bowling Ball.

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Palmeiro, Clark and 1985 CWS team return to MSU, reminisce on past and present success

Rafael Palmeiro remembers his first trip to Mississippi State clearly.

“I came up here in the spring of ’82,” Palmeiro said, standing in the ballroom of the Palmeiro Center on MSU’s campus. “They were playing Ole Miss that weekend and there were 8,000 people for a night game and they had the Left Field Lounge going and people cooking and drinking and partying – I’d never seen anything like it. Miami had just won a national championship. I had just been to Miami on a recruiting trip and it was night and day. It’s like the big leagues vs. the minor leagues.”

10013524_968281959853641_3641997377714702842_nPalmeiro was one of many big leaguers on campus last weekend as MSU’s baseball program hosted an alumni party, and it was his 1985 College World Series team who was the center of attention, 30 players, staff and assistants back in town, the largest reunion of that group since they left Omaha in June of 1985.

“I think it was really a special moment for them,” current head coach John Cohen said, a high schooler in Alabama at the time of that run. “It was wonderful to have Coach Polk and that whole ’85 team come back. Really a team that, in my opinion, just changed the whole ballgame in terms of college baseball and the attention it’s gotten.”

Said Palmeiro, “It brings back memories … Seeing Will Clark here and Bobby Thigpen, guys that had long careers. It’s special.”

What type of memories, Palmeiro was asked? The answer was easy for one of the heroes of the No. 1 team in the country.

“Just winning,” he said. “Winning a lot. Dominating the league. Getting to the World Series and coming up short a little bit.”

Therein lies the story of that team and the duality of its tale. They were so, so good. One of the most talented teams in the history of college baseball. And they were so, so close, but came up just short. A great team who had a great deal of success, but couldn’t quite get the one thing they wanted: a National Championship. Seemingly the one thing MSU’s historic program doesn’t yet have.

Yet being the key word, Palmeiro said. He thinks it’s coming.

Though it’s not the first time he’s thought that. And not just in 1985, either. Those Bulldog teams he was on were stacked in 1983 and 1984, too.

“In fact, I think the ’84 team was probably better than the ’85 team,” Palmeiro said.

16778_968669096481594_1497155451714480557_nBut it’s that ’85 group who gets remembered so fondly. Legendary head coach Ron Polk. Thunder and Lightning Palmeiro and Clark. Thigpen, Jeff Brantley, and a long list of outstanding college players, regardless of professional futures.

The fact that they were SEC Champions is a borderline footnote to the essay they wrote all season.

They started the season No. 1 and, despite the fact that teams like Florida State and Miami started playing and winning games before MSU could even begin its schedule, the Bulldogs stayed at the top of the rankings without even doing anything.

A team with that much respect, talent and expectation surely made MSU a club other teams wanted to take down.

“Target?” Palmeiro asked as he shot a quizzical look at the reporter asking him Friday night about playing with said target on their backs. “We went out and kicked everybody’s ass. Target…”

Though that team did have some struggles early on, he conceded. They took a trip to play Hawaii in Hawaii early on and lost their last game of the trip (“I think it was the last game,” Palmeiro says), then returned and lost three-straight to Auburn and got beat by Ole Miss in Jackson.

It was a horrid skid for such a talented crew.

“We never had meetings,” Palmeiro said, “But I remember Coach Polk having a team meeting and said, ‘Hey, put all that behind us and start over again.’ And we ran the table, just about.”

Just about. But not quite.

It took almost 30 years for another State team to get closer than those ’85 Diamond Dawgs. Fittingly, many members of that 2013 College World Series squad were under the same roof as their 1985 predecessors Friday night.

It’s a weird feeling for those guys, as some expressed. Somewhere in your mind you know how great MSU’s baseball tradition is and the legends who have played at Dudy-Noble Field. It certainly was part of the reason they chose State, most say. But when you’re so immersed, when you spend every day at that same field and see the trophies week in and week out in the Hall of Champions, you can forget. Or at least, it’s not quite as remarkable for a time.

But it’s one thing to see the name Palmeiro on the wall when practicing in the facility he paid for. It’s quite another to see the actual Rafael Palmeiro standing inside of it.

10730916_968280663187104_5309090129451476878_nPitchers and hitters, infielders and outfielders who took that same trip to Omaha, and made it even farther, never thought of themselves as being on the same level of the men they were now on an even plane with. But there they were, all in their jackets, chatting as alumni of the same program.

They spent their childhoods watching those former Bulldogs in the pros. What’s funny, though, is that those former Bulldogs then spent their retired lives watching their old college team and cheering them on. Especially when they made it Omaha in 2013.

“We followed it. We followed it all the way through,” Palmeiro said. “It was surprising because, I think they would tell you, as well, that they didn’t have their best team, but they put it together. They got hot at the right time and had all the right pieces. Obviously, John pulled all the right strings. Once they got to that championship series, I thought they were going to win.”

It was an incredible stretch for that club. If 1985 was The Team, 2013 was The Run. Both, sadly, fell just short.

Back on campus, Palmeiro saw a program he thinks has everything. Facilities, he said. Those are there. The best stadium in the country – they’ve already got it and they’re about it to make it better, he told a small group of reporters. A smart coach who recruits well? That, too, Palmeiro confirmed.

All-Americans, first-round picks, SEC Championships, attendance records and impressive academic performances. MSU has it all.

Almost.

“The thing we don’t have yet is that National Championship,” Palmeiro said as he finished his chat. “But I think it’s coming. It’s just a matter of time.”

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Live-blog: Dan Mullen press conference, Homecoming week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will meet with the media for his weekly press conference. Following a 17-10 win over Arkansas, No. 1 Mississippi State hosts UT-Martin for Homecoming this weekend with kickoff set for 3 p.m. on the SEC Network.

Live updates to follow. In the meantime, here’s this week’s episode of This Is Our Plate, visiting Mugshots Bar and Grill in Starkville.

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Alright, Mullen is here. Time to get underway.

“We’ve had to win games a lot of different ways,” Mullen says in reference to the Arkansas game. “We’ve won some high-scoring games, now we’ve won a low-scoring game.”

Said there’s been come-from-behind wins, wins when they maintained a lead, wins they ran and wins when the threw.

“Win however you can. Winning is the most important thing.”

On UT-Martin, Mullen says he knows the coach well. Believes they run an “unorthodox” defense and an up-tempo offense. Mullen calls UTM coming to Starkville, “A big opportunity for them, when you’re a smaller school … They’ll come in with a big chip on their shoulder.”

Interesting. Mullen says at halftime of the Arkansas game he talked to the team and said, “What a great opportunity we have here trailing at halftime.”

Mullen also says they talked in their team meeting on Sunday about turnovers. MSU is still on the plus-side for the season, but the last few games have been problematic. Mullen said it’s extremely important they fix it.

On the two interceptions, Mullen says they’re “not really on Dak” but does call them poor reads. Also not happy with the “mental” mistake of the punt return fumble.

“When you’re the hunted, not the hunter, people are gonna throw the kitchen sink at you,” Mullen says.

He adds that people will do things against you they haven’t done on film, which is what defensive players said Arkansas did Saturday. They had to adjust mid-game.

On the decision to play true freshman linebacker JT Gray, Mullen said he talked with him and his family first. Gray was all for it and got tackles on three of his four plays Saturday. Mullen very impressed, named him the in-house special teams player of the week.

Asked about sophomore quarterback Damian Williams, Mullen said the plan for this week isn’t necessarily the same as the rest of the non-conference games. They want to get guys experience early in the season, don’t plan for it quite as much late in the season.

On advance scouting, Mullen says they have people in the program who are always working ahead on future opponents, but says coaches themselves don’t do it.

“Our focus is completely on beating UT-Martin this week,” Mullen says.

Important thing is to have stuff ready on Sundays after games when they need it.

MSU’s defense changed up its rotation a bit this week, which Mullen says seemed to work well, especially considering how few points were given up. Mullen said he’d rather have not given up so many yards, but they held strong when it mattered.

On special teams, Mullen said punter Devon Bell was a key to MSU winning Saturday. Once on a 50-yard punt from MSU’s end zone, then again when “he used all of his 13-inch vertical” to grab a high snap and get the punt off late in the game.

On Dylan Favre, the former MSU QB now playing for UTM, “He’s a playmaker. He’s a gamer and can make things happen on the field. You put him on the field and exciting things happen. Some good, some bad.”

 

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On weirdness, Will Redmond and continued winning for MSU against Arkansas

It was kind of a weird game.

Very weird, really.

RVUTUCVJSJSBPQI.20141102033732On a night when Mississippi State’s quarterback Dak Prescott set a personal high (and a seven-year high for the school) in passing yards with 331, on a night when the star running back Josh Robinson tallied 174 total yards and a touchdown, and on a night when MSU was clicking at a rate of 7.4 yards per play (a 459 yard total on the game), the Bulldogs still only scored 17 points.

And on a night when Arkansas had two of the SEC’s top six rushers held under 100 yards each (with the entire team only totaling 128), on a night when that vaunted rushing attack was stopped short on fourth and goal and on a night when Arkansas completed exactly 50 percent of its passes for zero touchdowns and one interception, the Razorbacks were still in the game with 20 seconds left.

17-10, home team. Normal score, weird game.

MSU played great for the majority of it, though. On about 50 of the 62 offensive plays, they were fine. On nearly all of the 82 (quite the disparity) defensive plays, they did what they were supposed to, holding the Razorbacks largely in check. Heck, MSU scored three points more and allowed three points less than ‘Bama did against the Hogs, but it probably shouldn’t have been anywhere near that close were not it for those other plays.

Eight total penalties in the game, most of them on offense and many of them drive-stalling or outright stopping. Three turnovers, including one when it looked like MSU was about to score and another on a punt return, never even giving MSU a chance at points while Arkansas took advantage of the short field for their only touchdown of the night. Add in a failed fourth-and-short conversion attempt in Razorback territory, too.

Said Dan Mullen, “that’s just sloppy play. Those are all mental penalties. Those are all certainly avoidable,” but, he added with a frustrated laugh, “Besides that, it was a pretty well-played game!”

IHSGERRXFFQMWHL.20141102032530He’s right, though. Take away an interception and the punt return fumble, and that’s a possible 21-point swing. Pretend that Prescott was able to run for a yard on fourth down, which he nearly always is, (“I liked the play call at the time,” Mullen said) and the gap grows larger. That’s not how football works, obviously, and it’s a much easier lesson to learn when you win, but that’s just part of the weird game.

Were it not for the two interceptions, this would have been a career day for Prescott as he broke the passing record and tied himself for the all-time lead in touchdowns responsible for at MSU. But the interceptions can’t be ignored. He didn’t try to and neither did Mullen.

“We’re not gonna shy away from anything,” he said. “We’re gonna come right back and expect him to make plays.”

And Prescott did just that, leading the 75-yard go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter.

There were, however, unblemished good things to happen. While Arkansas was still in contention with 30 seconds left, it was the 15-second mark when a hero stepped up for MSU, or a villain took down the Hogs, depending who you cheer for.

VVNJMMLCPRRHJTC.20141102015851Might be fitting that he can be looked at either way, considering what Will Redmond has been through.

The long and athletic cornerback is a little over midway through his junior season at MSU, having enrolled as a freshman, but he’s only now played in sixteen games after sitting out the first 18 at the command of the NCAA for violations relating to his recruitment in high school. It took Redmond some time to get acclimated after such a long time not playing football, but he’s slowly becoming a quiet star on a Mississippi State defense full of studs.

“Hands down, he’s our best corner,” Robinson said Saturday night, though he might have to answer to teammates (and corners) Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun for that one.

But after Redmond saved the day, who’s to argue? He’s made play-after-play and tackle-after-tackle since State began SEC play, and on Saturday night he made the biggest one yet.

Arkansas had first-and-10 at MSU’s 16-yard line, trailing 17-10 with more seconds left than yards to gain to tie it up. Quarterback Brandon Allen took the snap for a quick three-step drop and sent the ball flying to the endzone, where 6’3” senior receiver Demetrius Wilson was waiting to make the game-tying catch.

As he stretched out his hands to receive the ball, it was another pair of gloved hands that popped up a foot in front of his and snagged it out of the air. Will Redmond fell to the ground with the game-winning interception in his arms.

“Will’s playing very well,” Mullen said. “I think he plays aggressive. He does a good job. Will’s a smart and very, very intelligent young man. He really studies the game and wants to be a great player. Works hard, has a good work ethic. You see that out there on the field that his number is called and he makes the play.”

Many in Redmond’s position would not have worked so hard. Plenty before him, with much less to fight against, just quit. But he stuck it out, and now he here is, one of the budding stars on the No. 1 team in the country. And not to say it’s due to him, but Redmond has played in 16 games now, and MSU has won the last 11 in a row.

NYZPBDGFTTJJWZU.20141102032530That’s how State’s defense works, though. It’s someone different every week. Every drive, even. It’s the whole point of the 1-A and 1-B defense, Mullen says. Redmond isn’t technically a starter, but he had the experience all season to draw from when he made the game-saving play.

It was the second time in three appearances Geoff Collins’ defense held the Arkansas offense scoreless in the redzone, and it was the most important such occurrence.

That’s why MSU has the best redzone defense in the country. It’s also part of why, for now at least, MSU is the No. 1 team in the country.

Weird, maybe, but certainly good for Mississippi State.

“A win is a win, man,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said afterward. “You can say barely or ugly, but a win is a win.”

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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.”

 

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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.”

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