So, was that the biggest game of Dan Mullen’s career as a head coach yesterday? I’d say the convincing victory over Auburn was almost certainly the greatest (read: most important) one of his time at Mississippi State.
Beating Auburn was what we’d call a “signature win” for Mullen. Naturally, he’s had a few of those, including victories over Florida, Georgia and Michigan, plus the upset defeat of Ole Miss to end his first season as the Egg Bowl holder.
But, though Mullen says he doesn’t think about it, the win was his first in the SEC West against Alabama, Arkansas, LSU or Auburn. Generally speaking, the top four teams in Mullen’s division since he arrived. The toughest division in college football, to be certain, and one MSU had struggled in while having much success outside of its intimidating confines.
I’m reminded of Adam Sandler’s first foray into football with ‘The Waterboy.’ Bobby Boucher’s new team was riding the nation’s longest-ever losing streak, including their season-opener. In week two, the fictional SCLSU Mud Dogs got their first win of both the season and the last three years taking down Central Kentucky.
Afterwards, Coach Klein sat around a room with his players and told them, “Now that you finally won a game, you feel looser, like the pressure is off, and that will lead to a lot more victories.”
At the end of the season, Bobby Boucher showed up at halftime (a little late) and the Mud Dogs won the Bourbon Bowl.
It may be a bit of an extreme comparison, but it fits.
Of course, while many of outside the program say Mullen and the Bulldogs got the monkey off their back, Mullen disagrees. He said after the game he thinks the monkey only got heavier, if one was ever even there, because now there are heightened expectations for his team.
Whichever way you look at it, the importance of the win can’t be denied.
Alright, enough of that. We learned and observed plenty – both positive and negative – from MSU’s 28-10 win over the Tigers of Auburn, an outcome which could’ve been much worse. We’ll get to that in just a second.
Before that, you’ll wanna make sure you check out HailState.com for all-you-can-eat coverage of the game. We’ve got a full recap, full statistics of anything you can imagine, a supremely interesting notes and quotes package, plus a superbly done photo gallery.
Also, we’re tentatively calling this column-ish thing the Sunday ThingamaBob, a play on my name (Bob Carskadon, if you weren’t tracking) gratefully inspired by Brandon Marcello, who I’m sure you know from The Clarion-Ledger.
Now for my meaningless yet impassioned thoughts on MSU-Auburn.
- The biggest story line outside of the actual win itself pretty much has to be the stellar play of junior quarterback Tyler Russell. That was the game MSU fans have been waiting to see since the high school All-American signed with State back in 2009. His numbers were good, completing 20-of-29 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. But what stood out doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. Despite being on the run all day, Russell was only sacked once, moving well in the pocket and often throwing on the run. His first touchdown pass to Chad Bumphis was an absolute beauty. Russell was flushed out of the pocket, rolled right and, on the run, threw an absolute laser to Bumphis in the back corner of the end zone, a pass only his man would have a chance at, and Bumphis made a superb catch, as well. At the risk of sounding like Mel Kiper or Todd McShay, that was an NFL throw. And Russell had several more like it.
- Sticking on offense, how impressive were MSU’s running backs? All four of them averaged at least five yards per carry, and Nick Griffin, who had only had two rushes, got the longest run of the day on a 21-yard scamper.
- LaDarius Perkins seems to have answered the questions about his ability to be an every-down back with a resounding “Shut up and watch me.” His 83 yards on 14 carries were strong, but it was his touchdown run more than anything that proved what he can do. LDP bursted out of the backfield with his usual speed, but he got to the endzone on sheer will-power and strength. He broke at least three tackles, including a last-ditch effort to bring him down with a handful of his jersey, and he avoided several more would-be tacklers as he sprinted toward pay dirt.
- Behind Perkins, it seems pretty clear redshirt freshman Derrick Milton has established himself as the No. 2 running back. He gained 30 yards on six carries and was never brought down behind the line of scrimmage.
- Look at those last few notes and you can learn a bit about the offensive line. Tackles Blaine Clausell and Charles Siddoway struggled a bit – thought not horribly so – with Auburn’s speedy defensive ends, leading to Russell moving outside of the pocket pretty regularly. But on the interior, the Bulldogs are darn strong. Guards Gabe Jackson and Tobias Smith paired with center Dillon Day make MSU one of the strongest teams up the middle in the SEC, as evidenced by the big showing by the backs.
- With that in mind, you have to love how Mullen used freshman QB Dak Prescott. In short-yardage and goal-line situations, there won’t be many who can prevent the 6’2”, 235-pound Prescott from getting two yards up the middle.
- Oh, and how about Marcus Green? The sixth-year senior tight end now has three touchdowns on the season and, despite his early dropped pass, he has become one of Russell’s most reliable targets, particularly in the endzone.
- Last note on the offense: I’m curious when (or if?) we’ll see some deep passing. Russell tried to hit Bumphis deep once in the third quarter, and Bump was open, but Russell threw the pass with an Auburn defensive lineman hanging on his shoulder and the ball came up short. The downfield game is really the only part of MSU’s offense we haven’t seen much of.
- MSU’s defense: suffocating. Here’s a stat: Auburn QB Kiehl Frazier had negative two yards passing in the first half. Their entire offense only mustered 65 total yards. The final stat sheet doesn’t come close to reflecting how dominant Chris Wilson’s defense was, as the Tigers moved the ball more late in the game when MSU went into a prevent defense with the game mostly in-hand.
- Linebacker Matt Wells was the same place yesterday as he was last week: everywhere. Dude is a ball-hawk, incredibly athletic and extremely versatile. He and the rotation of others who guarded start tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen did a tremendous job, limiting him to only two catches and 12 yards.
- And Johnthan Banks? Looks every bit of the All-American he was picked to be in the pre-season. His two interceptions were impressive, and he only needs three more to MSU’s all-time leader in that department, but the way he shut down Auburn’s top receiver Emory Blake for the majority of the game was more impressive than anything. The other corner, Darius Slay, did a fine job as well, getting yet another interception late in the game. An odd stat: it was his first interception at MSU he dind’t return for a touchdown.
- Credit where it’s due: Corey Broomfield made significant improvement form week one to week two at safety. He was great in run support, finishing second on the team with seven stops, including two tackles for loss.
- It was late in the game, sure, but again the trio of true freshmen defensive linemen Quay Evans, Nick James and Ryan Brown were impressive. They may be going pretty much on pure talent right now, but the future of MSU’s line is bright with those three.
- All of that sunshine aside, there a few negatives, particularly on special teams. Devon Bell’s two missed field goals (one blocked) are troublesome. Mullen has been lacking dependability from his kickers, and that doesn’t seem to have changed. Presumably, Bell does well in practice, and I saw the freshman hit a 50-yarder and a 57-yarder back-to-back in pre-game warm-ups. In a double-digit win, field goals are over-looked. But if MSU finds itself in a one-possession game this season, it will need to know one of the kickers can go out and get three points for the good guys.
- While the defense didn’t give up a touchdown, Auburn’s lone six-pointer came against MSU’s special teams in the opening kickoff of the second half. MSU was 10th in the SEC last year in kickoff coverage and was one of only four teams to have single-digit touchbacks. Moving the kickoff up five yards certainly helps the touchback problem, but Mullen and MSU have to find a way to get special teams figured out. Again, it was a fine on Saturday, but kickoff returns and missed field goals are game-changers in tight SEC games, often the difference between exhilarating victory and agonizing defeat.
- Of course, so are turnovers, and MSU came out an impressive plus-four in the category Saturday.
- Oh, I tried one of the hot dogs. I thought it was pretty good. It was a hot dog.