Sunday ThingamaBob: Mullen unhappy again, defense shines and offense struggles

For the second week in a row, Dan Mullen was not happy with his team’s performance.

And for the second week in a row, Dan Mullen emerged undefeated and nationally ranked.

Sure, on the surface it doesn’t make sense. But this isn’t coachspeak. After beating South Alabama 30-10, there was plenty to be upset about for Mullen and Mississippi State, outside of the score, anyway.

As always, we’ve got superb coverage of the game on HailState.com with the game story (check out the look on Tyler Russell’s face in that picture), full stats from the matchup and a nifty photo gallery of Saturday night’s contest. Scroll down to the bottom where we’ve got some post-game video interviews for you, as well.

I feel like I’m repeating myself when I type out my reaction to the game, and honestly, I could copy and paste the opening thoughts from last week’s ThingamaBob and no one would notice.

For that reason, I’ll let Mullen say it for me.

“We still haven’t played our complete game yet,” Mullen said.

Same thing we said last week, same thing we say today.

The question is, can MSU actually get that full-team performance, and do so on a regular basis? It seems like every starter has had at least one good-to-great game, and each unit has done the same. But the Bulldogs just haven’t had everyone do it at the same time.

If Mullen wants to knock off a giant (LSU or Alabama), he’ll have to get all 33 (offense, defense and special teams) hitting on all cylinders. If that happens, MSU has a chance to beat anyone it plays. If not? Talented and unforgiving SEC foes will make the Dawgs pay.

But despite looking less-than-impressive against non-BCS opponents for two consecutive weeks, the Bulldogs are climbing in the polls, up to 19 in the USA Today Top 25 and sitting at 21 in the AP Top 25. MSU was No. 23 in both polls last week.

After all, they’re 4-0 with an SEC West victory under their belt.

The good news is MSU has two weeks to get everything right, before finishing the season with a stretch of seven SEC games in eight weeks, starting at Kentucky in their next contest.

Now, some observations and notes from MSU’s 30-10 win over South Alabama.

  • When Mullen said they didn’t play a complete game, it was in reference not necessarily to the struggling offense, but to the finally-fantastic special teams. Freshman kicker Devon Bell, who started the season rocky, nailed three perfectly-kicked field goals, twice from 42 yards out and once from 31. We knew he had the talent and the big leg, we just hadn’t seen it click for him in a game. Now, we have, and it’s a big deal with the SEC slate approaching.
  • Staying on the “third side” of the ball, MSU had some success in the return game finally, too. Sophomore receiver Jameon Lewis returned two kickoffs, one for 49 yards and another for 41, while Johnthan Banks finally found some room in the punt return game, including a 20-yarder.
  • I will say this as long as I must until he gets some credit: Baker Swedenburg is an incredibly under-appreciated punter. Dude is money every time. He never shanks it, always has good hang-time and places balls perfectly. He averaged 47 yards on his four punts Saturday, including one which went for 53 yards.
  • On offense, however, the report is significantly less sunny, particularly with Tyler Russell. Mullen said Russell “flat out missed some throws” and said on a more than one occasion in his press conference he was displeased with the play of his QB, saying he had an off day. Russell was 13-of-27 for 171 yards with one interception and zero touchdowns. Last week, his numbers suffered because of dropped balls. This time, as Mullen said, Russell just wasn’t hitting his receivers consistently, including several under-thrown passes. As long as it’s an aberration and not a trend, MSU’s passing game should be fine. But Russell and his receivers need to get some chemistry going.
  • Junior running back LaDarius Perkins finished with a respectable stat-line, but he struggled a bit, as well. He had 69 yards and one touchdown, but if you take out his 44-yard scoring run, LDP had a pedestrian 25 yards on 10 carries. Like Russell, you have to think this game is not the norm for Perkins, as he was averaging 7.0 yards per carry entering the weekend.
  • For both Russell and Perkins, though, a certain portion of the blame falls on those in front of them. Mississippi State’s offensive line had performed well against Troy, but the Jaguar defense line made the Bulldogs look silly Saturday. Russell was getting hit all day – which is going to be a problem if it continues – and Perkins, fast as he may be, had almost nowhere to run every time he got the ball. The unit was again without right guard Tobias Smith, who played the first two games and is taking a three-week rest to make sure his knee stays healthy and feels good.
  • Also, where has Marcus Green been? After three touchdowns in two games for the senior tight end, we haven’t heard his name called the last two weeks. He’s been on the field, but it may be he was needed to help block as MSU’s line struggled.
  • It wasn’t all bad on offense, though. It was nice to see senior Brandon Heavens get involved after moving to the outside. He was MSU’s leading receiver with 55 yards on three catches and showed off his jets once or twice.
  • It had to be very encouraging for State fans to see Dak Prescott do well, too. He only passed twice, but one of them was a 29-yard beauty, perfectly-placed for Heavens as the Dawgs advanced toward the endzone. I also liked seeing him run the option with sophomore running back Nick Griffin. It only gained two yards, but that’s a play with a lot of potential, very Chris Relf-like in what MSU can do with Prescott on the run.
  • Defensively, the review is much more positive. On the surface, MSU giving up 224 yards passing doesn’t look great. But looking closer, Banks and the gang had held the Jaguars to 117 yards through the air through three quarters, when the score was 27-3. Nearly half of USA’s passing yards came in the fourth quarter, mostly against backups.
  • Speaking of the secondary, I know defensive coordinator Chris Wilson had to be thrilled to see safety Nickoe Whitley so active. He had six tackles and an interception, including some big-time hits. Mullen said Whitley is just now starting to get comfortable on the field again after tearing his Achilles last year, which explains why he was quiet in the first three games.
  • And how ‘bout Banks’ interception? My word, that was a thing of beauty. The receiver had position, blocking Banks behind him with his body, so what happens? Banks jumps in the air, reaches over the shoulder of the receiver, and with one hand, scoops the ball out of the poor guy’s hands somewhere around his stomach, secures it, returns to the ground and takes it back nearly half the length of the field. Just awesome.
  • Like Whitley, another star had been somewhat quiet early in the season, but senior defensive tackle Josh Boyd shined on Saturday. It doesn’t show up in the box score, but Boyd was constantly putting pressure on the USA QBs, regularly blowing through the line, while also freeing things up for his teammates.
  • Speaking of, the same goes for junior end Denico Autry, who got in the backfield more Saturday than he has maybe all year.
  • It was also interesting to see senior Dewayne Cherrington get the start at tackle alongside Boyd, replacing Curtis Virges. Cherrington was a late signee last year after a transfer opened up some room, and he’s made the most of his opportunity. The big-bodied run-stuffer gets better every week.
  • The linebackers didn’t make a ton of big plays, though Deontae Skinner did have a bone-cracking tackle on the edge, but the unit quietly played very well. Freshman starting MLB Benardrick McKinney led the team with eight tackles, while Skinner was tied for third with five. In a somewhat-base defense, the linebackers did well.

In what has become a recurring theme, there was plenty to like and plenty to critique after MSU’s win. I’ve said it, Mullen has said it, and others probably will, too: if MSU can ever get the whole team clicking at the same time, watch out.

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