Great books have multiple story lines, switching from character-to-character and circumstance-to-circumstance seamlessly through the various chapters, locales and times.
Like many of the best reads, Mississippi State’s win over Tennessee Saturday night had enough intrigue, depth and points of conflict to keep even the most ravenous of readers entertained and suspensed.
The problem is, novelists have anywhere from 300 to 1,000 pages to sift through and give due attention to each story line. I’ve got about three pages.
While there are near a dozen topics to discuss, much of what MSU did both as a team and individuals falls into the categories of respect and redemption.
Tobias Smith, the senior offensive guard who has been through so much, managed to start and play for the first time since week two. Despite leaving the game with an injury in the first half, he still managed to return and help lead his Bulldogs to victory.
Junior quarterback Tyler Russell spent the whole week hearing about how great Tennessee’s offense is, while no one talked about him. Fast-forward to almost midnight on Saturday evening, and all anyone wanted to talk about was the MSU offense. Tyler Bray and the vaunted UT pass-catchers were an afterthought.
Johnthan Banks heard the same thing. Each day, the All-American cornerback was told how hard it would be to play these “NFL players” in white and orange. Then Bray, who was averaging over 300 yards per game through the air, was held to a total of 148. Banks and the gang cut his numbers in more than half.
Then there’s Malcolm Johnson, who missed the first five games because of a pectoral injury and then went on to make the game-sealing, highlight-reel touchdown catch in the back of the endzone in the final seconds Saturday night, a one-handed, one-footed beauty perhaps no one else on the team could’ve made.
And we haven’t mentioned the lack of respect Dan Mullen’s team was getting despite a 5-0 start. He couldn’t get the big win, they said. MSU hasn’t beaten anyone good, others decreed. They wanted respect, now they have it.
Oh, and the Bulldogs are bowl eligible. Think about that one. It’s not even cold yet. It was 85 degrees in The Junction on Saturday, and Mississippi State is bowl eligible. That feat wasn’t clinched until the final game of the regular season last year.
From one game, the build-up, the follow-through and the aftermath, you could write a book. MSU moved up to No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 and 16 in the USA Today poll. From the looks of things, these Bulldogs are for real, and they finally answered some questions.
But let’s not get too carried away. The season only gets tougher (and more fun) from here.
If we’re continuing with the book theme, the climax of the story came on a play in which neither I nor anyone in Davis Wade could hardly tell what happened. A Tennessee runner hit a gaggle of guys and was taken to the ground on the right sideline in the fourth quarter while MSU tried to preserve a three-point lead. Routine play. Then, much to my bewilderment, Johnthan Banks came streaking across the field to his sideline, right hand raised high above his head, carrying the football as he strutted triumphantly. It was MSU’s ball, UT had fumbled, and one minute and 14 seconds later LaDarius Perkins crashed through the endzone to give the Bulldogs a 10-point lead.
- As Mullen said after the game, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. Banks did that.
- As did the rest of secondary. Only six of the Vols’ 31 points came against an MSU defensive back, as Bray’s other touchdown was to a fullback being covered by a linebacker.
- The turnover speaks to something bigger, too. MSU is now No. 1 in the country in turnover margin at +15. That is, by far, one of the biggest reasons the Bulldogs are undefeated, and it may very well be what won the game Saturday, as MSU came out +2.
- One last defensive note: middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney is the best freshman player MSU has had on that side of the ball since Banks’ first year in Starkville. He extended his team-leading number of tackles with 14 more stops last night. The kid is everywhere.
- Offensively, as said before, there is so much to talk about. And it’s funny as all anyone wanted to talk about last week was the defense and UT’s offense. But if Banks had the play of the game, Tobias Smith was, far and away, the player of the game. I’m starting to believe what he means to this team cannot be understated. MSU scored 27 points in the first 23 minutes of play. Smith went down, and so did MSU’s offense. As soon as he returned, so did the drives and the points. MSU didn’t score from 7:46 in the second quarter to 7:58 in the fourth. Almost the exact time frame Smith was out. Mullen said on Sunday that Smith lifts his team up when he’s out there. Offensive line coach John Hevesy, Russell and several others have all said similar things this season. It appears they are right.
- Speaking of Russell: message sent, brother. He was 23-of-37 for 291 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Most importantly, he was incredibly accurate, yet again. So many of his balls are perfectly-placed where only his receivers can get them, and to their credit, they made several great catches. Courtesy of Brandon Marcello from the Clarion-Ledger, in three SEC games, Russell has completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 782 yards and seven touchdowns with zero interceptions. Studly.
- Hey, how ‘bout those tight ends? They disappeared after the Auburn game in week two, but all three of MSU’s passing touchdowns went to tight ends, two to Marcus Green (who had six catches and 71 yards, as well) and one to Malcolm Johnson. Good to see them involved again, and I’ll say it for the 12th time, it’s huge for MSU to have Johnson back. Expect him to be used in a variety of creative and seemingly unorthodox ways over the next month-and-a-half.
- As you’ll recall, one of those tight end touchdown passes came from freshman Dak Prescott, or DakAttack [TM Joe Galbraith]. The mobile QB has done nothing but run outside of some early mop-up duty the first couple weeks. As often as he did it, opposing defenses knew what was coming. And any of us who have watched had to know the first time he passed it, whenever it was, it would be wide open. Sure enough, Prescott faked the run, hopped back and put it up for Green who would’ve had time to set up a picnic in all the open green grass around him. Now, defenses will have to plan for both the air and ground with Prescott.
- Speaking of the ground, it was a pretty quiet game for the running backs. Perkins may have had the least-discussed 101-yard, one-touchdown game by a back in recent memory, though he struggled for most of the game to ever really break free. UT seemed more concerned with MSU’s rush-attack, paving the way for Russell’s big game, though Perkins, as always, was there when MSU really needed big runs.
- Freshman Josh Robinson, however, did tremendously with his six carries, racking up 41 yards and one very-well-done touchdown in which he showed excellent vision and made good cuts. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry. Solid. He was also one of six MSU players to rush the ball, which is pretty wild, as sophomore Nick Griffin got several early snaps, too.
- Can we talk about the senior year Chad Bumphis is having? He’s got 28 catches for 468 yards and six touchdowns, an average of 16.7 yards per reception, after catching seven balls for 93 yards Saturday night. After his junior slump, he’s been MSU’s most dependable and effective receiver.
- Speaking of dependable, punter Baker Swedenburg is still just ridiculous. As a team, MSU leads the nation in punt coverage, allowing (-)4 total yards on punt returns. Yes, negative-four. Swedenburg dropped three inside the 20 against UT, and had a long of 54 yards. A wild moment: Swedenburg punted the ball so high and so perfectly, Darius Slay had time to sprint from behind the line of scrimmage, shed his blocker, get down to the four-yard line, turn around and cleanly catch Swedenburg’s kick right out of the air as it came down. Nuts.
- The only “bad” thing on defense came from the line, as it didn’t register a sack and allowed UT running backs to amass 213 yards on the ground. On the surface, it’s concerning. However, Tennessee has one of the best offensive lines both in the SEC and in the country, and MSU was much more concerned with shutting down the pass attack, which it did effectively. You’d like to see better numbers, but I wouldn’t read too much into these.