Two years ago, Dan Mullen found his team at an early-season crossroads. Coming off a surprise season in 2010, Mississippi State had more expectations surrounding them than it had in nearly a decade.
In week two of 2011, Chris Relf, Vick Ballard and the gang spent the majority of their Saturday carving up Auburn’s defense. At the end of the game, the Bulldog offense continued to move and move down field, needing a touchdown to secure victory on the Plains of Auburn. Relf plunged ahead, heading for the endzone, ball in his arms, victory a split-second away.
Then, he was stopped, not even inches, plural, but barely an inch short and the Tigers won, the difference between victory and defeat hardly the length of his thumb.
In year three under Mullen, it was the toughest loss, by far, for his Bulldogs.
Last week, MSU returned to Auburn and again lost in the final seconds. The locker room afterward was the saddest and angriest it had been in two years, since that Saturday two years prior.
Just like 2011, the 2013 team found itself at a similar crossroads. With a 1-2 record, would they allow the loss to consume them and ruin the season before it had hardly begun, or would they channel the emotions of loss into passion for victory?
In 2011, they rallied, battled, and ended the season with victory in the Music City Bowl.
What the rest of the season will bring in 2013, no one knows, but against Troy Saturday, we saw an MSU team responding to loss the way winners are supposed to. Last Saturday, hanging their heads for a day was fine. But they picked themselves up the next day, ignoring injuries, tuning out negativity from the outside and using the same passion they had after loss to prepare for a win.
Sure, MSU was supposed to beat Troy, and they did, 62-7, but the Trojans are a good team and a dangerous one. One of the top offenses in the country entering the weekend, Troy wasn’t afraid of the Bulldogs, especially after near-victory against them last year.
For MSU to do what it did showed a mental resiliency we couldn’t know was there without facing adversity in such a situation as this.
A season starting the way this one did was not unlike building a fire. As the first twig or leaf is lit, adding to the initial flame will either smother what’s there and stamp it out, or the kindling will catch and the tiny light becomes a crackling, roaring, warmth-bearing hearth of fire.
Against Troy, MSU’s flame became inferno. The charge now is to keep the fire burning.
Alright, time for some observations.
- What can we say about Dak Prescott that hasn’t already been turned into a pun? He racked up 322 yards in basically one half, rushing for two touchdowns, passing for one and actually receiving another one. If football has a hat trick, Prescott just got it.
- And so did Jameon Lewis, who is becoming every bit the playmaker we thought he could be. Minimal research suggests this has never happened before at MSU, as Lewis did the same as Prescott, rushing, passing and catching a touchdown. Lewis’ receiving touchdown was thrown by Prescott, and Prescott’s receiving touchdown was thrown by Lewis. What fun.
- Speaking of fun, Mullen talked a bit about that after the game, saying he can sometimes be too uptight and he enjoyed calling some fun plays. He even hung out for a minute after the press conference to chat and joke with reporters. “Man, no post-game food for you guys? It’s been a long time since that pre-game meal, we gotta get you something to eat.”
- Games like this are natural for such stats, but MSU had nine people rush the ball and 10 catch passes. That’s a lot.
- It was late in the game for much of it, but it was hard not to be impressed by sophomore running back Derrick Milton. He averaged eight yards apiece on his seven carries and scored a touchdown, never getting caught behind the line of scrimmage.
- The offensive line, by the way, again deserves much more credit than it is probably getting. The group had its struggles against Oklahoma State, but for the third-straight week has been very, very impressive and reliable, giving Prescott tons of time and opening up big holes.
- Outside of Lewis, three other receivers deserve mention. True freshman Fred Ross made some big catches early in the game, finishing with three for 35, and junior Robert Johnson reminded me a bit of Chris Smith, making some touch catches and delivering some big hits as he got extra yards after the catch. And redshirt freshman Brandon Holloway continued to show what a weapon he can be, catching three balls for 41 yards, in addition to a pair of rushes.
- Defensively, the wealth was spread pretty equally, but junior Matt Wells had one of the better games of his career, with a sack, a forced fumble and five tackles, including 1.5 for loss.
- Two plays stand out more than any others to me on defense. One is obvious: Jamerson Love’s 70-yard pick-six to score the first points of the game. Last year, he was clocked even faster than Darius Slay in the 40-yard dash, so his speed perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. Love has done a tremendous job stepping into his role as starter.
- The second play was Quay Evans’ massive stuff right behind the line of scrimmage. The huge sophomore tackle shed his block easily and met Troy’s running back one-on-one. The two collided and Evans wrapped his huge arms around the guy and dropped him straight to the ground. That play was a flash of how good Evans can be. If he can become consistent, he has elite potential.
- He hasn’t been talked about a ton, but redshirt freshman Richie Brown has quietly gotten better every week. His name has been called regularly and his playing time has increased with each game as he continues impressing his coaches. He finished tied for third with four tackles Saturday.
- The special teams didn’t have a whole lot to do, especially Baker Swedenburg, who went an entire game without punting for the first time as a starter. MSU only had two possessions not end in scoring: a missed field goal and a kneel to end the game.