The first two weeks of Mississippi State’s season have been all about momentum. Finding it, securing it, and most importantly, not losing it when it starts to swing the other direction.
“That’s what you want in a veteran unit,” Dan Mullen said. “When you feel momentum start to swing, you stop it.”
It’s hard to imagine there being much momentum in the opener, when MSU beat Southern Miss 49-0, but the Eagles were slowly starting to gain some in the final minute of the first half. State’s players could feel it. And when USM chucked a pass down the field near MSU’s endzone in the final seconds, senior safety Jay Hughes jumped into the air and picked it off. Momentum held.
In the second half, Hughes stepped up again, along with senior defensive end Preston Smith, who already had an interception of his own. USM was threatening to break the shutout when Smith got his hand in the air and blocked the field goal attempt. Nearby, Hughes scooped up the loose ball and ran the length of the field for a touchdown. Once again, momentum grabbed back.
Against UAB the following Saturday, the Bulldogs had more miscues than they would like. But after each, coaches say, someone stepped up to make a play and right the mental ship. Dak Prescott found a way to get his team in the endzone after UAB touchdowns. The defensive line came up with big plays of their own. On a day when MSU’s secondary was struggling, it was a lineman (Smith again) who stepped up and snagged an interception and returned it for a touchdown. It came right after junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney had drilled the quarterback and sent the ball sailing into the air.
Junior running back Josh Robinson grabbed first down after first down on the ground, working his team to pay dirt and giving his defense a breather.
The turning point in the game, the moment which led to MSU finally breaking it open, came when sophomore safety Kivon Coman broke through the line and blocked a UAB punt. It was the break MSU needed to get rolling.
“That was huge,” Mullen said of the blocked punt. “[USM was] coming out with a lot of energy to start the half, we get a blocked punt and a touchdown. We kept the momentum. Every time it started to slip a little bit, we grabbed tight and didn’t let it slip at all.”
Mullen often commented last year on the transition in leadership. For so long, guys like Chad Bumphis, Johnthan Banks or many of the other veterans were the ones who came up with those momentum-changing moments. When something needed to happen, they stepped up and did it.
Last year, those guys were, for the most part, gone. Behind them was a roster of people who had always had someone else make the play. What they had to learn, Mullen said, was that the responsibility was on their shoulders. If they didn’t do it, no one would.
Now, he says, MSU’s players have finally begun to approach the game that way. All 11 people on the field at any given time think they’re about to change the game. When things go wrong, they work as a unit to fix it.
Only two games into the season, Mullen can already look at those moments and know he’s got a veteran team, a roster of players who believe in themselves and each other.
“Nobody was looking for somebody else to make a play,” he said. “Guys were getting things done.”
Hughes says they’ve known for a while what they had, though. Back in the preseason, even in the offseason when Prescott and McKinney were leading voluntary practices, there was little doubt that MSU had grown significantly. The Bulldogs are much more mature than they were to begin 2013, as most of those players are still in the locker room.
“The coaches saw it,” Hughes said.
And really, it started to show at the end of 2013. When MSU needed a play in overtime to beat Arkansas, true freshman quarterback Damian Williams scampered into the endzone on the first play.
In the Egg Bowl, the first overtime in the rivalry’s history, Prescott was the one to get the score. The defense followed up by forcing a turnover and sealing the win. Seemingly every piece came together in the Liberty Bowl when MSU dismantled Rice and set double-digit records.
It took a while for things to start clicking last year, Mullen said, but it’s carried over and his Bulldogs are prepared like they weren’t before.
“The funny thing is,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said, “that defense, we hadn’t called in about eight months. We were sitting there, saw the formation and said, ‘That would be the right defense to call.’ We called it and the kids handled it. We talk about being a mature team, having a lot of guys with experience. Preston knew exactly what to do, played his progression, ended up making a ridiculous John Banks-type interception.
“It was a beautiful play. Proud of him.”
Said Smith, “I think it’s a big change in momentum when both sides of the ball are scoring.”
Junior cornerback Taveze Calhoun, who has had plenty of highlights on his own, explained how much Coman’s blocked punt in the second half against UAB meant.
It’s a touch cliché, maybe, but it’s what they expect of each other, coaches and teammates.
“Big-time players make big-time plays,” Calhoun said, “and he made a big-time play to help us get over the top.”