It was a perfect day. It really was. The sky was clear, light blue. The clouds were wisps of pure white. It was 65 degrees and sunny by halftime of Mississippi State and Texas A&M’s football game.
And that game. Man. It was a night game under the light of day, truly.
“That was the best atmosphere Davis Wade has ever had,” one fan said after the game.
And that meant everything. To Dan Mullen, the head coach who is finally seeing the realization of a future he planned nearly six years ago. To Mark Keenum, the President. To Scott Stricklin, the Athletic Director. And especially to the players.
He was a rock star. He was John Lennon in the middle of Beatlemania and the Maroon and White throng could’ve been Times Square at midnight of New Year’s Eve instead of Starkville, Mississippi early on a Saturday morning.
“I don’t know if I’ve heard a louder Dawg Walk,” Mullen said after the game, “and that was at 9 a.m.”
It’s hard to tell if he was trying to hide it or just let it go without caring, but Mullen was as emotional as he’s ever been in a post-game press conference on Saturday afternoon.
He beat LSU two weeks ago and he came into interviews happy, but with a twinge of annoyance. On Saturday, after beating A&M, the littlest things made his voice crack, halted his words while he caught his breath. It wasn’t about the Aggies, though. It mattered that they were a Top-10 team, certainly, but it’s not as if Mullen had been harboring some soul-clenching desire to beat Kevin Sumlin.
In fact, it had shockingly little to with any of the people on the sideline or on the field. Mullen opened his press conference with a rush of gratitude and praise for the 62,000 people in Davis Wade Stadium around him.
MSU’s head coach delivered an improvisational and extemporaneous monologue straight from the heart, where that perfect day meant the most. He was asked a question and spoke quickly, no delay between thoughts and words.
“You know what, it was pretty special,” Mullen said. “The first thing – I remember getting here six years ago. I always bring it up. I said, ‘Listen. To build a winning program, you need to sell out [games].” The fans. It’s not win first. Fans show up. If the fans show up and start believing in the program and supporting the program, then the wins will come. And it’s so rewarding. They believed me. We started the sellout streak back in a season that we went 2-5 at home and our fans started believing. Now, right here, Starkville, Mississippi, Davis Wade Stadium has become a hard place for teams to come play, and that is all due to our fanbase. You know what, and them believing is pretty special. It shows that all of us together – from Dr. Keenum to Scott Stricklin to our entire fanbase – everyone bought in to what we needed to do to build a winning program. It’s so rewarding to see that.”
This particular game seems to mean so much to you, Dan, one reporter observed, remarking on his emotion. Why is that?
“Oh, goodness. Because it’s hard to win. It is hard to win in the SEC, you know what I mean? It is. I tell you what. Honestly, I think game day, it’s like getting on a roller coaster. Pre-game is like climbing up to the top of that roller coaster. In post-game it stops and in between it’s a straight downhill drop for three-and-a-half hours.
“It’s emotionally exhausting out there on the field. I put everything into this. My family puts everything into this. Our coaching staff and their families put everything into it. Our players put everything into this performance on the field. To get a win is just so rewarding.”
It wasn’t just Mullen who noticed it.
His players saw the same scene. They felt the same feelings.
“It felt like a night game the whole time,” fifth-year senior Ben Beckwith said. “There was never a lull. We feed off that. Best day crowd I’ve ever played in front of in my five years. Probably one of the best wins in State history.”
Their previous win over LSU was the coming out party. This week was the record-breaking sequel, the first time in history MSU has beaten two Top-10 teams in the same season.
And it was a team-effort, clichéd as that may sound. With two-and-a-half minutes to go, MSU led 48-17, though the score finally settled on 48-31. The defense played lights out and the offense played like the lights were on all day.
As great as the overall performance was, though, it was the show put on by one individual which received the most attention. It’s funny, because he hates it.
“I just don’t want people to overlook my team in the SEC West,” Dak Prescott said when asked about the Heisman, deflecting any praise people would try to heap on him.
And oh yeah, that thing. That golden trophy. The big one. The questions were natural after he totaled five touchdowns and 352 yards on such a big stage. He’s got nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and is responsible for 20 touchdowns in only five games so far in 2014.
But, Beckwith warns, don’t utter that H-Word around the guy who is one of the favorites to win it right now.
The Heisman is Dak’s Voldemort – it’s the Award That Must Not Be Named.
“We never bring it up in front of him,” Beckwith said. “He gets mad.”
All the more reason that he’s up for it. When former winner of the You Know What Trophy Tim Tebow was in town, he said Prescott is a favorite for it not because of the numbers (which he’s got) but because of the kind of person he is. He’s every bit as impressive off the field as he is on it, and the college football world has noticed. They’re continuing to notice as the hype is building.
But Prescott was representative of his team Saturday. Seemingly all of the college football media descended on Starkville and Mississippi this week. Some asked if it was too much, if it would be a distraction to the Bulldogs who weren’t used to such things.
Mullen, Prescott and all 100-plus players, coaches and staff answered the question decisively.
“We are ready,” Saturday seemed to say. “We are here and we’re not going away.”
And as big and unprecedented a week as this was, the next week will only be bigger when undefeated Auburn comes to Starkville, two of the three teams tied atop the conference facing off for a leg up in the SEC West race.
“We’re gonna have people sitting on the top of the Jumbotron,” junior running back Josh Robinson said. “The Bulldog Nation, we love them to death. Cold, sleet or snow, they support us no matter what.”