“Dan Mullen had half the internet tweeting about my butt,” Josh Robinson told reporters after the game.
He’s halfway right. Those watching No. 1 Mississippi State beat Kentucky 45-31 in Lexington were already sharing thoughts on Robinson, MSU’s running back who finished with 198 yards and two touchdowns, as well as his hindquarters before the game in question ended.
Then, Mullen added to it, unaware that the internet topic du jour for the media up in the press box was the back side of his star junior.
“His rear end, it’s pretty round,” Mullen said after the game, eliciting laughter from the reporters in the room. “It is! They call him bowling ball. He is kind of that way.”
Yes, yes he is. On Saturday afternoon and into the night, Robinson looked that way more than ever. ESPN’s stats folk determined 140 of his 198 yards came after contact. He was knocking Wildcats over like pins, and they’re no pushovers.
The main highlight (and there were many) came when Robinson broke a handful of tackles on his way to the left sideline, discovered there were too many blue jerseys and decided to reverse field, breaking another couple handful of tackles as he rumbled, stumbled and eventually fell for the first down near the right sideline down the field.
“Have you ever had a run like that,” one reporter asked him later.
“Go to YouTube,” Robinson said, “and type in J-Rob. You’ll see that a lot.”
He was confident and having fun after the game. Those two qualities are part of why reporters love talking to him and they’re a huge part of why he’s so successful on the field.
They’re also the main reasons it took him so long to actually get on the field. To be honest, Robinson had an attitude problem throughout the early part of his career. Which is weird to say, because he’s got a great attitude. But it’s one that had to be fit in a mold to work in football.
He’s emotional, which you could see when he cried during his post-game interview after beating LSU (when he rushed for 197 yards, his previous high before Saturday). That event itself was quite the show, as he inadvertently conducted the interview in the middle of a sea of fans and family, thanking and hugging everyone around him as he opened his heart to those asking questions for cameras and stories.
And sometimes, those emotions got the best of him, not always in the same way. At times, frustration would grow because he would put in so much and feel as if he hadn’t been rewarded. At others, his unrelenting optimism didn’t exactly fit the mold of hard-nosed, grind-it-out, bury-your-feelings-and-sacrifice-your-body football.
In the past during workouts, conditioning and even in practice, Mullen said, “he had his goofy attitude, which he always has. He’s a fun-loving, goofy kid, but that was 24/7. It was like, ‘Hey. This is not goofy time now. This is time to work.’”
Robinson has always been immensely talented. It’s why he’s at MSU, even though so few others saw it as early as Mullen and his staff.
In fact, in high school, it was the quarterback on Robinson’s team (now playing at LSU) who was the prized recruit of the group.
“But we loved Josh,” Mullen said.
And they loved him the whole way through, working with the talented and upbeat runner to hone his energy properly.
Finally, and in timely fashion with an opening in the lineup, those things started happening for Robinson this summer.
“He was very different,” Mullen said. “This offseason, he was the same fun-loving, goofy kid, but when it was time to work, he was locked in and really worked hard, pushed himself to new limits this offseason. That’s when he started to gain everybody’s trust.”
It’s worked out for everyone, as MSU is No. 1 in the country at an undefeated 7-0, while Robinson has already totaled over 1,000 all-purpose yards and double-digit touchdowns.
The best part for Robinson: he still gets to have fun. After the game, he photo-bombed Mullen’s interview on CBS. That was moments before he scooped up Coach’s son Canon in celebration and gave him the kind of hug where a kid is torn between uncontrollable laughter and suffocation.
Plus, he got to talk about his butt.
“I think that’s why the women come to the game, to be honest,” Robinson said. “Trying to look at me and Dak in our tights.”
With just over two minutes left in the game, Christian Holmes sealed the win for MSU. The fifth-year senior linebacker caught the onside kick – UK’s last real hope to make a comeback – and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown, earning a lead State was sure to keep.
It was a wonderful moment for Holmes, called by Turtle by both friends and strangers. He’s one of the most popular people on campus, athlete or not. Twitter erupted in shouts of “TURTLE!” after he scored, complete with the emojis of a green turtle for those who had it on their phones. He earned the nickname when he showed up to camp as a freshman with a shaved head and a round, muscular physique, looking exactly like one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
But, as well-loved as he is, his popularity never seemed to translate to stardom on the field. Not the obvious kind, anyway. He started as a linebacker, where he spent three years (including a redshirt season), then he switched to tight end as a junior, coaches hoping to use his athleticism there, before switching back to linebacker this year.
Though, while his impact on offense last year was minimal, he was quietly one of MSU’s most important players. Mullen made a point regularly to share that almost no one played as many snaps as Turtle. He was the go-to guy on every special teams play. Kickoff and punt coverage. Kickoff and punt return. Even getting in on field goal action here and there. Holmes earned his keep on special teams, and he was one of the best at doing so.
Then, finally, he got his opportunity. As a senior this year, his talent on special teams has translated to defense, where he’s become one of the key members of MSU’s “1-B” defense.
But naturally, it was special teams where he made the play of the game as Holmes’ Bulldogs struggled on the road Saturday.
Turtle, Mullen and his teammates broke down the onside kick return from their view.
“All I could think was catch the ball and run,” Turtle said. “It was my opportunity to make a play.”
”There’s no way he was going down in that scenario, you know that,” Mullen joked, remembering his thoughts as he watched the return. “As long he had the ball high and tight, he was over by the sidelines so I figured if they hit him, he’d go out of bounds. But I watched, and he kind of kept going, and I kept waiting for him to get caught, and he kept going, and I kept waiting for him to get caught, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, he might actually make it all the way right here.’”
Said Holmes, “All I could think was, ‘Don’t let the kicker catch me.’ So when I saw the endzone, I just dove.”
After allowing a moment for celebration, the referee approached Turtle: “’44, you’ve never scored, huh?”
“I said, ‘No.’ I had the ball high and tight.”
“Can I get the ball,” the ref asked.
“I was like, ‘Oh, yeah! Here it is.’ I was just so excited I didn’t know what to say and do.”
“It was a great play by Turtle,” junior middle linebacker Benardick McKinney said. “He’s gonna talk about it all week, I’m not gonna hear the end of it. Big time players make big time plays at big time moments, and he came up big for us and made a huge play.”
“You never know who’s gonna make the last play of the game,” Mullen said. “In the end, honestly, I think Christian Holmes’ touchdown was the last play to win the game.”
“He should be SEC Special Teams Player of the Week,” Robinson said.
Most people really only know Kaleb Eulls because he’s been around for a while. Or because his coaches and teammates talk about him. Or, deservedly, for that time in high school he saved a bus full of students from a gunman. Though Eulls himself would rather not talk about it. Not because its traumatic, but just because he doesn’t like attention.
But people rarely talk about him for being good at his job, and that’s why he’s such a good defensive lineman. It can be hard for some on the outside to understand why those on the inside consistently heap praise on Eulls, but that’s the role he plays. A senior defensive tackle, his job isn’t to get the numbers. It’s to open things up for his teammates so they can fill the stat sheets.
So, when he played what is likely the best game of his career Saturday in Lexington, he naturally deflected praise.
“It means a lot to me,” Eulls said, “but I’m not doing it for myself. I do it for the guys. I work hard and grind for them every day. I can’t take the credit for myself. I’ve got teammates and coaches I wanna thank much more than myself.”
That is, more or less, everything he said after the game in the media room. Not because he’s not personable. He’s a joy to be around. But talking about himself is just unnatural for Eulls. It’s why the position suits him so well.
That, and his considerable talent. Saturday afternoon, his five tackles and two sacks were crucial, as it was State’s front seven who stepped up time after time when a play was needed.
It’s fitting for the player who is the team mechanic. Eulls loves working on cars (and hates flying on airplanes), and he’s become the in-house troubleshooter and auto-fixer at MSU’s football complex. He gets a kick out of doing it, and his teammates, many driving old or beat-up cars, desperately need it.
Just like on the field, Eulls uses his talents to help others, not himself. It’s part of why he means so much to those around him.
Mullen, asked only about the impressive game Eulls had played Saturday, was fighting back tears by the time he finished his answer. That senior defensive end is the kind of player Mullen built around to attain this level of success. It’s thanks to those like him that the Bulldogs are No. 1 in the land.
“Kaleb, to me, is one of my special guys,” Mullen told reporters after the game. “Always will be for the rest of my life. I love Kaleb Eulls. I love everything about him, the type of kid he is. To be where he’s at, from where he’s from, is what makes college football special. If you don’t know where he’s from, do some research on Kaleb Eulls and see where he’s from and what he’s done in his life and you’ll see why he makes college football special.”