Football momentum is a curious thing.
Two weeks ago, it felt like Mississippi State’s season had come crashing down before it had even really begun.
Then the Bulldogs went to the plains and took down Auburn on their own field for the first time under Dan Mullen.
“We’re back in the race,” he declared after the win.
And he’s right. The landscape of the SEC, to paraphrase the words of one lyricist, has been flipped and turned upside down, and through four weeks, MSU finds itself right in the middle of the fight for conference supremacy.
At the beginning of the week, it was Dak Prescott who stressed the importance of the matchup with Auburn, noting that a win keeps their dreams alive, while a loss would come close to crushing them.
He also shared his belief that no team in the SEC will make it through the season undefeated. If that’s the case, then MSU really is in the race.
“We’re in the position that we wanted to be,” Prescott said, “and we’ve still got everybody in front of us.”
As wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson said of MSU’s SEC record after two games, “1-1 don’t mean nothing. We’re trying to run the table.”
And it was Wilson who gave insight into what’s sparked MSU lately. Particularly, what helped them go on the road and beat a Top 25 SEC West opponent.
In practice this week, the team went through a drill. Normal stuff, every day kind of thing. Just a drill. At the end of it, Mullen blew his whistle, made everyone stop and then run the drill over again, all because, as Wilson explained it, “we weren’t straining.”
Strain has been MSU and Mullen’s buzzword since around halftime of State’s loss to LSU. The idea is similar to the team mantra of “relentless effort,” reminding players that trying hard doesn’t necessarily mean trying hard enough. Keep working, keep pushing, keep straining.
And since halftime of that week two game, when Mullen told the team to take a collective deep breath, get whatever was in their heads out and just play, MSU has been on a tear. In the last 10 quarters of football, the offense has scored 92 points while the defense has only allowed two touchdowns, including none to Auburn.
Maybe the rough start to the year was a bit of hangover from the historic 2014 season, or maybe it was just rust from a lengthy offseason, but whatever cobwebs they had to shake out seem to finally and officially be gone. The difference is obvious, whether watching the players on the field during the game or talking to them in the locker room and interview room afterward.
The thought within all of them is the same: they’re finally starting to look like the team they thought they were going to be – the team they knew they could be. They’re confident.
“We have a lot of confidence,” Wilson said. “We don’t want to peak, but we know what kind of team we have.”
To Wilson and the rest of the team, much of what was so encouraging in MSU’s win against Auburn was the performance of the defense. Over the last 13 months, games have generally been won by the arms and legs of offensive stars like Wilson and Prescott. But Saturday’s win was all about defense, about standing strong when it meant the most in redzone. It was Will Redmond and his momentum-turning interception. It was Richie Brown and his game-high 13 tackles. It was A.J. Jefferson chasing down the quarterback, Chris Jones blowing up the middle of the line and Beniquez Brown directing the defense.
“I feel like we’re maturing on defense,” Jones said. “I feel like every week we’re getting better.”
Said Mullen, “I thought our defense played unbelievably well … Lot of talented players on that Auburn team. Keeping them out of the endzone for the night was fantastic.”
It was the biggest moments when MSU’s defense played the best, too. The Bulldogs holding Auburn to zero touchdowns in four redzone appearances was impressive, to be sure, but maybe even more so was the Tigers dismal 4-of-14 rate on third down.
Richie Brown saw it coming, too, based on the week of practice his team had. His words were the same as those of his coach.
“We were straining to the ball,” he said. “That’s what won us the game.”
Offensive strain, defensive strain and even special teams strain (Mullen thought his team was great in that aspect, as well), the Bulldogs are hitting their stride. They don’t just look like the team they believe they can be, they feel like it, too.
With Texas A&M waiting on them this weekend, and the rest of the SEC going forward, they’re going to have keep it up.
“It feels good,” Mullen said. “We’re back where we want to be.”
“There’s no doubt,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz confirmed. “But it doesn’t matter, because next week there’s a big challenge … You’ve got about 24 hours to enjoy it, because you’ve gotta go back on the road.”
The clock is ticking.