Coaches and players said all the right things in press conferences in the days following last weekend’s game, but Mississippi State needed a lot more than a few interviews that sound good in the newspaper after losing in the season opener in particularly deflating fashion. Dan Mullen didn’t need goodwill from reporters. He needed results from his team.
All 100-plus members of the team saw first-hand just how badly he wanted those results when, as a result of his passion in practice leading up to the SEC-opener against South Carolina, Mullen busted his nose open, a mark still visible as he took the floor for interviews Saturday night.
“He was out there actually practicing with us,” senior receiver Fred Ross said. “He was running around yelling at guys, in guys’ faces. I like it when practice is like that. It gets everybody going. You know you can’t slack off for even one play in practice. That’s how practice needs to be.”
Earlier in the week, players said Mullen apologized to them for letting them down in the season opener. Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon lamented the lack of passion and drive displayed in the dooming second half of the season opener. Coaches shouldered the blame. The response of the players was to take ownership for the loss themselves.
“The coaches can lead a little bit,” senior linebacker Richie Brown said, “but if you don’t have leadership from within, then what’s it worth? You’ve got to have guys inside the program, got to have players echoing things the coaches are saying and coaches echoing the players. Good followers as well as good leaders, it’s got to come from within.”
Over the last seven days, the voices and echoes within the program grew considerably. Peeps became yells, the speechless found their words and the lead-by-example morphed to lead by brute vocal force.
The result was a team transformed in appearance against South Carolina, a team that jumped out to a quick lead, and more importantly, a team that protected that lead. Save for the names on the jerseys, no one would have been able to tell it was the squad that was out-scored 21-3 in the second half on their home field against South Alabama just a week prior.
MSU racked up 485 yards, forced two turnovers, held USC to 34 yards rushing and notched 11 tackles for loss, State’s defensive line chasing down Gamecock quarterbacks and running backs like they were the ones personally responsible for every bad thing in their lives.
On the third play of the game, USC was already on third and long. MSU senior defensive end/linebacker Jonathan Calvin flew out of his stance as soon as the ball was snapped on third and seven, blew straight past the tackle fruitlessly trying to block him and he barreled straight into the unsuspecting quarterback, drilling Perry Orth into the earth for a loss of nine to send the Gamecock offense off the field and to send a message to all in attendance.
“That looked like Mississippi State football,” Mullen said late Saturday night as he reviewed the game.
Said defensive end A.J. Jefferson, the senior captain responsible for a pair of tackles for loss of his own, “The mood coming out, we were just ready to unleash on them.”
And it came from practice.
Nick Fitzgerald is only a sophomore by football eligibility, but he’s been on the team since mid-December in 2013, almost three years at this point. On a team as young as this one, he’s been around Mullen longer than most and said he hasn’t seen his head coach act the way he did this week since bowl practices that first week in 2013. Here it’s worth noting, that bowl game in question was the 2013 Liberty Bowl in which MSU dismantled Rice at the end of a tough season that barely saw MSU make it to the postseason. That blowout win was the launching pad for everything that happened in 2014 when MSU ascended to the top of the college football world.
Coming back from defeat, resiliency, is part of the Bulldog mentality, if you ask Mullen.
“That’s what we expect here,” Mullen said. “That’s what we expect from our guys.”
When MSU’s head coach left Davis Wade Stadium last Saturday, he was determined to make sure it happened. He stayed up late into the night as he made one decision after another. On Sunday, he called his quarterbacks in to let them know that Fitzgerald was going to be the starter. On Monday, he went to practice and showed a fire most of his players had never seen him.
Mullen knew easily what the problem was leading up to game one.
“I don’t know if I saw that desperateness, that desperate intensity to go,” he said. “That’s on me. That’s on me to set that standard.”
And so he did, flying around practice, getting in players’ faces, challenging them to be leaders, reminding them what it means to wear their jersey and preaching to them, clichéd as it may be, that they must give relentless effort until the final whistle is blown.
“It’s been pretty intense,” Mullen conceded. “I’ll tell you that much.”
“Very intense,” Fitzgerald confirmed Saturday night. “The entire team, we turned up the intensity to a whole new level. I don’t think you’ll ever see us like we were last week. We played Mississippi State football tonight and we’re going to keep doing that.”
Playing ‘Mississippi State Football’ appears to have done the trick. They’re not there yet, Mullen said, but the Bulldogs bounced back in a big way. In a game interrupted by an hour-long lightning delay, the atmosphere of the locker room after the win was appropriately charged.
Said Fitzgerald, “It was electric.”