Mississippi State began its season with significant quantities of both talent and inexperience. Every week since the beginning of September, each payload has been presented, sent out onto fields of competition to see which side carried more weight.
More often than not, the scales have tipped in favor of the inexperience, all the possibilities and potential of talent sliding off their plate into a pile of youth and disappointment, opportunities just barely missed time and again.
It was an inconsistency senior linebacker Richie Brown saw in practice, where the young Bulldog team would string together two great practices, only to come out lethargic and sluggish the next day of preparation. Or, perhaps, they’d have two bad days followed by one good. Actually finishing a full week, forcing the scales to tip the right direction, was an accomplishment seemingly always slipping through MSU’s fingers.
“This was the best week of practice we’ve had all year,” head coach Dan Mullen said Saturday afternoon.
“Everybody felt good leaving the field every time,” Brown confirmed.
The result was a shift in weight on a borderline seismic level. The talent was finally fed enough in meals of experience and sharpened mentality that it was able not only to tip the scales back in the right direction but to send the plate of possibilities crashing to the ground and throw the contents of inexperience scattering in the air around Scott Field.
In their best game of the season by the widest of margins, MSU dominated the No. 4 team in the country at the line of scrimmage, stymied the No. 2 offense in the SEC, neutralized one of the best defensive fronts in college football and romped for over 500 yards as they beat Texas A&M 35-28 at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday.
“Guys have learned to not play with fear,” Brown offered in explanation for the change. “Fear can destroy you sometimes. I think that’s what we built on this week was playing with confidence. Don’t be afraid to go make the plays. Don’t be afraid to take the shots. Having fear can crush your life, in all areas of life. It’s important for this team to learn how to not play with fear.”
It’s understandable, of course, for young and inexperienced players to be afraid, nervous or timid. The SEC is college football’s biggest stage and the opponents are the best and toughest the country has to offer. In a perfect world, someone older or more seasoned would be tasked with making plays and leading charges to victory. But for a variety of reasons, very few of those veterans exist on this team, Brown being one of the notable exceptions.
That’s part of why it was so important that those players heard from stars and leaders of the recent past this week. Former Bulldog greats like Derek Sherrod, Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney spent time with the team. On the sideline before Saturday’s game, former cornerback and team captain Taveze Calhoun gave the defensive backs a speech that Mullen could only describe as the pep talk of a lifetime.
Calhoun was once in that position as a sophomore in 2013 when he was counted on to replace Johnthan Banks, the 2012 Thorpe Award winner, despite Calhoun’s youth and lack of playing time. He’s been there before, and now, three years later, he can share what it takes to make that jump, to tip that scale.
Whatever Calhoun said, it worked. The Aggies were held to 117 yards and 10 points below their season average, while the A&M offense itself only mustered three scores. A position group much maligned this year, State’s secondary made a remarkable leap against one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
“Our DBs did not play with fear today,” Brown said after the game. “They were confident. They were ready to make plays. They weren’t worrying about anything else. They were just making good plays.”
More likely than not, this team will still have some struggles and hard moments over the final three weeks of the season. But finally, it’s a group that appears to have found itself, to identified its personality and jelled as a cohesive unit with the talent and confidence to make plays and win games.
It was under far different circumstances that Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed, “the only thing we have to fear – is fear itself.”
But it’s a lesson this team learned on Saturday. They don’t have to be afraid.