Vivians Takes Over New Court As Homecoming Queen

Last fall, Victoria Vivians made a small joke in passing to a friend. They had been talking about the newly-elected 2016 Homecoming Queen when Vivians said, you know what, she’d like try for that next year. Why not?

The thought faded soon as the hoops star turned her focus to the upcoming basketball season. That junior campaign turned out to be not only the best of Vivians’ career, but the best in the history of Mississippi State women’s basketball. In fact, it was the best in the history of all MSU sports, as Vivians and her teammates raced out to a record-breaking start and wound their way to the National Championship Game in Dallas this April, securing that appearance by pulling off one of the biggest upsets in basketball history as they ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak.

Forgive Vivians if she forgot about her wish to be Homecoming Queen in all the hubbub. The friend, however, remembered, and when she saw an interest form on campus this year, she quickly grabbed one for Vivians.

“I was like, why not, let’s do it,” Vivians said. “And I won.”

In fact, she won by a lot, receiving over 60 percent of the vote. The next closest candidate had 11 percent.

Vivians, of course, was used to attention. She was enshrined in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame before she even got to college, thanks to her stellar high school career. Limelight is no stranger than daylight for the basketball star. However, while having all eyes on her was nothing new, being voted Homecoming Queen was a complete 180 from everything she had experienced before.

“It was cool,” she said. “I mean, it was fun being in a different environment besides the basketball court. I’m not in my basketball uniform, I’m in a dress with makeup on, so that was pretty cool.”

She soon realized, however, that being in a dress and walking across the field at halftime of the Homecoming game is a bit different than the introductions she’s so used to experiencing at Humphrey Coliseum.

“You get kind of nervous walking in front of those people,” she said, “because you’ve got to think, ‘don’t trip over your dress and don’t fall.’ Like, on the basketball court, you can fall and get back up and people won’t even think about it. It was a little nerve-wracking going out there and making sure everything was perfect.”

Even the compliments and congratulations she received were new to Vivians.

“The past week they were all like, ‘you’re so pretty.’ And it’s different,” she said. “It’s different compliments because they always talk about basketball, now they’re actually talking about you. It’s pretty cool.”

That was last Saturday, though. This Saturday she’s got a basketball scrimmage, and in just a couple weeks, MSU starts its season. Vivians will certainly be more comfortable in sneakers than heels, though the pressure will be far greater. But no matter what, she managed to bring her campaign slogan to life – she’s the Queen of all courts.

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Interceptions At 300 Pounds – A Braxton Hoyett Story

One of the most terrifying moments of Braxton Hoyett’s life was followed almost instantaneously by one of the most thrilling sensations of his 22 years on Earth. The dreams of glory that quickly followed were snuffed out before they even could truly form, but that took nothing away from Hoyett’s shining moment.

Late in the third quarter of Saturday’s game between Mississippi State and Kentucky, the Wildcats were in the early stages of a promising drive, having neared midfield. When the ball was snapped on first down at the 45, UK quarterback Stephen Johnson dropped back in the pocket and started looking for an open receiver. Hoyett, a defensive tackle for MSU, was just a few yards away, and he was scheming.

“When I got off the ball, nobody touched me really,” Hoyett recalled. “I didn’t try to go all the way to the quarterback.”

To some, it might sound as if the lineman was merely being lazy. It was late in the game and certainly no one could blame him if he was tired. Turns out, Hoyett wasn’t resting – he was thinking. Just as importantly, he was waiting, and within a couple seconds, his opportunity came.

Hoyett was running to his left to keep containment when the pass was thrown, and to everyone’s surprise but his own, Hoyett was almost directly in its path. Almost. Because he had been running left, the ball was just to his right. Hoyett desperately thrust out a hand and, just barely, he made contact, stopping the ball’s forward trajectory and tipping it up into the air directly over his head.

And that’s when Hoyett experienced his moment of terror. Things like this never happen to him, never happen to most defensive linemen. Hoyett had never even had an interception in practice, let alone a real, live game. In that short, eternities-long moment, 303 pounds of Braxton Hoyett was still pulling sideways while an oblong ball the length of his forearm was spinning toward the grass.

“I gotta catch this ball,” Hoyett remembered thinking as the football started its fall. “I can’t let it hit the ground.”

Hoyett’s eyes followed the ball as it made second contact with his outstretched hands, and with all the focus he could possibly muster in that moment, he carefully gripped each side of the ball and drew it in to hold close to his body. He’d done it. Braxton Hoyett, a proud defensive lineman, had intercepted a pass, all on his own.

Then he looked up. The joy of coming down with the ball turned to a fantasy of doing the unthinkable. If the last second had felt like years, the present one felt like the blink of an eye as Hoyett could already see himself striding proudly into the endzone 40 yards down the field.

SMACK.

Hoyett was immediately knocked to the ground.

But it didn’t even matter. He’d caught the ball. He’d intercepted the pass. He’d secured his moment of exhilaration.

“It was an amazing play,” Hoyett quietly pointed out after the game as he shared his confession. “I really wanted to be like Gerri and take it to the house, but somebody hit me as soon as I grabbed it.”

He’s referring, of course, to his teammate Gerri Green. A few drives after Hoyett’s interception, Green had one of his own. When his opportunity came, the athletic junior linebacker returned it 84 yards for a touchdown. And that’s the difference between a linebacker and a lineman intercepting a pass.

Green was 10 yards downfield past the down marker, with most of UK’s offense – in this case, would-be tacklers – still in front of him. When he caught the ball, he immediately took off, followed his blocks, and eventually found open green grass in front of him as he sprinted nearly the entire length of the field.

Hoyett, on the other hand, had only one or two men he’d have to beat, and the distance was no more than the standard dash yardage. Of course, he was hit almost immediately, and in the official stats, Hoyett is credited with a two-yard return – roughly the length of his 6’3” body. He fell from the 40 to the 38.

But no matter, Hoyett is still proud of his accomplishment. Asked after the game whose interception was more impressive, the junior defensive lineman showed no hesitation in his response.

“Mine.”

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Bulldogs Deliver Complete Performance In Rout Of Kentucky

There is quite a lot that can be said about Mississippi State’s 45-7 win over Kentucky on Saturday night. Certainly, it was one of MSU’s most impressive games with a big winning margin over a 5-1 (now 5-2) SEC team in front of a strong and loud home crowd.

Perhaps most noticeably, however, was that it was the most complete performance by the Bulldogs all year. It’s been a season where mixtures of youth, injury, new coaches and minor slips have given Dan Mullen’s team something to either work on, at best, or be quite frustrated with, at worst.

One of the best examples, as Mullen shared after Saturday’s win, was the first play by his defense against Georgia one month prior. On the first offensive play for those Bulldogs, a flea-flicker led immediately to a wide-open receiver streaking into the endzone with the football. UGA scored and took the air out of MSU’s tires basically upon arrival. Turns out, MSU was in a Cover Three, and one of those defensive backs was supposed to hang back in the middle of the field, while another was sent to the line of scrimmage. Instead, they both crashed the line, leaving the pass catcher open.

Had one of them not gotten mixed up, or had both of them gotten mixed up but gone in the other direction, the pass would have been batted down, perhaps even intercepted, and the game might have gone completely differently. Or it might have gone exactly the same, of course, but that’s not the point.

For a team that’s had its issues with issues, Saturday’s complete performance was exactly what MSU needed, and a sure sign of growth. MSU scored a lot of points. MSU held Kentucky to very few points. MSU made field goals, returned kicks and skied some good punts. They did all the things they were supposed to do.

“I thought, all three phases, a very solid day against a really good team,” Mullen said. “We were able to take them out of what makes them comfortable and put pressure on them.”

Junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was a standout, completing 18-of-26 passes for 155 yards and one touchdown, while also rushing 12 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns.

“I thought he did a really good job. He made some plays,” Mullen said. “I was pleased with his decision making all day and his play making.”

The secondary, after a couple rough games earlier in the season, performed well, recording an impressive five pass break-ups in the first half alone.

“There were some times [UK] took some shots and they were 1-on-1s, 50-50 balls, and we won the 50-50 balls today,” Mullen continued. “That’s a big deal in a game.”

The running game was as impressive as ever, racking up 282 yards and four touchdowns, and that’s taking away the four yards “lost” when MSU kneeled twice to end the game.

“I think it’s the consistency of the tailbacks running the ball that’s really helped open it up for the quarterbacks,“ Mullen added. “Being able to stay on the field allows you to be patient in the run game.”

And of course, give the offensive line credit for such a good performance while starting three redshirt freshmen due to injuries.

“You’re seeing a lot of guys start to grow up out there on the field for us,” Mullen proudly stated. “I love how those guys are starting to grow.”

Of course, their counterparts on the other side of the ball are doing the same.

“I challenged those guys especially. We needed to get some pass rush. I thought the first half, we weren’t getting enough pass rush,” Mullen specified. “I challenged those guys to really get after the quarterback … I thought our D-line as a whole really picked it up and got after the quarterback in the second half.“

Speaking of, MSU even did a good job of improving.

“I thought we came out pretty solid in the first half,” Mullen said of his team, “but I really challenged them to take it another level in the second half, and I think they did that.”

Even the crowd, the head coach made a point to share, had a great performance.

“Our fans gave us that homefield advantage today,” Mullen noted without prompt. “It was a great atmosphere. I thought that was one of the big factors.”

Perhaps one could call that the previously undiscovered fourth phase of the game. Either way, this much is clear: MSU is playing the best it has all year as it dives into the second half of the season.

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Dusty Smith Leads New Era Of Men’s Golf At MSU

In middle school, Dusty Smith stood all of 4 feet and 11 inches tall. He’d been swinging a golf club his whole life, first taught by his dad, but unfortunately, while everyone around him was hitting growth spurts, it just wasn’t happening for Smith. But hey, at least he didn’t have to spend money on new clubs all the time.

What he lacked in stature, however, Smith made up for in effort and passion. He might not have had the most power as he continued on into high school, but that just meant he cared even more about mechanics, about his short game, about all the details that can make a good golfer great.

“To be honest with you,” he confessed, “I wasn’t very good. I didn’t hit the ball very far, but I always had a pretty good short game and could always find my way.”

Smith kept at it, though. He kept practicing, kept training, kept learning, and most importantly, he never stopped trying. By his junior year, he actually made the varsity golf team at his populous high school in The Woodlands, Texas, and that year, Smith was the fifth man on the state championship team. As a senior they finished as the runner-ups.

The young golfer had grown taller, of course, since 7th grade, but he still wasn’t a hot commodity when it came to being recruited by colleges. Ultimately, Smith signed with a small Division-I college named Lamar that had never even been to the postseason. Not yet, anyway. By Smith’s junior year, Lamar made an appearance in their first-ever NCAA Championships, finishing 9th in the country. As a senior, Smith and his teammates returned to the postseason, that time finishing third in the NCAA Championships behind only Stanford and Georgia.

And thanks to his dedication to the craft, Smith was an All-American who went on to play professionally for the next two years and change.

Now in his first year as the head coach of Mississippi State’s men’s golf program, Smith is approaching the job with the same attitude that got him so far as a player.

“That’s kind of the mentality that I’ve brought to coaching.” He said. “You obviously want the top recruits in the country to come to your program, but you also want to find guys who might have been overlooked, who carry that little chip on their shoulder, who are going to get down and work and get better and be coachable.”

The college game was always where Smith was going to end up. As soon as he left it following his final season at Lamar, things were no longer the same. Golf was still fun, of course, but he missed the camaraderie of being on a team, of traveling with a group of friends and of being able to help others. Smith elected to give up playing professionally to get into coaching, returning to his alma mater as an assistant coach for both the men’s and women’s programs.

With his help, the men’s team advanced to an NCAA Regional in all three of his years there, while earning eight All-Conference honors, including the Southland Player of the Year in 2011.

The following season, he joined national powerhouse Vanderbilt to become the top assistant for head coach Scott Limbaugh. During his six seasons in Nashville, the Commodores won 12 team tournament titles, had seven All-Americans and earned 11 All-SEC selections. The Commodores went to a program-best four-straight NCAA Tournaments in Smith’s last four years there, thanks in no small part to his tutelage and recruiting.

Now in Starkville, the principles he learned from Limbaugh are the foundations for the program he’s building, beginning most importantly with a player-first approach.

“I really learned most of the way I coach from him,” Smith said. “He loved his players. He cared for his players. But he also held them to the highest possible standard and he got the most out of his players. When I came in here, obviously, my No. 1 goal was just to get to know the players, get to know their hearts, get to know what makes them tick, what motivates them, what doesn’t motivate them. Every athlete is different. Some of them you can get on to, but others you have to be more careful and go about it a different way. I’d say we have one clear message, and then within that message, we coach each individual differently.”

In fact, it was even Limbaugh who helped Smith end up at MSU. Over the years at Vandy, Smith had plenty of offers to become the head coach of his own program, but Limbaugh advised his assistant to be patient and be picky. People were going to notice what he was doing and the right offer was going to come along. This spring when Smith found out at that MSU was in the market for a new coach, he and Limbaugh agreed: this was the one.

So when Smith came to Starkville for his interview and was blown away by the facilities and the people, saying yes to the soon-to-come offer to be the next head coach at Mississippi State was an easy and obvious decision. Now, his goal is to show the rest of the country what he sees at MSU.

“This is the best kept secret in the United States,” Smith said, “and it’s not going to be kept a secret any longer because, I feel like, if you bring a prospect out to our facilities, it’s going to be tough for them to say no.

“The response has been really, really good in recruiting,” he continued. “Every kid we get on campus is blown away by the facilities and what we have to offer and our coaching philosophy.”

And already, the building has begun, the Bulldogs now in the midst of their fall season, their first days of competition under Smith. The program is just beginning to take shape.

“I’m a big process guy. Be better today than you were yesterday and be better tomorrow than you are today. Stick to the process, stick to the steps. In golf, you can’t skip steps,” Smith said. “Our goal is just getting better each and every day. We focus on our brand of golf which is being tough, being disciplined, being gritty, staying in the process, being a team player. When I refer to the Mississippi State brand of golf, that’s what I’m talking about. “

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Q&A With John Cohen On His First Year As Athletic Director

As he closes in on 12 months as Mississippi State’s athletic director, John Cohen sat down with the HailStateBEAT for a question-and-answer session reviewing his first year on the job, as well as looking ahead to the future. Topics covered include new facilities, women’s basketball’s run to the National Championship Game, lessons learned and future plans, among much else. The conversation took place in the Humphrey Coliseum overlooking practice for MSU’s men’s basketball team, and the following is a transcript of the interview between Cohen and HailStateBEAT reporter Bob Carskadon.

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Bob Carskadon: Let’s start with the big picture of your first year. What is something you’ve learned in these first 12 months and what has been the biggest takeaway?

John Cohen: When you’re a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, you can elicit change quickly at times through practice, games and recruiting. As an athletic director, it’s more difficult to create rapid change. Initiating change and creating change is a longer process because of the scope and magnitude of the department.

It is comforting for me to know we have great coaches at Mississippi State. I believe our student-athletes are being led by outstanding coaches. I’m not sure I would trade our collective group of coaches we have for any group of coaches in the country.

BC: Certainly, there has been a lot going on in terms of competition and facilities the last year, but one thing I’ve noticed is that you’ve also taken an initiative to honor MSU’s athletic history. Joe Fortunato is being inducted into the Ring of Honor at Davis Wade Stadium, and you’ve mentioned before that the department has plans for plaques to honor Frank Dowsing and Robert Bell, the first African-American football players to enroll at Mississippi State. With plans in other sports, too, it seems that honoring the past and the former Bulldog greats is important to you.

JC: It is important for us to honor the rich heritage of Mississippi State. I want our student-athletes, both current and former, to realize the pioneering contributions of Frank Dowsing and Robert Bell. They’re not just Mississippi State heroes. They’re heroes. It’s important to honor their legacy. I wish Frank was still with us, but Robert will be with us when we install a permanent recognition at Davis Wade Stadium.

And of course, honoring Joe Fortunato is really important. Just a little research reminds you how impressive Joe Fortunato’s career was, someone who was a five-time Pro Bowler, who was an All-American at Mississippi State, and is arguably one of the greatest players in Mississippi State history and one of the Chicago Bears’ all-time greats.

BC: Already, there have been a great deal of exciting games and moments, but certainly, the run by Vic Schaefer and the women’s basketball team last season is the highlight of the year. What was that experience like for you as the athletic director?

JC: The best thing about our women’s basketball Final Four run isn’t what happened last spring. It was obvious to me four years ago that something like this was going to happen. Watching our women’s basketball program evolve, seeing the relentless spirit of their practices, and seeing a coach who demands excellence and formulates a disruptive style of defense, you could tell something was bubbling up.

I’ve always enjoyed practice. Preparation is everything. The performance in games is all about the players, but the preparation is about the coaches. Watching Vic Schaefer’s teams prepare over the last five years, you just felt that something special was going to happen.

BC: As a former long-time baseball coach, I’ve been curious how your past experience impacts your ability to work and develop relationships with all the head coaches under your guidance. Having been through it all yourself for so many years, I imagine you have a particularly strong understanding of coaches’ needs and personalities.

JC: I know this is cliché, but the best coaches are ultra-competitive. It is important to understand that they’re not just competitive on the court or the field. They’re competitive in everything they do. So if you’re just having a conversation with a high level coach, you’re not just having a normal conversation. Competitive coaches need to feel like they are productive all the time. I’m that way now. I was that way as a coach. We all kind of speak that similar language.

I’ve had the privilege of working for great administrators who clearly understand that high-level coaches are trying not just to win games, win in teachable moments with players and win in recruiting – they’re trying to win every little moment of every day. That’s how you know you have somebody who’s really special.

As an administrator, you have to know how to filter those situations. Scott Stricklin was as good at that as anyone I’ve been around.

BC: When you were the baseball coach here, I know you regularly had a hand in administrative decisions and worked often with Stricklin on ideas and processes to better the department. Now that you’re the guy in charge, who are some of the people you rely on as sounding boards for similar conversations?

JC: I think our administrative staff is exceptional. [Deputy A.D./CFO] Jared Benko is a young, innovative administrator who has already been at four different SEC institutions. He’s a guy who has been a great resource for me. [Deputy A.D./Development] Bo Hemphill is a bright, creative leader who really understands fundraising and Mississippi State, which are so important to us. [Executive Senior Associate A.D./SWA] Ann Carr as an SWA has been a tremendous help to me as well. I also believe [Senior Associate A.D./External Affairs] Leah Beasley is a rising star, and [Executive Senior Associate A.D./Bulldog Club] Mike Richey’s work in the Bulldog Club is exceptional. Our Compliance staff led by [Executive Senior Associate A.D./Compliance] Bracky Brett does an outstanding job.

BC: Perhaps the biggest chunk of the budget, facilities continue to be a priority at MSU, whether it’s new stadiums like Dudy Noble currently under construction or updates to already-existing facilities. Do you have a particular approach or big-picture philosophy there?

JC: [Senior Associate A.D./Event & Facilities Management] Jay Logan and [Associate A.D./Facility Planning & Construction] Bobby Tomlinson have been so helpful. They’re extremely knowledgeable. In 2017, building facilities and maintaining the facilities you have is very important. We’re going to continue on the path that started with Larry Templeton and continued with Greg Byrne and Scott Stricklin. We’re going to build outstanding facilities. We have to in order to be competitive.

At Mississippi State, we’re not going to have the biggest football stadium. We’re not going to have the biggest basketball arena. We want quality instead of quantity; that’s our goal.

BC: As we finish up, I’ll ask a big picture question. Imagine retiring years from now at the end of your career – what do you want your legacy as the Mississippi State Athletic Director to be?

JC: I want our legacy to be that we competed for championships. That we built and maintained timeless facilities. I want our student-athletes to say, “I had a great experience at Mississippi State and I want to come back and be a part of the Mississippi State family the rest of my life.” If those things happen, I’ll be very, very happy.

I also think it’s very important that we do it the right way. That’s another cliché. The “right way,” to me, is paying attention to detail, not only following the NCAA and SEC rules, but following the rules of integrity and decency. I believe our coaches do an excellent job of taking our student-athletes on a path of making great decisions both on and off the field.

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Fitzgerald, Williams The Latest Prolific Backfield For Mullen

For the fifth time on Saturday, Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams both rushed for over 100 yards in the same game. And considering the juniors just became starters last season, with Williams only becoming the “starting” running back near the end of the 2016 season, the quarterback-running back tandem is even more impressive. With the two talented runners, MSU has one of the most effective backfields in the country. However, it’s not just that they’re both good. It’s that they’re different.

In Dan Mullen’s time as a college football coach, his offenses have featured some of the greatest rushing duos college football has seen the last decade. Just at MSU, he had the combination of Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson in 2014, preceded a few years earlier by the seemingly unstoppable duo of Chris Relf and Vick Ballard. Back in his days at Florida, opposing defenses were rendered borderline useless by the combined talents of Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin.

Mullen’s spread offense, for all its great quarterbacks, has always been at its most effective when the rushing game is strong, and the rushing game has been at its strongest when the running back and the quarterback pose a threat in the run attack. Fitzgerald and Williams have yet to reach the levels of some of those who came before, but at the rate they’re going – with a year and a half left together if both return for their senior seasons – they may very well go down as one of the most prolific pairs the SEC has seen.

What’s working so well for them is what’s worked well for Mullen before: they bring different skillsets to the same objective.

“I think it’s a good balance between the two,” Mullen said after his team beat BYU 35-10 on Saturday afternoon. “Fitz gives you a little bit of – for a big guy he still gives you that threat outside. He makes you nervous because he has some home run ability. And then Aeris is going to be physical between the tackles, so I think that’s a good combination to have.”

Against what had previously been a stingy Cougar defense only giving up 3.7 yards per carry and 167 rushing yards per game, the Bulldogs racked up over 300 yards on the ground, averaging 6.5 yards every time someone ran the ball. Fitzgerald went off for 103 yards and two touchdowns on only 15 rushes, while Williams managed to top his quarterback colleague by rushing for 114 yards and a score on 23 carries.

That MSU won by so much on a day when its rushers ran for so much is no coincidence. The Bulldogs are averaging right around 300 rushing yards per game in their four wins in 2017, while they’re down below 200 in their two losses. Fitzgerald knows as well as anyone on his team that when he and Williams are effective, MSU is tough to beat.

“When we’re running the ball, when we’re playing how we’re supposed to play, when our guys on the line are opening up holes, it’s really hard to stop us, I think,” Fitzgerald said.

The Junior quarterback shared the same sentiment as his head coach, saying that their individual talents and abilities complement each other well. Certainly, Fitzgerald is a big-bodied quarterback who is capable and regularly successful in runs up the middle, and Williams has shown an aptitude for moving in space and catching passes on the perimeter. But the knowledge that Williams is almost always good for five or six yards up the middle, paired with the fact that Fitzgerald has more rushing touchdowns of over 40 yards than most quarterbacks have running scores of any variety, makes it hard for defenses to put all of their resources in one place.

“That’s kind of our job,” Fitzgerald said. “We can’t make it easy on them. They have to respect the outside and the perimeter, and they have to respect the middle. I think, as an offense, we’re pretty balanced. We can attack anywhere we want to.”

Williams confirmed that he, too, has seen the effects of defenses that can’t decide who to pursue. He knows that every time MSU snaps the ball, somewhere in the mind of every defender is the worry that Fitzgerald will take off running, whether it’s by design, by play-action or just because he saw an opening he didn’t expect.

Fitzgerald has already set a record for 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback at MSU, garnering his 10th such outing on Saturday and breaking Prescott’s record of nine. And since being inserted into the starting lineup, Williams has been one of the SEC’s most effective running backs. So long as both are on campus, things won’t get any easier for those who have the misfortune of trying to defend the Bulldogs.

“[Williams] is a very powerful,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a strong back. He’s gonna pound it up inside. He’s gonna get you yards. He’s gonna fall forward. If you pack it too tight, we can take it on the perimeter, or if you had bad eyes, I can pull and get around edge. It just depends on us being consistent and running the ball and moving people out of the way to make it work.”

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Christmann Kicks Up Confidence Level For Bulldog Offense

It started with an extra point, but no one seemed to notice it then. The second time out there, recognition started to seep in as a 30-yard field goal went straight through the middle of the uprights.

Oh, seemed to be the pleasantly surprised response of the crowd after that first field goal in the second quarter on Saturday.

In the third quarter when a 45-yard field goal sailed high, straight and right down the middle to give Mississippi State a 27-7 lead over LSU, the reaction was an all-caps, OH.

By the time the same guy hit his third field goal in as many attempts and fourth extra point in four tries, the same question was being asked by 60,000 people throughout the stadium: Who is this guy?

Jace Christmann – freshman, field goal kicker, knight in dri-fit armor.

After struggles in recent years to find a consistent field goal kicker, Christmann’s appearance on Saturday in Davis Wade Stadium felt to State fans more like Sir Galahad riding in on his mighty steed than the reality of a 195-pound redshirt freshman jogging onto the field.

In a game as complicated and detailed as football, with coaches putting their multi-million dollar contracts on the line every week, surely the development of a kicker like Christmann and the decision to send him out for his first-ever collegiate field goal attempt must have been a long, detailed and arduous process.

“Percentage–wise, he put the most through the uprights in practice last week,” head coach Dan Mullen said before laughing at the simplicity of the move. “At the end of the week, you use simple math … We went with him and he did a good job in the game.”

“I guess I had a good week,” Christmann confidently added.

Maybe things aren’t always as hard as they seem. In fact, things getting easier is the crux of this story. Starting with Christmann himself, that was the biggest improvement he made in the offseason. After struggling all of last year and even this spring, Christmann made some adjustments this fall.

“I think my biggest issue all of last year and in the spring is that I was going into the ball way too fast,” he said, “so I slowed down and really figured out I should trust my leg. That was the biggest thing for me.”

Don’t think so much, basically. And it’s helped a great deal. That was the aim – other than the uprights – on Saturday, as well. Holder and punter Logan Cooke talked to Christmann before each quick, reminding him to stay calm and affirming that he’s got it in the bag. He just has to do what he always does.

“Just know that this is what I do all day, every day,” Christmann said. “I don’t want to say it got easier, but I definitely felt more comfortable. I got into a rhythm and it just got easier from there.”

The other thing that gets easier, in a somewhat odd but not altogether surprising twist, is running an offense. Certainly, the primary objective of every possession is to get the football into the endzone while someone on your team is holding on to it. Touchdowns are the big prize, but like Galahad’s search for the Holy Grail proved, good things aren’t always the prettiest things. For MSU’s offense, the realization that A) three points as opposed to seven is possible, is followed by decreased levels of stress because B) three points is good, too.

In an odd way, having a reliable field goal kicker opens up the offense, because the pressure associated with the previous option of either seven points or none is now gone. Mullen, Nick Fitzgerald and the rest of the offense don’t have to force anything when they know they have a reliable field goal kicker, meaning they can run the offense and call the plays they’re most comfortable with.

“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable about, hey, if we don’t put it in the endzone, we’ll still at least get three points,” Fitzgerald, MSU’s junior quarterback, explained. “We have plenty of great field goal kickers. Jace played lights out, kicked great, couldn’t ask more from him. He’s a good guy. He works his butt off. I’m happy for him. He definitely gives us a little confidence that if we’re not putting into the endzone, then get it close, get three points and we’ll worry about it next drive.”

All this, just from a little practice.

“I mean, all I can do is kind of go off practice,” Mullen reiterated Saturday night, “and he was the best in practice this week, so we went with him. And you know what? He took advantage of his opportunity and did a good job.”

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No Upset In Starkvegas – Bulldogs Expected To Beat LSU

Call it déjà vu. Call it a blowout. Call it anything you want. But whatever you say about then-unranked Mississippi State dominating then-No. 11 LSU in Starkville on Saturday night, don’t call it an upset. At least not to the Bulldogs’ faces.

“Honestly, anyone inside that football facility this entire week, they would have never told you it would be called an upset,” star junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said after the 37-7 win in Davis Wade Stadium. “We knew that we were going to be able to come out there and play with them. We knew we would win if we played our game. We had no doubt in our mind that we were going to win this game.”

And sure, some might call it coachspeak or even hubris to make such a statement once a team has already secured the win, but Fitzgerald was just telling the truth. He knew it, his teammates knew it and his coaches really knew it: there was no reason for the Bulldogs not to think they’d still be undefeated by the end of the night Saturday.

“We knew we were going to win,” junior running back Aeris Williams confirmed. “All we had to do was execute to the best of our ability, and that’s what we did.”

Fitzgerald and Williams, together totaling over 400 yards and four touchdowns as they passed and ran their way through LSU’s defense all night, are where the proof backing up their claim begins. State’s offense was evidence not just of the talent Dan Mullen’s team has, but of the superb coaching job he did ahead of time. MSU was ready for the Tigers all night, always at least one step ahead, if not several. Like a grandmaster chess player, Mullen had his pieces in position from start to finish, attacking and devastating the opposition with every move.

For example: as MSU moved up and down the field, they also moved side-to-side, and as they did so, they knew where they could exploit LSU’s defense. As Fitzgerald explained after the game, they knew that whatever hashmark they were closest to, the open field side was where the Tigers were weak. Constantly, MSU rolled that direction on designed runs, quarterback rollouts and run-pass options all night.

“We knew they were going to be weak to the field,” Fitzgerald said. “We knew we could attack that part of the field for them. We always had two people in front of me blocking. Had great blocks. Make sure people on the perimeter are blocking, too. Really, all I do is run.”

Those constant runs – to the field side, to the boundary, up the middle – helped set up what was probably the biggest play of the game, and certainly the best example of just how prepared and how well-coached the Bulldogs were. It’s a play MSU has used before, and like any good checkmate, it requires a lengthy setup. But, when done right like it was Saturday to bust open the game and turn a 13-point scoring margin into a 27-7 lead, it can be the kill shot.

After all those runs, all those handoffs to Williams and all those scurries down the field by Fitzgerald, LSU clearly expected more of the same as the third quarter of the game was winding down. It was third-and-one, after all – a clear running situation. On the LSU 45-yard line, with the quarterback under center, surely the Bulldogs were going to trust their big, bruising rushers to get the single yard required to keep the drive alive.

So when Fitzgerald turned around after the snap and held the ball out for Williams to take, the defense collapsed on the area. They had stacked the box before the play even started, so when they saw what they expected, they bit on the bait. But Fitzgerald had tucked the ball to his side. Williams never actually took it, fooling even the cameraman zoomed in on the action.

And while the Tiger defenders were so intent on getting past all the blockers, 5’9” slot receiver Keith Mixon had darted past the scrum and was streaking down the field, wide open. As Fitzgerald turned back around and was about to be hit, he tossed a perfect pass to Mixon, who ran all 45 yards to the endzone without a single obstacle in his path. Touchdown, Bulldogs.

So, a reporter asked Fitzgerald after the game, was that a setup?

“Yes, sir,” the quarterback responded. “No doubt.”

And a credit to his coach, Fitzgerald was actually uncertain about the play call before the snap, but trusting his coach turned out to be exactly the right move.

“Honestly, I thought they weren’t going to give us the right defense for it,” he admitted. “Happily, they did, and they just walked up everybody up on the line in the box to try and stop it, and [Mixon] just slipped right by them.”

It was that coaching, that playcalling and that execution that led MSU to its biggest victory over a ranked opponent since World War II. MSU’s rushing attack paved the way for the offensive fireworks, and key passing decisions on big plays kept both the drives and the momentum going for the Bulldogs.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic for Fitzgerald wasn’t his rushing yards or his completion percentage, but his success passing on third downs. The junior was 5-of-8 on third down passes, earning a first down on all five completions. In fact, every single one of MSU’s four touchdown drives included a third-down pass completion to keep the chains moving, including the 45-yard touchdown pass.

“His management on third down I thought was huge for us tonight. A couple big ones,” Mullen said. “It was that management of putting us in the right situations I thought was huge.”

Fitzgerald explained his coach’s guidance: “He said, third downs, take what they give you. You don’t have to throw it past the sticks to get a first down. You can throw it underneath and run for it. That’s what happened tonight.”

And all of that without mentioning a defense that held LSU to a single touchdown, its only points of the game. A defense that held one of the country’s best running backs to only 76 yards, that held a starting quarterback to under 50% on his completion rate, that held an entire offense to 270 yards and that held the Tigers to an abysmal 3-of-13 third down conversion rate.

“We had a really good game plan coming in. We knew where to attack them. We knew where they were weak. We knew what we had to do,” Fitzgerald said. “From the first snap, we just knew if we played how we were supposed to play, we’d be fine.”

And to be clear, MSU’s players say, this wasn’t a one-time thing.

“I know that we can handle anybody,” Williams said.

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Simmons, Green Highlight Dominant Defensive Performance In Ruston

Down 9-3 on the road in the first quarter, Mississippi State’s defense was in a precarious position to still be in the game’s opening period. State’s offense had been struggling after three possessions had resulted in a punt, an interception and a field goal, and it was up to the defense to do something to get the team not just back in the game, but in the game at all.

Following MSU’s field goal to close the Louisiana Tech lead to 9-3, State forced a quick three-and-out and Tech sent out their punting team, pinned deep in their own territory. On the opposite sideline, sophomore defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was calling to the coaches and begging them to let him stay in. His team needed a big play, and he was ready to make it.

“I was like, ‘Coach, leave us on the field. I’m going to go block it,’” Simmons said.

MSU’s coaches obliged, leaving most of the starting defensive front in the game, but they still called a “safe punt” where the majority of the team dropped back to help block for Gabe Myles, the punt returner. Myles, of course, never touched the ball. The closest he ever got was when the ball flew directly into and bounced straight off of the outstretched hand of a leaping Simmons a split second after the snap.

“I was on the other side [of the formation from Simmons],” junior linebacker Gerri Green told reporters after the game, describing what he witnessed and experienced. “He blocked it, and then it was actually me – the ball was in front of me, it was a slow roller and everybody was behind me, so I just thought, ‘fall on it.’”

And then, not for the last time in Ruston on Saturday night, Simmons scooped up a piece of Green’s glory for himself.

“When I fell on it, it popped up,” Green recalled, “and he came and fell on it. I was like, ‘Man, you just took my touchdown! You just took my touchdown!’ But I was happy for him, I was just messing with him.”

After the ensuing extra point by kicker Tucker Day, MSU not only held the lead, but dominated the rest of the game on both sides of the ball, not allowing Tech’s offense any more than a field goal until garbage time late in the fourth quarter. And the fact that State went on to win 57-21 continued to be due in large part to the combined efforts of Simmons and Green.

Green, all by himself, racked up an incredible stat line of seven tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. The only things he missed are the two would-be touchdowns. Those, of course, went to Simmons.

Five tackles, two touchdowns, a blocked punt, a blocked extra point and the longest touchdown of the day – Simmons was an absolute star, just as the coaches who built MSU’s defense were counting on him to be.

Five minutes into the third quarter, with MSU then up 43-13, Green and Simmons teamed up again when Green delivered a strong blow to Tech’s quarterback, knocking the ball loose for Simmons to scoop up once again.

“It’s all because of Gerri,” Simmons made sure to explain afterward.

But when Simmons picked up the ball, it was Green and the rest of his teammates who were racing along behind him as the 300-pound lineman sprinted – as much as someone built for running no more than several steps at a time can – for the entire 90 yards between the point of the recovery and the opposite endzone.

“We knew he had it,” Green said. “We had him. We had a barricade behind him so no one would catch him. We just had to make sure he didn’t run out of gas.”

“I didn’t even know,” Simmons said, confessing that he thought would-be tacklers were on his tail the whole time. “I thought they were close. I just saw gold. I was just running. Running hard.”

“He was outstanding, man,” Green said in summation of his younger teammate. “Two touchdowns by a guy his size, that’s crazy. We’re proud of him. He had a little speed on the second one. It’s an incredible night for him.”

It was great night for Green too, of course, who very well could’ve been the star of the game himself had those been his scoops instead of Simmons’. But neither player cares who gets the glory or the points, nor do any of their teammates. “We work together as a team,” Simmons explained, while Green’s smiles describing the game and the play of the defense said everything about how he truly felt.

“We’re just a closer unit,” Green shared. “When we were down 9-0, we told each other to just stay together. It’s our first adversity this season. We just had to jell together and be together in that time.”

For Green, Simmons and all others who have been a part of such special defensive performances in back-to-back games to open the season, it’s a joy to be a part of. Under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, MSU’s players are finding their roles, discovering their abilities and putting into action a direct and successful plan.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Green said. “When you’ve got plays like we made tonight – guys running 90 yards for a touchdown – it’s just awesome. Just to play in this defense is exciting.”

And certainly, it helps when Green and Simmons have nights like they did, no matter who gets the glory.

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How Kylin Hill, Willie Gay, Jr., Earned Roles As True Freshmen

Six months before they made their debuts on the field for Mississippi State’s football team, Kylin Hill and Willie Gay, Jr., were seniors in high school running sprints, doing exercises and lifting weights at Starkville High’s athletic complex where Gay was on track to soon graduate. He and Hill, who was finishing his last year at nearby Columbus High School, had hired a trainer to work with them all spring before they enrolled in classes at MSU and started summer workouts with the team. They wanted to be ready when they arrived.

In fact, the two State signees wanted to be ready so badly that when the Bulldogs started spring practice in March, Hill and Gay would go straight from their workouts at SHS over to MSU’s practices at the Seal Complex. They couldn’t participate in practice, of course, but as signees, they were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Two of the top-ranked players in the state, Gay and Hill weren’t content to rely on talent alone. They went to every practice, watching and listening so they could learn and get familiar with how things ran. After practice, they’d hang out in the locker room with their future teammates. After that, they’d go talk to their coaches about what they saw at practice and how it applies to them.

Many days, the pair would be at MSU’s team facility from one in the afternoon until nine at night, just trying to soak in as much as they could.

“We thought we should just come up here more and look at how everything worked, how the game speed looked, so that when we come here we could adjust to it and be ready to go,” Hill said.

“I loved coming up here to watch and see what the life of a college athlete really is,” Gay added.

Certainly, each of the players was going to have a good chance to play as a true freshman in 2017 given the combination they both have of size, speed and strength. Hill, a running back, is one the highest-rated rushers to sign with MSU in years, and Gay is one of the most promising linebacker prospects the state of Mississippi has produced lately. However, both of them expressed a desire to not only get on the field, but to be active contributors and big pieces for their respective sides of the ball.

They were able to do that and more in their first game, as both of them were starters on special teams, lining up next to each other on kickoffs in addition to their roles on standard offensive and defensive downs. Hill was given nine carries in MSU’s season opener against Charleston Southern and he rushed for 62 yards on those, including a 19-yard scamper on his first rush, as he led the team with a whopping 6.9 yards per carry.

“I ain’t gonna lie, I was kind of nervous when I was running,” Hill confessed. “I was thinking too much. I know I should’ve scored. But it was exciting.”

Gay, meanwhile, played extensively himself and notched two tackles, including one particularly nice tackle for loss.

“Willie did a good job,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He went in and understood the calls, could communicate coming off the sidelines or coming over to the sidelines after a series. He can run. His ability to run and accelerate showed up.”

Beyond their performance and their natural talent, Hill and Gay have also gained an unusual amount of respect from older players on the team, due largely in part to their willingness to work.

Senior linebacker and team captain Dez Harris, who said he expects Gay to be freshman All-SEC this year and an All-American by the end of his career, was first impressed not by the young man’s talent, but by his eagerness and work ethic when he showed up every day in the spring.

“It definitely helped just for the guys on the team to get to see his face and know who he is and know that he’s willing to work,” Harris said. “He’s been here and he didn’t have to be here. He’s been here trying to learn the defense, learn what he’s going to have to do, learn what his role is going to be. Knowing that he was willing to make that sacrifice when he wasn’t even on campus, that’s a big deal.”

The same held true for Hill as evidenced after Saturday’s game when junior and starting running back Aeris Williams was borderline gleeful as he talked about the performance of his backup. Rather than feeling threatened by another running back having success, Williams was thrilled to see hard work pay off for the true freshman.

“I know what he can do. When he gets out there on the field, I tell him to just calm down and make his plays because he’s a great athlete,” Williams said. “He’s powerful. That man is just strong. He came in strong.”

For Hill and Gay to continue the accelerated path of success they’re on, the two will have to maintain their work ethic, at the very least, and the hardest work is likely still to come. However, their early results have shown what can come through dedication and determination.

It’s a cliché of coaching to say that hard works beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. But at Mississippi State, Gay and Hill are trying to show their coaches what can happen when you mix talent and hard work.

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