Saturday, September 8, 2012
Tougher Bulldogs give Mullen big SEC win
By Edward Aschoff
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- As Dan Mullen watched the play clock inside Davis Wade Stadium tick down below a minute, he was anxiously pacing down Mississippi State's sideline.
The game was out of hand, but you could tell Mullen was just waiting for the clock to hit triple zeros.
Once it did, Mullen exhaled a battle cry as everyone in maroon joyously celebrated the 28-10 win against Auburn.
All that jubilation, which carried over in front of Mississippi State's band and into the locker room, was more than warranted.
For the first time in Mullen's tenure as Mississippi State head coach, he came away with a victory against an SEC West opponent not named Ole Miss -- The School Up North as he and his players refer to the Rebels. It was also the first time the Bulldogs won their SEC opener since 1999.
"It feels great," Mullen said. "As of right this second, we're sitting in first place in the SEC West. I don't know if that's happened in quite a while here at Mississippi State.
"It's a great feeling."
It also feels great because Mullen can finally shed the stigma that he has been able to beat only the Rebels in the West. He gets some welcomed revenge over the Tigers, which had beaten him five straight times dating to his days as Florida's offensive coordinator.
There's no question Mullen has been great for Mississippi State. He injected much-needed success and excitement into a Mississippi State program that was struggling to tread water in the SEC before he arrived.
But what had eluded him during his first three seasons were multiple SEC West wins and a victory to open conference play. He is halfway to accomplishing both this season.
"We've always thought we could compete with people in the SEC, beat people in the SEC, but it feels good to go out there and get a win against someone other than TSUN," senior cornerback Johnthan Banks said.
Added quarterback Tyler Russell: "A lot of teams will stop overlooking us and start respecting us. We have talented guys on this team. We knew we had to beat them to get people to understand that Mississippi State is for real."
But this couldn't have been an easy one for Mullen to stomach early on. The way his Bulldogs were playing -- and from some of the offensive calls made -- Mississippi State just couldn't get out of its own way.
Drives started with promise but ended in disappointment. Cute plays stunted momentum, and mistakes kept the Tigers, which looked overmatched for most of the day, in the game. If not for a sloppy first half, the score probably would have been worse.
But Mississippi State, which has seen those sorts of mistakes wreck a game, rebounded mightily in the second half. After Onterio McCalebb returned the half's opening kickoff 100 yards to give the Tigers the 10-7 lead, the Bulldogs scored the final 21 points.
The mistakes vanished and a tougher, more disciplined team arrived, thanks in part by some impressive play from Mississippi State's veterans.
Russell completed 20 of 29 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Chad Bumphis caught three passes for 47 yards and the go-ahead score in the third. Banks grabbed two interceptions, and LaDarius Perkins rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
"In this type of game, you want your seniors, you want your star players to want the game put on their shoulders, and those guys performed and played that way today," Mullen said.
Auburn now has more problems than solutions. Tackling was an issue again, and both lines struggled. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier looked totally lost, as the Bulldogs turned him into a true drop-back passer.
The Tigers have little room for error and could be fighting for a bowl berth.
"It was mind-boggling," Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead said. "We thought this was a game we could take. We missed a lot of opportunities out there."
Mississippi State finds itself with some solid momentum. With the upcoming schedule consisting of three nonconference games, Tennessee at home and Kentucky, there's a chance the Bulldogs could be 6-1 or 7-0 heading into the Oct. 27 trip to Alabama.
People will expect a lot more from Mississippi State, but Mullen wants those higher expectations. One monkey might have jumped off his back, but a bigger one just climbed on.
"I hope in November we're talking about an 800-pound gorilla jumping on my back," Mullen said. "That's what I want for our program."