This week’s game: No. 13 MSU (7-0, 3-0 SEC) at No. 1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0), Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe)
Our final chance to speak with MSU coach Dan Mullen came on the SEC coaches teleconference this morning. His Bulldogs are getting ready for their biggest challenge of the season, and Mullen talked a lot about how to approach this week, this game and this opponent. And he said some interesting things about keeping QB Tyler Russell on board after Mullen took over the program.
Here’s the full transcript.
We’re pretty excited about this week. Obviously a big week, great opportunity for our guys. We look at this as a a championship-caliber game for us. As we get ready to play, we’ve talked to our guys about that this week. You get into championship games, you’ve got to be ready to play for four quarters, and there’s going to be a lot of potential momentum swings back and forth, back and forth. We’re going to have to weather the storm of the crowd, weather the storm of all the different momentum swings and continue to have great focus, great execution and play hard and be ready for a 60-minute fight on Saturday night.
Cam Lawrence said he’s seen a ‘glow’ in eye of teammates, have you seen that, and how have practices gone?
It’s gone pretty good. We haven’t changed anything that we do. We’ve kept on our regular schedule. I do think you see in the guys a little bit more, their intensity, they’re watching a little extra film. You can see their intensity within the preparation really picking up this week. Our guys understand that this is a big game.
Offensive line in best shape it’s been to take on this kind of defense?
We’re ready to take on this challenge. I don’t know anybody that’s really run the ball against them in the last couple of years. Our guys are certainly up to the challenge of playing in a big game. These are games that all these guys, it’s why they came to Mississippi State, to come play in these big-time games.
On being a 24-point underdog, not earning respect:
I don’t know what it effects, because I’ve never set any odds for any games. It really has no effect to me on the course of the game. I don’t know what it means, and it’s probably a good question for somebody in Vegas.
On keeping Tyler Russell during recruiting process:
Tyler, when I got hired here, he was committed to us. He and I talked, and he de-committed for a little while, because he wanted to take a visit and make sure he took his time to get to know me. I remember he called me, we talked one night, the night before I was back coaching at Florida before the national title game. He said, ‘Coach, I want to be your quarterback, I want to be your leader.’ And I think what he understood at that point was we were going to build something special. Players from the state of Mississippi could stay at home and have the opportunity to play and represent their state and their state university and play in championship-level football games. When he realized we were going to build that here and that was going to be our focus, I think he trusted in what we were going to do, what we were going to build. He wanted to be not just a part of it, but actually a leader and a major part of it. He’s done a fabulous job throughout his career of being that leader, of continually developing and really a major part of putting us in the position to play in this big of a game.
You’re balanced on offense, how critical is that this week?
This is the most balanced we’ve been. Our guys really understand what we’re doing this year and what our goal is, and they’ve really grown in the offense. Playing a team like Alabama, you have to have a balance. They’re the top defense in just about every category that you can have defensively in the nation, but you’re not going to beat them by going all run, all pass. You’ve got to continually have balance. You’ve got to try to run the ball, whether you’re having success or not. You’ve got to continually try to pound away and run the ball, and you’ve got to take shots down the field, and you’ve got to complete those shots when you have an opportunity to make a play. You’ve got to stay on the field on third down and convert and flip the field position.
On Russell being a top-flight QB:
I think in understanding defenses and understanding the different looks he’s gonna see. When all of a sudden you expect one thing, they have a great disguise, the coverage rolls opposite the way you were expecting it to roll and you go from your first read to your second read and all of a sudden the second read is not there, the blitz is coming and you can go to a third guy, a check-down and get the ball out of your hands. Those things, the decision making and how he fast he makes his decisions is where he’s really improved the most. Through the years, he understood the offense but the amount of time he got to play last year, he understood that, ‘Hey, I better know what’s going on or I’m going to get hit pretty hard out here on the field. I’ve got to know where to go with the ball, when to go with it and get it out of my hands as fast as possible in this league.’
On LaDarius Perkins vs. Alabama’s defensive front:
The other thing that you hope is when he gets to have success in running the ball … if you look statistically, if you get an opportunity to get in the open field, we’ve got to finish the run. You look and that’s part of staying with the run game — is continuing to pound away, pound away. If you get away from it, you might miss that opportunity to get a guy like Perkins, where he does get a crease and he gets into that secondary, he can pull away and hopefully hit the home run on them.
Is his best attribute recognizing holes and hitting them quickly up front?
It’s experience. He’s been in the system, he knows what’s going on, he knows how to anticipate where the runs are going to be depending on what defense we see. For not being a big guy, he does run kind of physical. That is what makes him a little different. People don’t expect him to be as physical between the tackles, so when he does hit it up inside, and he does get a crease, that’s where he’s getting his explosive plays. A lot more up the middle than on the perimeter.
What attracted Mullen to MSU?
The first thing I did when I heard they wanted to speak to me was go online and do some research about the state of Mississippi and the football talent that is here. The No. 1 thought I had was, if I can start at home and start in state and get the best players in Mississippi to come play for us, we’re going to have a chance to be successful. Over the last four years, they’ve done that, they’ve believed in that and they’ve wanted to come play for their state university and represent the people of Mississippi on the field.
Secondly, you get in and meet with Greg Byrne, the athletic director at the time; Scott Stricklin was with him and is our current athletic director. As you discussed it and the vision of what I had in how we can build a program, of having everybody on the same page and creating and setting a game-day environment, getting large crowds to come to the stadium, the vision of how we can build facilities and continue to grow the program to compete with everybody else in the Southeastern Conference. Everybody, we kind of had the same vision and were on the same page. You don’t always have that from top to bottom. That’s what made this such an attractive place for me. We’ve been able to follow through with that plan. Here we are three-and-a-half players getting to play in a pretty big game late in the season.
On getting to this position:
When we came here, we certainly wanted to be in this position. We’ve talked. Hey, we’ve had some good years but we haven’t had the opportunity to play the game here in the last week of October. The winner of this game is in first place in the SEC West. We haven’t been in that position before and that’s something we wanted to build on. We wanted the opportunity to compete for SEC West championships and here we are. In our fourth season we’ve put ourselves in position. It’s the halfway point of our conference schedule, but if we’re in first place at the halfway point after this weekend, we’re going to feel pretty good. As this league goes, be ready for a bunch more challenging games down the stretch.