By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dan Mullen has a thing for on-field speeches.
He did it after the 2009 Egg Bowl, pointing out that Mississippi State was the one program in the state that’s “definitely on the rise.”
He did it before this year’s Kentucky game, imploring fans to abide by the SEC’s guidelines for ringing their cowbells.
And the second-year head coach was back behind the microphone on Saturday, this time after his Bulldogs demolished Michigan, 52-14, in the Gator Bowl. After being presented the trophy, Mullen declared, “This is just the beginning.”
He expounded on that in the postgame interview session, and it was a reiteration of something he’d talked about earlier in the week.
“We went from average to good, and now we want the ability to go from good to great,” Mullen said. “Hopefully that catapults us into the step from good to great just as the winning the last game of our (2009) season did going into that offseason.”
Good to great. How close are the Bulldogs to making that leap?
The final tally for MSU in 2010: Nine wins (most since 1999), four losses (all to teams playing in better bowl games). That’s a four-game improvement from 2009.
State also went 4-4 in SEC play. It’s currently ranked 21st in the country and should jump several spots when the final rankings come out later this month.
It might not be great, but it’s sure in the neighborhood.
Consider that MSU has done all this despite a ton of youth and not much depth at some key positions.
So how have those disadvantages been counteracted?
A lot of it is coaching. Mullen has developed Chris Relf into a solid quarterback, one the coaches have grown comfortable with in passing situations.
In his first year as its coordinator, Manny Diaz has turned the defense into a fearsome unit, and with a lot of the same players that made up a 2009 defense that was one of the worst in the SEC.
A good bit of it is players. Vick Ballard came in from Gulf Coast Community College and took command of the tailback position. If not for the fact that Relf’s such a good running quarterback, Ballard could’ve easily had 1,000 yards rushing (he finished with 968).
Speaking of Relf, he was molded by the coaches, but that’s because he was willing to put in the extra work and learn the position.
One play on Saturday illustrated that.
From MSU’s own 12-yard line, Relf dropped back and looked, and looked, and looked for a receiver. Finally, as the pressure closed in, he dumped it off to LaDarius Perkins, who raced 81 yards to Michigan’s 7.
“I told Chris, ‘I have a feeling you’re going to play your best game of the season,’” Mullen said. “I think you saw the maturity that Chris has starting to come along, how he’s starting to mature by managing the game, checking that long play to Perkins.”
Relf’s growth is a result of his belief in Mullen. Both believed what most others couldn’t: That Relf could be a legit QB.
Matters of belief
Belief is a big thing with this team.
Belief is what drove MSU’s young receivers to show up big in a big game. Ricco Sanders hadn’t caught a pass all year; Michael Carr had caught one. Each had a touchdown reception against Michigan.
Mullen had asked each of those young guys to embrace the challenge.
While Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was bemoaning the cost of having youth on the field, Mullen simply expected his freshmen to make something happen.
And they did.
They plan on making more happen, because this is just the beginning. That’s what Mullen says, and that’s what the Bulldogs believe.
“All our coach expects out of us is greatness,” Carr said. “He won’t let us slip, he won’t let us fall. He’s the type that always pushes us, and that’s the type of coach you need.
“And when we have that, we can look forward to big and greater things in the future.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.