STARKVILLE – It was early during August camp, and Mississippi State’s defensive players were having an unfamiliar experience.
The offense was moving the ball on them.
That’s when senior quarterback Tyson Lee realized something about this team was different under Dan Mullen. Not just different, but better.
“I think through that, (the defense) got a sense that we were doing something different, we got a sense, and I guess it’s kind of a team thing,” Lee said.
This team now is expecting to be in a bowl game come December. State (4-5, 2-3 SEC), which is idle today, must win two of its next three to become bowl eligible – and that will be no easy task with the opponents being Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
“We plan on winning all three of them, because these games are very winnable that we’ve got coming up,” junior linebacker K.J. Wright said. “We just know that we keep doing what we do best, a good bowl, we can get it.”
That’s the sort of expectations the Bulldogs latched onto months ago after Mullen took over as head coach. What happened in fall camp was merely confirmation of what the players began believing during spring practice and grueling offseason workouts.
“The stuff that we did, you have to be a strong team and a good team to go through that kind of stuff and not have that many people go down and quit or just to be complaining consistently about what we’re doing,” senior linebacker Jamar Chaney said. “Training camp and all that wasn’t hard.”
Mullen said he didn’t enter the season with any expectations. He didn’t watch much film of last year’s team and didn’t want the struggles of 2008 to have any influence on 2009.
“I wanted to give everybody a clean slate when they showed up this year,” he said. “You can attribute (improvement) to our guys have really bought into our system.”
A quick scan of the stat sheet shows just how much the Bulldogs have improved on offense. They’re averaging more points (26.9), total yards (384.7), rushing yardage (219.2) and first downs (19.6) per game than last season. Time of possession is up (31:30), as is the red zone conversion rate (26 of 33 times, or 79 percent).
So the question is, how?
Lee said the spread offense has a lot to do with it, as well as the confidence that comes from early success.
The players have gotten encouragement from the fans, too. Wright said several fans have commented on how hard the Bulldogs play for four quarters.
“I think once you play hard, good things will happen to you,” he said. “Just like last week, we played all four quarters, and good things happen to you.”
Last week was a 31-24 win at Kentucky, and it’s made this bye week quite an enjoyable one. MSU isn’t taking it easy, though. Just ask Lee.
Following Wednesday’s practice, he had to roll up and down the practice field for 150 yards as punishment for turning the ball over during drills. At the end, artificial grass and the black rubber pebbles it rests on were stuck to his sweat-soaked skin and uniform.
No mercy in an off week.
“That’s one thing, they’re always consistent,” Lee said of the coaching staff. “And you can’t help but appreciate them for that. That’s what winning programs do, that’s what champions do, and that’s what they’re trying to produce here.”
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Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal