OPINION: Culture shift the first big step in Starkville

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

The fumbles are frustrating. The defensive letdowns are discouraging. The near misses are maddening.
There is much that Mississippi State fans can fuss about, but it seems most of them are able to see the larger picture. They’re able to keep in mind, as we all should, that this is why they call it a rebuilding effort.
And I mean, it’s a massive rebuilding effort. That becomes more and more apparent each game.
That’s why it’s so amazing that the Bulldogs could very easily be 4-1 instead of 2-3 heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Houston (3-1). We could be talking bowl game, people. Bowl game!
So close, and with a team that’s woefully short in the three most important areas – talent, depth and experience.
It can’t possibly be overstated how far behind the rest of the SEC this program was when Dan Mullen took over in December.
Take away the anomalous 2007 season, when the Bulldogs went 4-4 in league play, and they’ve got a record of 9-47 in SEC games since 2001. OK, let’s throw in the ’07 season, and it’s still a paltry 13-51.
What Mullen has shown us is that while you ultimately need more talent and better coaching to be a better program in the long run, a team culture shift can work wonders in the short term.
I’ve said this before: Last year’s team just seemed happy to be here, perhaps a little soft after the successful 2007 season, which included a Liberty Bowl win.
For all this team lacks, it has more of an edge to it than last year’s. I suspected as much in August, and the first give games have proved it.
Last year’s Bulldogs would’ve probably folded when a top-10 LSU team goes up by nine points on a 93-yard punt return for touchdown in the fourth quarter.
But they fought back and were mere inches away from a huge upset.
In its two other losses, State has kept pushing even when the game was essentially out of hand. It’s notable that MSU has outscored its opponents in the fourth quarter, 42-28, more than in any other quarter.
Such fortitude is a good trait to develop for a team undergoing big changes, especially given the upcoming schedule. Speaking of schedules, MSU’s is tied with Colorado’s for second-toughest in the nation based on opponents’ records, behind only Iowa.
State’s first five opponents have a combined mark of 14-5, and the remaining seven are 22-8 altogether. At least 10 of MSU’s opponents should go bowling this year, and of course that doesn’t include Jackson State of Division I-AA.
It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint and quantify intangibles like perseverance and grit, but this team seems to have it. You see it in guys like quarterback Tyson Lee, the perpetual underdog; receiver Brandon McRae, the eternal optimist; middle linebacker Jamar Chaney, the determined center of the defense; and most of all, Mullen, whose football acumen is matched by his irrepressible passion for winning, even when he’s not supposed to win.
And few expect MSU to win much this year, and many expect them to keep losing beyond 2009.
While this project is still in its infant stages, and while the Bulldogs are far from great, this team has the feel of one that believes great things are just around the corner.
“Coach Mullen, he always talks about fighting, fighting, fighting, never giving up until there are four zeros on the clock,” running back Arnil Stallworth said Monday, “and that’s what we’ve been doing lately.”

Brad Locke (brad.locke@djournal.com) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com