JACKSON — Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has succeeded in building a program that’s competitive against any team in the Southeastern Conference.
Actually winning has been a much more daunting task.
One of the best examples of Mississippi State’s recent improvement — and frustration — came last season against LSU, when the Bulldogs fought toe-to-toe with the Tigers all afternoon in Starkville.
Then late in the fourth quarter with four opportunties at the goalline to pull off the upset, MSU was stopped a couple inches short of a touchdown as LSU preserved its 30-26 victory.
Now Mississippi State (1-1) gets another crack at No. 15 LSU (2-0), this time in Baton Rouge, La. The Bulldogs have lost 10 straight to the Tigers dating back to 1999.
“It’s tough to come up short, but you just have to keep pressing forward to forget about it and just keep thinking about your goals,” MSU left tackle Derek Sherrod said.
Mullen, in his second year as MSU’s coach, has spent his two years in Starkville trying to instill a winning attitude in his team. But outside of an emotional win over rival Mississippi in last year’s Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs haven’t had any program-defining moments.
From a Mississippi State perspective, the LSU loss might be most remembered because of the poor execution at the goalline in the final minutes. But Mullen’s other chief recollection is four Bulldog turnovers while LSU had none.
“If we were plus-four on that turnover ratio last year, I wonder what the result of the game would have been?” Mullen said.
LSU has won its first two games of the season, including the season-opener over a depleted North Carolina team that benched more than a dozen players because of an NCAA investigation. The Tigers also beat Vanderbilt 27-3 in Nashville on Saturday.
LSU coach Les Miles and his players were quick to praise Mississippi State, referencing how close the Bulldogs were to beating then-No. 21 Auburn last week before losing 17-14.
“They’ve got more swagger this year,” LSU running back Steven Ridley said. “Their offense is kind of stepping up. And their defense — last year they were fast but I think this year they’ve got a lot of young guys that are even faster and more intelligent in trying to read their keys.”
But Mississippi State’s loss to Auburn brough back a common theme: Multiple opportunities to win a crucial game were wasted, meaning the Bulldogs were left trying to appreciate moral victories instead of celebrating a real one.
“We’ve got to clean some things up,” Mullen said.
Several crucial drops by receivers hurt Mississippi State in the Auburn loss, including one by Leon Berry that would have put the Bulldogs in field goal range late in the fourth quarter.
“We have all the talent on the team that we need, and we have the playcalling and the coaches,” Sherrod said. “Basically we have all the tools at hand, so we have to use them.”
Sherrod said the Bulldogs won’t get away with many mistakes in a stadium nicknamed Death Valley, especially on a Saturday night when the atmosphere is particularly intimidating, or it will be another disappointing ending to an important game.
Mullen said its his job to make sure the Bulldogs don’t lose confidence despite the setbacks. Though last year’s win over Ole Miss helped the program, the Auburn loss shows how far they have to go.
“This year, we’ve had one close game and we didn’t make the play at the end,” Mullen said. “I think that’s part of it, you just have to continually do it. When we can continually make every play in the game were going to be a championship level football team.”
Dave Brandt/The Associated Press