In his first two games against Alabama, Mullen has left the field thoroughly beaten. The Crimson Tide won in Starkville two years ago, 31-3, en route to the BCS title. Last year in Tuscaloosa, it was a 30-10 victory.
Mullen has clear memories of those games, in particular what MSU did wrong.
“Two years ago we dropped three passes that would have been touchdowns,” he said. “I think last year we had four dropped passes. We moved the ball OK, but we gave up three 40- or 50-plus-yard touchdowns last year. You take those three touchdowns away and it is a 10-10 ball game.”
That’s one way to spin it. On the other hand, take away an early field goal and garbage-time touchdown by MSU, and it’s a shutout.
But the point remains: Mullen believes that as long as the Bulldogs don’t beat themselves, they can beat Alabama. They get another chance at that Saturday, when the No. 4-ranked Crimson Tide (8-1, 5-1 SEC) visit Davis Wade Stadium for a 6:45 p.m. kickoff on ESPN.
In last year’s loss, Alabama was leading 6-3 in the second quarter when Greg McElroy hit Marquis Maze for a 45-yard touchdown pass. A few minutes later, tailback Mark Ingram took a swing pass and streaked downfield for a 78-yard score.
The game was iced early in the third quarter on Julio Jones’ 56-yard TD run.
Simply put, Alabama made the big plays, MSU didn’t.
“When you watch the film, we had opportunities, and we didn’t capitalize on them,” offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “You can go through it, the first time we were here (in 2009), catch a couple of balls, do a couple of things, now we’re ahead in the game. That’s the issue: We’re getting the matchups, now we’ve got to go make the plays.”
Assuming the players believe as Mullen and Koenning do, then there should be a healthy confidence come Saturday. MSU (5-4, 1-4) has plenty to play for, such as bowl eligibility.
“I’m pretty sure if we do all the little things right, win No. 6 will come,” tailback Vick Ballard said.
Among the little things that must be done right this weekend is tackling Trent Richardson, the SEC’s leading rusher and a Heisman Trophy frontrunner. OK, that’s actually a big thing.
State has tried to simulate him in practice with freshmen Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton, but that only helps so much.
MSU can take encouragement from the fact that it held Ingram to 53 yards on 18 carries last season (Richardson didn’t play in that game). But Richardson, according to Mullen, was the “most dangerous” player for Alabama last season, and he’s been a beast this fall.
How to stop him? Gang up.
“He doesn’t go down with one guy, so we definitely have to have all 11 hats to the ball with him,” linebacker Brandon Wilson said.
Then there’s that Bama defense, which ranks first nationally in several major categories. It’s stingy against the big play and has forced 60 three-and-outs this season, tops in the country.
“You’ve got to treat them like another team,” quarterback Tyler Russell said. “I don’t think it’s about what they do, it’s more about what we do.”