STARKVILLE – Mississippi State has played well to start its past two games but have had to hold on for victories in those games.
The Bulldogs held a 21-13 halftime lead against Bowling Green and were shutout in the second half managing to squeak by with a 21-20 lead. Thursday night MSU was up 21-10 at the half on Kentucky only to prevail 28-22 for its first Southeastern Conference win of the season.
Dan Mullen has seen his team struggle in the second half all season. But instead of losing games late, the Bulldogs have been able to do just enough to come out on top in their last two contests improving to 4-3 on the year.
“In the end it’s finding a way to win football games,” Mullen said. “50-percent of the teams don’t get to do that. Anything less than you’re A-game and you’re probably not going to win. We’ve found a way in key moments of the game to be playing our A-game and win the last couple of weeks.”
State took the weekend off and will resume its normal game week routine on Monday in preparation for a road trip to South Carolina on Saturday.
“The coaches got a little bit of a head start game-planning but we gave the team as a whole some time off to go rest,” Mullen said. “The guys have been grinding for a long time. It’s an opportunity for guys to step away, clear their head and get ready to play this home stretch of the season.”
The Gamecocks crowed back trailing Missouri 17-0 on the road entering the fourth quarter. But senior quarterback Connor Shaw sparked a comeback off the bench to send the game into double overtime and eventually into a 27-24 victory.
“South Carolina showed what type of team they are (Saturday) night overcoming adversity and showing why they are a top 25 team nationally,” Mullen said. “It was a much different team when Connor Shaw came in. He’s a great player and a great quarterback. A winner makes it happen for them. On top of that, they have (Jadeveon Clowney) the best individual defensive player in the country.”
Saturday morning Mullen will match wits with Steve Spurrier for the second time during his stint at Mississippi State. The Gamecocks won 14-12 in Starkville during the 2011 season.
Mullen analyzed Spurrier’s ‘Fun n’ Gun’ offense at Florida closely in the 1990’s as he came through the coaching ranks. There is even a sprinkle of Spurrier’s influence on the offense the Bulldogs currently use.
“I remember I used to study it,” Mullen said. “In our current offense there’s a little bit of stuff but not a whole lot. We’re more of a spread (team) but we use more of the offensive philosophies more than the actual specific schematics. He started to create matchups by spreading the field where the quarterback could see things, make good decisions and create one-on-one matchups.”
So far MSU has only turned the ball over six times during the first seven games which is the lowest in the league. But that is just one component that helps secure a victory on Saturdays according to Mullen.
“There’s not one statistic in the game of football that leads to wins,” Mullen said. “There’s a lot of things that are combined but winning the turnover battle and time of possession certainly help.”
In the last outing against Kentucky, Mullen surprised many by sending sophomore Devon Bell out to punt several times. Bell has struggled with field goal accuracy this season and had attempted only one career punt entering the game.
Bell got off three successful punts against the Wildcats for a 41.7 yard average including a 46-yarder but dropped a snap in his own end zone forcing a safety. Fifth-year senior Baker Swedenburg, who was recently nominated for the Ray Guy Award, punted only twice versus UK.
Mullen reiterated that a punter’s role is determined by his practice performance.
“It’s like that with every position on the field,” Mullen said. “These guys come and they all get their opportunities to make plays on the field. If you do well in practice you get an opportunity in games.”
Senior safety Nickoe Whitley was ejected from the Kentucky game after committing two personal fouls during the Wildcats final drive of the first half. While Whitley’s ejection only stood for the remainder of the game as far as the SEC is concerned, Mullen might have some additional punishment in store.
“I haven’t met with him yet but I will when they get back,” Mullen said. “I let him get away from it all. It was disappointing for him but (additional discipline) is something we’ll handle internally as the week goes on.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Quay Evans was suspended for the Kentucky game for a violation of team rules. Mullen stated Sunday afternoon that Evans’ punishment would also be handled internally and did not comment when he would return to the field.