Miss. State showed bowl promise

Published 12:02 am Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mississippi State showed flashes Friday night of the type of team they should be going forward.

Because if the Bulldogs are going to keep churning out winning seasons, they are going to have to do more of what they did in a 23-17 win against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl.

Since taking over in Starkville, head coach Dan Mullen and his staff have made big steps in getting the Mississippi State program out of a cycle of having losing seasons almost annually. Mullen’s predecessor Sylvester Croom managed just one winning season in his five-year tenure, going 8-5 in 2007. In his other four years, Croom’s teams had one four-win season and three, three-win seasons.

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Mullen is currently 21-17 as a head coach, and with the win against Wake Forest, the Bulldogs have had back-to-back winning seasons, something that hasn’t happened at Mississippi State since the late ’90s.

Ironically, despite the initial hoopla surrounding the type of team Mullen would field when he first arrived in Starkville, his team showed signs in the Music City Bowl of resembling a traditional SEC team: strong running game, good defense.

Mullen came from Florida, where he was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator during a time where the spread offense was all the craze. Yet, Mississippi State’s success against Wake Forest came primarily on the ground, with running back Vic Ballard leading a power running attack for which Wake Forest simply had no answer. Ballard tallied 180 of the Bulldog’s 253 rushing yards, scoring two touchdowns in the process, while the passing game acted as a supplement for Mississippi State, with quarterback Chris Relf completing 12 of 20 passes for 129 yards.

Ideally, Mullen would probably like to run an offense very similar to what he did at Florida. But as the Gators and Auburn Tigers are discovering, unless you have a physical freak at quarterback like Tim Tebow or Cam Newton that can act as a major rushing threat, that kind of offense isn’t going to do a whole lot in the SEC. The defenses are simply too good. If Mississippi State is to maintain any kind of success, the Bulldogs are best suited to do more of what they did Friday, both offensively and defensively.

And let’s talk about the Bulldogs’ defense this season. According to an in-game graphic during the Music City Bowl, Mississippi State has only given up six plays all season that went for more than 30 yards. That’s one less than Alabama and LSU, which both have given up seven plays of more than 30 yards.

Also, even in the Bulldogs’ six losses, only two teams scored more than 30 points: Auburn and Arkansas. Of those two games, only Arkansas was a blowout loss. As for the two teams in the BCS title game, the Bulldogs held LSU to 19 points and Alabama to 24.

Mullen doesn’t have the passing-game prowess that a coach like Bobby Petrino brings to Arkansas, despite Arkansas not having classes that are as highly-rated as the LSUs or the Alabamas of the world. With that in mind, Mississippi State should model itself against the likes of LSU and Alabama: run the ball, pass when you need to, shut the other team down on defense.

Winning the Egg Bowl also helps, which Mullen has done in each of his three years. Actually, if he keeps doing that, it may not matter what the team looks like doing it.


Michael Kerekes is the sports editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3632 or michael.kerekes@natchezdemocrat.com.