Ebullient, unremitting Josh Robinson leads Mississippi State past Kentucky
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Mississippi State survived its first game as the No. 1 team in college football, and this allows us to talk about Josh Robinson’s butt. The junior tailback is known as the Human Bowling Ball. He is 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, but it appears most of that tonnage is stored between his lower back and upper thighs. As an aside to the discussion about a patchy 45-31 victory over Kentucky on Saturday night, Robinson said he squats 700 pounds. If he claimed he could haul a sunken World War II submarine out of an ocean trench by attaching a tow cable to his rear end, you would believe him. For he is equipped with the one gluteus in the country that may have no maximus.
“It’s pretty round,” Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. “And big.”
“I think that’s why the women come to the game, to be honest,” Robinson added.
Posterior motives, indeed. But most of the clientele at Commonwealth Stadium came for the prospect of something even bigger, clamoring to watch the nation’s top-ranked team fall before it even got the perch warm. Moments before kickoff the Kentucky student section pulled a preposterously large black banner over itself that rippled with a clear message in white lettering: WHY NOT. The answer came when Robinson put his team on his back and everything below it, carrying an admittedly uneasy group to a 7-0 start, only the fourth in program history. It put the pressure that came with the Bulldogs’ lofty status appropriately in the rear view.
With a defense that was only intermittently reliable and a Heisman Trophy hopeful quarterback looking a fraction less than award-worthy, the ebullient Robinson rushed 23 times for a career-high 198 yards with two touchdowns. And that yardage total hardly did his performance justice. His 73-yard scamper for a score might have been his most percussive, but it was not his most impressive: That was a 22-yard run in the third quarter in which he started left, bounced off or eluded at least a half-dozen would-be tacklers, then reversed field and found an edge, dragging a few Kentucky defenders for the last few yards before he finally hit the turf. Mississippi State prides itself on its offensive balance, its multiple weapons and options, but Robinson fuel-injected every important drive on Saturday. And yet it was, somewhat astonishingly, just his second 20-carry game of the year.
“We’ve had guys step up and make plays when we needed to make plays,” Mullen said. “We’ve been able to do that all season. It’s not just one guy. Today, Josh Robinson does a great job carrying the ball and carrying our team on his back. And sometimes carrying their team on his back.”
It may be worth revisiting what Mississippi State can count on Robinson to do, or at least how much it can count on. When he opens his mouth, he is as unpredictable and unremitting as when he takes a handoff. “He is unvarnished,” athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “There is no pretense.” Asked if he has ever had a run like the 22-yarder on Saturday, Robinson issued easy-to-follow directions: “Go to YouTube. Type in ‘J-Rob.’ You will see that a lot.”
Occasionally when he watches football practice, Stricklin will find himself abruptly airborne and moved 10 yards from where he was standing. He looks down to find Robinson, between drills, carrying him along, then dropping him to return to work. The issue for the coaching staff was Robinson acting that goofy “24-7,” as Mullen put it, including when it was time to lift or study or hone his craft. That changed this offseason, and the coaches’ trust level increased accordingly.
Should the workload increase as well? The sheer physics of Robinson make him damn near impossible to tackle. “That’s where you make your money,” Robinson said of his ability to break through the first hit. “I’m a short back. I have to use my center of gravity to my advantage.”
“He’s low to the earth,” Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. “Me, personally, when I tackle him, I just come in hard. If you come in soft you’re not going to get him down.”
If it’s not terribly realistic to expect the Bulldogs to shift away from quarterback Dak Prescott as the center of just about everything, at least they have options, and they needed them on Saturday. It was a grind against Kentucky because an already wobbly defense insisted on giving up big play after big play before righting itself in the fourth quarter, with Kentucky recording touchdowns of 58 and 67 yards and racking up 504 yards of total offense. It was a grind because Prescott was good, not spectacular, going 18-of-33 for 216 yards, rushing for another 88 and accounting for three touchdowns, while also throwing a pick and misfiring on a couple of long balls.
Most of all it was a grind because Mississippi State was the No. 1 team in the nation and that was very difficult to ignore. “I don’t know if tight is the word,” Prescott said. “But something was different about us. We didn’t have the same vibe, the same attitude.” If the Bulldogs quarterback was denying it, his coach wasn’t. Mullen’s rousing halftime speech -- with his team up just a touchdown after an uneven two quarters -- consisted of bringing the group in close and telling them to take a deep breath and then exhale. He saw players who were apprehensive and he knew why that was. He considered the large, collective sigh to be a sort of deliverance from evils. Good, Mullen told his team. That’s over with. Everyone knew exactly what he meant.
“I don’t know how many times I heard, ‘This is the first time you’ve ever played as the No. 1 team in the country,’” Mullen said. “They played a little tight at times. So, hopefully we can get all this ranking stuff behind us. It’s been neat. I think our kids are probably going to be over it as well.”
As with everything else in college football, that’s debatable, and therefore it will be debated. The suspect defense and the mere survival against a midlevel SEC foe will all be pondered in the context of the selection committee’s interpretation. That group’s first official poll comes out on Tuesday night. Mullen said he was far more excited to tune in to what comes after that. “Talk radio Wednesday morning is going to be absolutely amazing,” he said, smiling.
Whatever you make of what happened on Saturday, Mississippi State is 7-0. It is one of two remaining major-conference unbeatens. It will be in the conversation.
Of course, the question is how it can stay on top. For that, Robinson offered yet another answer. He is from Franklinton, La., a town of fewer than 4,000 people. He is formerly a three-star prospect who was the 30th-best player in his state, let alone the country, according to Rivals.com. He is the type of gem Mullen and Mississippi State have had to unearth and polish to get to this point, and he is keenly aware of the attitude required to stay there. If you need any reminders, well, go to YouTube, and punch in you-know-what.
“We’re No. 1,” Robinson said, “but we grind like No. 2. You feel me?”
Just try and stop them.