On Sunday night Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen didn’t sound like a man who had shed a gorilla from his back just 21 hours earlier. He sounded like a dad with a 2-year-old begging to watch Bubble Guppies. “Open date,” Mullen cracked into the phone as he fired up Mr. Grouper and his class.
Mullen doesn’t feel any different now that he has taken a team into Tiger Stadium and won. The popular knock on Mullen was that for all of his success since arriving in Starkville, Miss., before the 2009 campaign, he hadn’t defeated LSU or Alabama. In those years at the helm, he had won only one game against a team that finished the season in the Top 25. In the SEC West, where most teams spend time in the Top 25 each fall, that is a stat that had to change if the Bulldogs were to compete for any kind of title. Still, coming into the season, Mullen knew Mississippi State was close. On Saturday it broke through with a 34-29 win over the Tigers. “There are two sides,” Mullen said. “There’s the perception side and the reality side. I have to live in the reality side.”
The perception was that LSU had pounded the Bulldogs in recent years. The reality was that last year’s 59-26 LSU win was a 31-26 game when Mississippi State stalled on a drive and missed a field goal late in the third quarter. Two years ago in Baton Rouge, a 37-17 LSU win was a 20-17 LSU lead in the third quarter. The Bulldogs were building to a point where they could stand toe-to-toe with the Tigers for four quarters, but they didn’t get there until this season.
When the Bulldogs got there, though, they kicked down the door. They raced to a 17-0 lead and were ahead 34-10 early in the fourth quarter before LSU scored two touchdowns against Mississippi State’s backup defenders. This wasn’t an accident or a result that was gift-wrapped by LSU turnovers. The Bulldogs looked like the better team. They had five scoring drives longer than 73 yards.
The game got too close because Mullen left his backups in when he should have re-inserted his starters at 34-22. But even that worked out, because now his backups have some valuable memories. “Now they’ve been in as crazy a situation as you can be in,” Mullen said. “They have experience at that. And I’ll tell you what. Now I’ve been in that situation, so now I know better for next time. None of us are perfect.”
So, now that they have conquered Tiger Stadium, can the Bulldogs hang with the rest of the division? “For the perception, it’s great to get that off your back,” Mullen said. “In reality, it is great for us because we want to compete in the West, and it’s so important to win that first game.”
Mullen’s reality is that his team plays its next two games against College Football Playoff contenders. After the open date, Texas A&M comes to Scott Field on Oct. 4. Auburn comes the following week on Oct. 11. “The next two games are against teams ranked higher than LSU,” Mullen said. “We really haven’t accomplished much as this year’s schedule goes. I think our older guys realize that.”
Such is life in college football’s Hydra division. Chop off one contender, and two more grow to replace it. Teams can’t build by winning, because teams that aren’t championship contenders fall to the middle of the division. Becoming competitive in the SEC West requires more than that. It requires an ability to compete for the national title. “It’s not a small step,” Mullen said. “It’s an enormous leap.”
But those older guys Mullen mentioned? Guys like senior center Dillon Day, senior receiver Jameon Lewis and redshirt junior quarterback Dak Prescott? They aren’t scared of all the talent in their division. If starting three drives inside their own four-yard line at LSU didn’t rattle them, not much will. “We had more back-to-the-wall series than I think we had the entire season last year,” Mullen said.
The first of those came after a first-quarter goal-line stand by the Mississippi State defense that ended when Benardrick McKinney and Richie Brown stuffed LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings at the two-yard line. “The offense goes onto the field on our two-yard line in front of their student section,” Mullen said. “It was deafening.” And after the Bulldogs marched 98 yards in five plays for a touchdown, it was quiet. A third-quarter drive that began at the Mississippi State one-yard line ended with a field goal. The second-quarter drive that started at the four-yard line was the only one that didn’t result in points, but Mullen proudly notes that LSU did not get the ball back in Mississippi State territory. “We lost the turnover battle. We gave up some big plays at the end of the game. We had a lot more penalties than they did,” Mullen said. “But we did a lot of the things that you need to do to win. Part of it was when we were in those back-to-the-wall situations, getting out of those back-to-the-wall situations.”
Now Mullen and his veteran leaders must move from back-to-the-wall to back-to-earth. The coach isn’t worried about his older players, but the young ones will need education. “They’ve got to police the young guys that are patting themselves on the back,” Mullen said. “You know, the ones that play 10 plays a game.”
Still, because it is an off week and because it can’t all be spent watching Bubble Guppies, maybe Mullen and the Bulldogs can take a few seconds to appreciate their accomplishment. Or maybe Mullen did that on Saturday, when he joked about LSU coach Les Miles’ record in night games at Tiger Stadium since arriving in Baton Rouge in 2005. The only other teams to beat the Tigers after darkness fell in Death Valley during Miles’ tenure were then-No. 1 Florida in ‘09 and then-No. 1 Alabama in ‘12. “If everybody had just ranked us No. 1, we could have kept that streak alive,” Mullen cracked.
Of course, the Bulldogs can be ranked No. 1 if they keep winning. All they have to do is beat Texas A&M, Auburn and Alabama.
The Big Ten strikes back
Two weeks ago the Big Ten appeared headed for a participation trophy for the 2014 campaign. Yet on Saturday the league earned a measure of redemption behind three road wins over Power Five foes. Maryland won at Syracuse 34-20. Iowa won at Pittsburgh 24-20. Most impressively, Indiana won at Missouri 31-27.
The Terrapins’ and the Hawkeyes’ victories helped kick off a miserable day for the ACC that included East Carolina trouncing North Carolina for the second straight season. But it was the Hoosiers’ upset that caused the biggest stir. Indiana, which lost to Bowling Green on Sept. 13, needed a signature win under fourth-year coach Kevin Wilson. This certainly qualifies. Defending SEC East champ Mizzou looked like a contender for that crown again. But the long-beleaguered Hoosiers’ defense piled up 11 tackles for loss, and Indiana absorbed a fourth-quarter Tigers’ comeback before driving 75 yards for the winning score in less than two minutes.
Tailback Tevin Coleman led the Hoosiers with 132 yards on 19 carries, and he set up the final touchdown with a 44-yard run. D’Angelo Roberts got the last carry, a three-yard plunge into the end zone with 22 seconds left. “To be honest, I was prepared to run somebody over,” Roberts told reporters afterward. “I noticed a lot of people were on the ground, so at that point in time I figured I might as well jump, because I have a 40-inch vertical. Why not use it?”
Projected College Football Playoff
Given what we’ve seen against Alabama, Maryland and Oklahoma, we may come to the conclusion by season’s end that West Virginia is pretty good. The Sooners took the Mountaineers’ best shot and pulled away in the third quarter behind freshman tailback Samaje Perine, who piled up 242 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Oklahoma has an open date before heading to TCU on Oct. 4.
I can’t leave the Crimson Tide off this list any longer. They have so many ways to destroy an opposing defense. It’s unlikely that Alabama will have another half as disastrous as its first two quarters against Florida from a ball-security standpoint. Bama will play better opponents -- starting on Oct. 4 at Ole Miss -- but the Tide are equipped to handle them.
3. Texas A&M
The Aggies hummed through the third of their four nonconference creampuffs. Saturday in Arlington, Texas, they’ll face the team that finished 0-8 in the SEC last season. Arkansas already has a loss to Auburn, but the Razorbacks won't go 0-for-the league this fall. They’ll win a few, and they’re well equipped to take advantage of Texas A&M’s deficiencies up the middle on defense. From a matchup perspective, this could be one of the Aggies’ toughest tests.
4. Florida State
Where is Oregon? Still smarting from a near-upset in Pullman. The Ducks had their best player and nearly lost to a team from the bottom half of their league. Florida State didn’t have its best player and beat the second-best team in its conference. The Seminoles showed flaws against Clemson -- especially on the offensive line -- that bringing back Jameis Winston might not fix. But if Winston’s return helps alleviate those issues, the ‘Noles should be fine the rest of the way.
The poll ballot
Backup Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard led the Hawkeyes to a win at Pitt on Saturday. Beathard’s father has written songs for various country music stars, including Travis Tritt. Here are Tritt’s top five songs.
1. “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”
2. “Help Me Hold On”
4. “Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof”
5. “Foolish Pride”
Play of the week
You’ve likely seen the Anu Solomon-to-Austin Hill Hail Mary that lifted Arizona to a 49-45 win over Cal. But do you know how often the Wildcats practice that play?
Once a week. In shells and shorts. And defenders aren’t allowed to jostle the receivers. “I’m afraid somebody will come down and twist an ankle,” coach Rich Rodriguez said. “It’s uncontested in practice.” The Thursday before the Cal game, Rodriguez spent a little extra time on the scenario. “We do it every Thursday at the end of practice, without fail,” Rodriguez said. “Usually, it’s just one rep. Well, this Thursday, we actually repped it two or three times because we put in another Hail Mary. We actually talked about it five minutes more this week than we usually do.”
In other words, the play really does come down to luck. Arizona’s approach is common. Few teams actually practice a live Hail Mary during the season, so neither the receivers nor the defensive backs have much experience with them in pads. After everyone stopped hugging on Saturday, Rodriguez ribbed Solomon for his imperfect Hail Mary technique.
“I was teasing Anu,” Rodriguez said. “I always tell him at practice that we need the ball five yards deep in the end zone. If it’s tipped forward, you can score. If you miss a little bit, you’ll still be in bounds. That was about eight yards deep, but we’ll take it.”
Big Ugly of the week
This week’s honoree is Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, who only made a play that saved the Seminoles’ ACC title hopes and then, about five minutes later, did it again. Clemson was driving for either a game-winning touchdown or a short field goal when Goldman stripped Tigers back C.J. Davidson. Safety Nate Andrews pounced on the fumble at Florida State’s 14-yard line, allowing the ‘Noles to force overtime. Goldman started the extra period with a sack of Deshaun Watson for a four-yard loss, but the Tigers made up those yards and more on a big third-down play. Clemson faced fourth-and-inches from the 16-yard line and called Power for Adam Choice. Goldman blew up the play by pushing tackle Kalon Davis into the backfield. Tigers guard David Beasley, who was pulling, also got caught in the logjam Goldman created. Thanks to Goldman, the only people free when Choice got the ball were Florida State's Chris Casher and Reggie Northrup, who smothered Choice for no gain.
Goldman said afterward he wasn’t necessarily trying to strip Davidson. He was trying to make the tackle, and when he realized his hand was on the ball, he yanked it out. Later, Goldman said he tried not to think about the entirety of the situation facing the Seminoles in overtime. Instead, he fell back on a lesson often repeated by Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher. “See a little, see a lot,” Goldman said. “If you see a lot, you see nothing.” Basically, Goldman tried to boil that fourth-and-inches play down to his assignment and his assignment only. He blocked out everything else. “If you look at the whole field,” Goldman said, “it'll overwhelm you.” Goldman did his job and overwhelmed the Tigers.
1. The only thing more entertaining than a Steve Spurrier press conference after a huge win is a Steve Spurrier press conference after an ugly win. Case in point: This masterpiece on Saturday after the Gamecocks’ 48-34 victory at Vanderbilt. Among the things Spurrier said:
• “The way we play is embarrassing. I told the guys. It’s embarrassing the way we play. And I’m the head coach of this embarrassing group of guys.”
• “We are who we are. We’re not a very good team, but we’re 3-1 somehow. We’ve got all the voters fooled thinking we’re pretty good, I guess, because we beat Georgia. I don’t know what all can help this team. I really don’t.”
• “It was discouraging, but it is what it is. We have to almost score a touchdown every time or we’re going to get our butts beat.”
And those were only from his opening statement.
2. Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison got into a shouting match late in the first half of a 26-10 loss to Utah. The Wolverines had been assessed a five-yard sideline interference penalty after Mattison walked onto the field. Afterward, Hoke dismissed the incident, which was probably nothing more than two alpha males caught up in the heat of the moment. “You ought to see us play euchre,” Hoke cracked to reporters. Still, the outburst was yet another embarrassing moment in what is becoming a season of them for Michigan.
3. Does Iowa have a quarterback controversy after Beathard led the Hawkeyes to a win at Pittsburgh in place of the injured Jake Rudock? “How can I answer that?” coach Kirk Ferentz said, according to the Des Moines Register. “I’m sure we'll see some opinions. I’ll be glad to read them.” Beathard is the son of country songwriter Casey Beathard, who wrote “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem” for Kenny Chesney, as well as a slew of hits for other artists such as Blake Shelton, Tracy Lawrence, Travis Tritt and Aaron Tippin. Beathard is the grandson of former Washington general manager Bobby Beathard. Meanwhile, Beathard’s blond mane -- which spills out of his helmet the way ex-South Carolina quarterback Steve Taneyhill’s mullet used to -- has earned him the nickname “Sunshine.” (Note: Every blond quarterback has been nicknamed Sunshine since Remember the Titans was released in 2000.) Beathard played in Saturday’s second half and went 7 of 8 for 98 yards. When he entered the game, the Hawkeyes trailed 17-7. They went on to win 24-20. Ferentz told reporters he didn’t think Rudock’s injury “was anything devastating.” That only raised more questions about who will start next week when Iowa opens Big Ten play at Purdue. Answers were not forthcoming on Saturday. “I have no idea,” Beathard told reporters. “You'll have to ask coach about that.”
4. For an option quarterback, Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas is quite the clutch passer. Last week, facing third-and-seven and trailing 38-35, Thomas found Deon Hill for a 13-yard touchdown with 23 seconds remaining to lift the Yellow Jackets to a 42-38 win over Georgia Southern. On Saturday at Virginia Tech, Thomas and the Yellow Jackets trailed by seven when they faced fourth-and-15 from the 50. Thomas hit DeAndre Smelter over the middle for a 19-yard gain. Two plays later, Thomas hit Smelter again for a 31-yard touchdown. That tied the score, and D.J. White’s subsequent interception of Michael Brewer helped set up Harrison Butker’s game-winning field goal. The Yellow Jackets have run three times as often as they have thrown this season -- which is actually a tad pass-heavy for a Paul Johnson-coached team. But when you’ve got someone as clutch as Thomas, you throw caution to the wind and air it out 25 percent of the time.
5. Georgia Tech’s win in Blacksburg put it atop the ACC Coastal Division, but there is actually another team with a 2-0 record against Coastal teams. East Carolina, which won 28-21 in Blacksburg on Sept. 13, crushed North Carolina 70-41 on Saturday in Greenville, N.C. The victory moved the Pirates into the Top 25 and gave them a 3-1 record in nonconference play. Their only blemish is a 33-23 loss at South Carolina, which might not impress Spurrier but remains fairly respectable. After a week off, East Carolina will open American Athletic Conference play -- this is the Pirates’ first season in the league -- with a visit from SMU on Oct. 4.
6. The best block in Texas A&M’s 58-6 win at SMU on Saturday wasn’t thrown by future first-round offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. It was thrown by Ryan Kreider, a corporal in Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets. Kreider’s job is to take care of school mascot Reveille VIII. Reveille, an 8-year-old Collie slated to retire at the end of the spring semester, was napping on a pillow next to a wall when an SMU receiver came careening toward her after a play. Kreider stepped in between player and pooch, and everyone emerged unscathed. Kreider’s block didn't go unnoticed. Gen. Joe Ramirez Jr., the Corps of Cadets commandant, has pledged to buy Kreider’s senior boots in honor of the save.
8. Congratulations to Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, who passed Army’s Glenn Davis (Mr. Outside) to take over the No. 1 spot on the national list for career yards per carry (minimum 300 carries). After carrying 13 times for 253 yards in the Badgers’ 68-17 win over Bowling Green, Gordon averages 8.6 yards a carry for his career. Davis averaged 8.3. Obviously, Gordon will have to keep up his pace to stay atop the list, but his 19.5-yard average on Saturday gives him some cushion.
9. Rutgers has lost tailback Mike James for the season to a torn ACL. James, who missed four games last season with a broken bone in his leg, had rushed for 363 yards so far this fall. He had 96 yards on seven carries when he was injured in the Scarlet Knights’ 31-24 win over Navy on Saturday.
10. Cal’s official gift shop was a little too excited to pass on savings to its customers. Bears fans received emails late on Saturday night promising a 25-percent-off sale on hats in honor of the team’s win at Arizona. The only problem? The game wasn’t over. Reference the play of the week to see what happened in Tucson.
What’s eating Andy?
I listened to an excellent edition of the Nerdist podcast last week featuring director Kevin Smith, and I was aghast to hear that even Smith bags on Mallrats, the deeply underappreciated second installment of the New Jersey trilogy that began with Clerks and ended with Chasing Amy. Even Smith can’t recognize that Mallrats is his Empire Strikes Back, and that makes college freshman Andy very, very sad.
Also, a schooner is a sailboat, stupidhead.
What’s Andy eating?
I met a Kansas City native a few weeks ago, and naturally the conversation turned to barbecue. I told him I’d been to Oklahoma Joe’s (now Joe’s Kansas City), Arthur Bryant’s and Gates. He said I was missing the best and recommended LC’s.
The day before Auburn played Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., I visited LC’s with high hopes. The denizens of Kansas City are proud of their barbecue tradition. I’d been to some of their best spots, and while they were all good, they weren’t nearly as good as the people in Kansas City think they are. Plenty of places in Texas, Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee blow them away. I hoped LC’s would change my mind. If I’d known how to order correctly, it would have.
One of the basic rules of barbecue is that properly cooked meat requires no sauce. Sauce is an accompaniment. It is not the show. Even good sauce should be used sparingly. At some places -- such as Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas -- they are so confident in their smoking ability that they don’t even offer sauce.
The cooks at LC’s should be that confident, because they are excellent. That’s why it’s completely dumbfounding that they would drown their meat in a sickly sweet sauce that may as well be a pancake topping. The burnt ends and the ribs I ordered were served swimming in dark goo that annihilated any flavor it met.
Still, when I managed to wipe off the sauce, I discovered the meat was perfectly cooked. All manner of delicious bark covered the burnt ends. The ribs pulled off the bone with just a slight tug. Had I ordered without sauce, I might have understood why Kansas City people keep raving about their barbecue.
You wouldn’t put makeup on Helen of Troy. Why would you ruin splendidly cooked meat with terrible sauce? By all means, go to LC’s. Just remember to take the sauce on the side.
Fortunately, the Alabama natives who opened Cox Bros. BBQ in Manhattan must have learned this lesson long ago. They also cook their meat well, and they serve it naked. They make several sauces, but they don’t force them down anyone’s throat. Before watching the Wildcats and the Tigers tangle, I had a burnt end (beef and pork) sandwich and ribs. Like LC’s, the burnt ends were juicy and covered in bark. Unlike LC’s, I could taste them. The Cox Bros. ribs were thick, juicy and -- thankfully -- available. There was a brief scare when we arrived at 1:25 p.m. A rumor spread through the line that all the ribs had been consumed. Luckily, a few racks remained.
I claimed half of one as my own. A while later, a pile of bones rose before me. I don't recall a drop of sauce touching them.