The Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-2) got a bit of a break this week with an open date following a 26-22 statement victory over the Texas A&M Aggies on the road the previous week.
Next up, MSU faces a tough test against Alabama (5-1) as the Crimson Tide travel to Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday.
Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach met with the media Monday afternoon to discuss the upcoming matchup. Read below for the full transcript.
Q: What was the biggest thing you and your guys achieved over the bye week?
ML: We got a lot of really good work with the young guys. We got some good work on the fundamentals. I’d like to think that we were able to rest some of our guys a little. We really don’t have that luxury. We are not a real deep team. We are kind of a one-layer team. We have to keep our skill set sharp. So the balance between keeping your skills sharp and resting is a tricky one.
Q: Playing against Alabama is always tough, but how much does playing them coming off a loss change things?
ML: The rankings are all out of whack. Anybody that thinks there are 30 teams better than Texas A&M is out of their minds. Someday when I am in your position I’ll go right down the list and tell you which ones. You had two good teams play, and the home team won. John Wooden used to say “Never be surprised when the home team wins.” That is a heck of an atmosphere there. I love playing at Kyle Field. It is a heck of a place to play. Two really good teams played, and Texas A&M won.
Q: When you throw it as much as you do in your offense, are interceptions an occupational hazard or what would you consider to be an acceptable number?
ML: I don’t think any are acceptable. Zero is an acceptable number. You try to guard against them at all costs. It is kind of the same when a ball carrier has it. How many fumbles is an acceptable number? They happen from time to time, but there is no acceptable number.
Q: When you play teams that recruit at such a high level, is it more important for players to play above themselves or to simply play consistently within the system?
ML: You have to be disciplined enough where your best is always enough. You’ve got to be disciplined enough to do your best focusing. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t get too hyped up if something good happens for you. The discipline to constantly bring your best effort and not get distracted by the highs and the lows, I think it takes quite a bit of discipline to do that. That is the key. Nobody can play above themselves because that is above themselves, so that’s not very possible.
Q: How closely will you look at the tape from the Texas A&M and Alabama film considering you just played the Aggies?
ML: We will definitely look at it a bunch. It is a pretty good representation of them. One thing with Alabama is we’re watching a team that played them to the wire, which not everybody does, so that is beneficial from that tape.
Q: This would mark a full season’s worth of starts for Will Rogers, but what do you feel like he’s done the most this season to look like a pretty serious player?
ML: He’s just improved overall. [He] operates quicker. He is operating quicker now than he has.
Q: Your offensive line has played well in the past two games. Is that a matter of them growing more comfortable playing together?
ML: I think they still haven’t logged very many reps together. They have logged more than when they started for sure. I think logging reps together and steady work in practice. They are a group that works and wants to improve, so they are motivated. That has helped too.
Q: How much has having Scott Lashley coming back helped that offensive line as a veteran presence?
ML: He is not a veteran in having played a lot, but he is just a talented guy. That is the one thing I got to thinking about Scott is that he really hasn’t played that much. He is a really talented guy, and he’s got really good feet. He moves well for a guy of his size. He is a massive guy and a pretty smart guy. He needs to stay relaxed and focus on the job at hand and then he is pretty good.
Q: What do you think of Alabama’s Bryce Young and what sticks out the most about Alabama based off the tape?
ML: He is good. Obviously, he is good. He is the next good one. They have a lot of players who play hard and aggressive. They are just good quality players.
Q: What are your thoughts on the wide receivers progression and where they stand right now?
ML: [They’re] still a work in progress. We are improving though. We would like to improve faster. We are getting better. We are more tightly synchronized than we have been. We have developed some depth to the inside receivers, but we’ve got to try and find some depth to the outside receivers. We just have to keep getting better really.
Q: With a team like Alabama, how do you make sure players don’t get too down if they make a big play?
ML: You just have to try and stay even-keeled. We always fight that with a young group, but I have seen some positive things. I thought we did that through the [Texas] A&M game, so that was a pretty good practice in regard to that, also doing that in a tough environment where it’s tough to communicate.
Q: How important is Will Rogers’ experience against Alabama last year in terms of playing the team rather than the helmet sticker?
ML: Good question. I don’t know for sure. The biggest thing is you don’t want to squander plays because of the helmet sticker. Sometimes you see teams do that. A team like Alabama is good enough that you can’t afford to do that under any circumstances. You want to make sure you don’t squander plays, reconciling that you are playing a talented opponent. You just want to worry about yourself and go do the best that you can and focus on that and consistently do that as the game has ups and downs.
Q: After beating a ranked team yourself, what do you tell your guys about not paying attention to the ranking beside a team’s name?
ML: We have done a decent job of that recently. Just go out there and play. I guess what I said before - which is boring and it’s not fun for you guys to write about so in most cases you probably won’t - if you can, go there and be the best self you can, just lock in to your job, do it the best you can and don’t get distracted by what might happen. Everybody’s seen it. All you have to do sometime on Saturday is turn on the game. Some player comes frantically to the sideline, “Okay, they did this. Well, okay they did this. The cheerleader ran around the stadium three times and then the Shetland pony came out and ate a hot dog on the 50 yard line, so now what do I do?” You have to eliminate all the clutter and just focus on what counts. The other thing is you have to trust the guy next to you to do the same thing. If you can do that together, that will put your best foot forward. That will put you in the best position to execute a play. You’ve got to do it over and over.
Q: How do you combat your guys relaxing a bit after seeing Alabama lose last week?
ML: If we relax against The University of Alabama, then we are the stupidest team in college football. If we relax under those circumstances, we may have some very good qualities, we may have some very positive things, but you really have to be a dumb team to relax if you are playing Alabama or anybody like them. Really, our schedule, if you relax playing our schedule, period. I can’t think of anybody you can relax on, at least not around here or coming up.
Q: What does Nick Saban do from a coaching perspective that separates himself and makes him difficult to coach against?
ML: I have known him for quite a while. What I have always thought he does best is that I think he evaluates really well. He’s in a position where he can get pretty much anybody, but I think he evaluates as far as which ones to take very well. The other thing is he is not afraid to tell somebody no or push somebody hard. Occasionally, somebody will get some five-star parade or All-American and then he’s afraid to coach them. Coach Saban is not afraid to coach that guy and push that guy. I have always thought the strongest thing he does is evaluate and push guys.
Q: How difficult is it to play as the best version of yourself as a young team?
ML: I just think they have to clear their mind and focus on it. Obviously, everybody has trouble with it. We can have debates on the effectiveness of it. We have everything from safe rooms to service dogs. Everybody is obviously struggling with it with life coaches and all the rest. But in the meantime, we’re going to try to remove some of the clutter and go ahead and have the position coaches as life coaches and try to clear their mind and just get them to focus on what counts.
Q: When you’re in a ballgame like this, how difficult is it to not do something out of character like fake a punt or go for it on a fourth and long?
ML: I think it is tricky. There is a temptation. You’ve got to resist this by players and coaches both. There’s sometimes a temptation to do too much. You’ve got to focus on your job and have the discipline to focus on your job and don’t try to do too much. If you try to do too much, it just devolves into street ball. You’re just calling random plays, and the guys are just trying to anticipate where the ball is going. They’re running a variety of different directions on both sides of the ball. Everybody is just guessing. It’s like when you were a kid out in the cul-de-sac or in the backyard or in the vacant lot. You try to have it a little more precise and controlled than that.