Mullen previews MSU's matchup at Arkansas

The Hogs host the Dogs on Saturday at 11 a.m.

Posted: Nov. 13, 2017 5:36 PM
Updated: Nov. 13, 2017 10:09 PM

STARKVILLE, Miss. (WTVA/MSU Athletics) – With two games in six days, Mississippi State football aims for a strong finish to the 2017 regular season as it travels to Arkansas for an 11 a.m. CT kickoff Saturday. Head coach Dan Mullen previewed the Bulldogs’ final road game of the year at his weekly news conference on Monday.

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State (7-3, 3-3) is seeking its fourth SEC win of the year and at least a .500 record in conference play for the third time in four seasons and the fifth time in the Mullen era. The 17th-ranked Bulldogs are also vying for the fifth eight-win season in the Mullen era.

Below are quotes from Mullen’s press conference:

Head Coach Dan Mullen
November 13, 2017

Opening statement…

“Obviously a big challenge for us this week, coming off a big game last week and being at the back end of the season. We’re playing three games in a 12-day period, so that’s a big challenge to finish off the season for our guys. This being the middle game of those games is a big challenge, going on the road and playing an excellent team at an early kick. We’ve been in this position before; they’re fighting for bowl eligibility. They’ve got everything on the line to play for. They have their starting quarterback back. This is the first game he’s 100 percent healthy. I know he played some last week. He was a preseason All-SEC quarterback. He’s a top quarterback, if not the top quarterback, in the SEC. They’re a different team with him back there. Look at what they do offensively. They do as good a job as anybody in the country combining the power-run and physical-run game with their running backs, with a great combination of play-action pass and screens utilizing tight ends and backs. They’re going to use them all over the field. Defensively, they made a change with the 3-4 scheme this year, different than what they’ve been in the past. They’re very sound in what they do defensively. Everybody’s fit, and everybody’s there where they need to be. They’re not set to give up explosive plays; they’re going to make you earn everything throughout the game. It’s a great combination to the offense that they run of putting pressure on you as a team. It will be a really big challenge for us to come back. Our big challenge this week is can we continue? I’ve said this the last couple weeks, are we a good team or not? Are we a team that’s improving as the season goes on? Can we improve and practice harder this week? Can we play better next Saturday than we did this past Saturday? For the most part this season, I think we’ve improved from one week to the next. That challenge is still ahead of us. Obviously going on the road against an excellent team, we’re going to have to do that and improve this week off last week’s performance.”

On the mentality of playing a game sandwiched between Alabama and Ole Miss…

“It’s a big deal for what type of team we are. It’s a big challenge for our guys. If we think we’re a good football team, we’re going to find a way to be better this week than we were last week. That’s what good teams do. Really good teams, that’s what they do. Right now, my concern is not much, but we haven’t practiced yet. We haven’t done anything yet, as coaches and players and everybody within this program. We have the opportunity to still have a great season ahead of us and do a lot of really good things. We have three losses to teams in the top seven. We want to finish this season strong and hopefully put ourselves as a Top 10, Top 15 program in the country. If we can do that, we’re going to have to be much better this week than we were last week. If that focus changes, then we won’t have a special year. We won’t be considered at the level we want our team to be at.”

On how Arkansas’ offense changes with senior quarterback Austin Allen on the field…

“You look, he’s such a great passer. Not that the other guy with the size and all wasn’t, but I think he brings that experience within the throw game and the ability making all the throws. If you look at [Cole] Kelley, the guy that was there before, he had the ability to do it, but he didn’t have the veteran experience. He’s a big dude, it looked like. He wasn’t afraid to stand in the pocket or to drop his pads and go take hits. With Austin, being athletic, he’s much more of a pro-quarterback that’s going to be back there, knows the reads, has the experience and knows the system. He’s going to be a lot more experienced and efficiently experienced within their offense.”

On where Mississippi State is currently located in the steps of program-building…

“Every year is a different year. If you look Saturday night, Alabama’s the No. 1 team in the country. I thought we went toe-to-toe with them for four quarters. I thought both teams played well. They didn’t turn it over, give up explosive plays or tip balls to keep us in the game. I thought both teams played pretty well, toe-to-toe for four quarters. They just made more plays at the end, or really throughout the whole course of the game. If you look at four quarters, there’s a lot of different things that could have happen. A lot within this league depends. You don’t play everybody, so you get certain crossovers each year. Our draw this year was to play the two best teams on the other side of the league, plus everybody on our side. That can weigh in sometimes, too, to how the season plays out. I think we’re getting there. I came here almost nine years ago now to build a team that’s going to compete for championships. I think we’ve taken step one of being a consistent winner, of going to bowl games. I think we flirted with it a couple of years ago. I think we’re trying to get closer to be a team right now that can go compete for that championship. We want to be a team that does that consistently.”

On the potential of this senior class to become the winningest class in program history…

“When you look at the guys that are in here – and there are a lot of guys in this senior class – they’ve overcome some different adversities. If you look at Dez Harris, he’s suffered through multiple injuries to come out and be a team captain. Donald Gray, he had to go to junior college to get here. Martinas Rankin, who was really unrecruited coming out of high school, becomes this junior college star in the recruiting rankings but still had to come and learn and develop. Jordan Thomas got thrown in right away last year and is a big, athletic guy. J.T. Gray – same deal, never got to redshirt but made sacrifices for the team. Tolando Cleveland, who five years ago was playing in this game, but was battling and fighting when we were 4-6 to get us bowl-eligible before we went on a big run to be a great team. It’s not a big senior class, but every one of them has really had to deal with different adversities throughout their career, and they bought in and believed every aspect of the program. You look at it, and it’s unbelievable that they could have that success. Logan Cooke had his redshirt pulled 30 seconds before kickoff playing a top-5 team in the country and had to kick off and punt in that game. All of these different seniors have such special stories of the sacrifices they’ve made and the adversities they’ve had to overcome during their career, but they’ve believed in everything this program stands for and what it’s about. They’ve been rewarded with the success that they’ve had.”

On sophomore offensive lineman Darryl Williams’ development…

“I think he’s really come along nicely. He went into the offseason after last season with a chip on his shoulder of wanting to really improve what he could do. He’s one of the hardest-working guys on the offensive line in the offseason. I think he saw an opportunity to go play and said, ‘I’m going to go take that opportunity. I’m going to take that spot.’ The great thing with him is now there’s a guy who worked hard to get a spot, and now he’s getting that experience. He’s really playing at a very good level for us as a guy that put in the time, put in the effort, put in the work. Now he plays with experience and the confidence of being out there on the field.”

On the team’s injury report…

“Gabe [Myles] won’t be able to play this week. Donald [Gray] is questionable. I think they’re pretty optimistic that he could be back this week. I wasn’t sure of that, but today they were optimistic. Dez [Harris], we’re not going to know until a little bit later in the week with his issue. He had a thigh bruise, but there are some other complications along with it. It’s not the initial injury that is going to be the issue for him. Brandon [Bryant] was good. They said he was okay yesterday coming into the training room. He just hit the ground right at the wrong spot, right there on the head and was kind of knocked out a little bit. They said he came to. He wanted to go back in the game, but we didn’t let him. But there was a discussion; it would have been close to clear him to go back into the game possibly, but it wasn’t something we felt comfortable with.”

On quarterback Nick Fitzgerald getting sick on the sidelines…

“I think he was just tired. He’s done that a couple times. He did it a couple weeks ago. After the first or second drive, he’ll do it sometimes. When it’s late in the year, you want to make sure they’re conditioning enough. Watch if he goes on a couple of plays, especially if he’s got a lot of runs. One of the things that is challenging with the conditioning of a quarterback is, and we joke with those guys all the time, is that other guys have to run. Receivers are running marathons during the course of the game; the line is pounding on people. Quarterbacks just hand the ball off to people, throw it and look good and go in the end zone afterwards. Try this one time: go do a 40-yard sprint, then come back and immediately sit there – I’m going to give you a long play to call – break the huddle, and then try and yell and scream a cadence. You’ve got to be in condition that way. That’s all that was. They took him in the little tent thing to puke, but he puked outside of that. I guess it was nice for whoever was coming in to the tent next; it didn’t smell like puke.”

On the progression of young receivers…

“What I like is they’re really working hard at it. They’ve embraced that responsibility. The first 10 completions were to 10 different receivers. There are a lot of teams out there like the team we played, they were looking and basically just throwing it to one guy, saying, ‘We’ve got the one guy; we’re going to throw it to him and scheme it up to get to that guy.’ That’s not how we’ve been. We’re going to distribute and take what the defense gives us. The benefit of doing that is to be able to, when you have the massive amounts of injuries the way we’ve had at receiver, still be confident out there that the next guy up will go make the play. I’m pleased that it doesn’t seem like the spotlight’s been too big. They’ve performed in those situations. A lot of them are in situations they probably didn’t think they’d be in. They’re embracing it instead of being worried about it. They go out there and say, ‘Coach, give me the opportunity; I’ll find a way to make a play.’ They’ve made a lot this year.”

On how attractive his current job is…

“I love the one I have. I think what you see is what we’ve been able to build Mississippi State into. As I keep saying, I think everybody has an opinion in the world about what I should and shouldn’t do. People that know me, and friends that have known me for a long time, know I like my own opinion. I’m not really interested in other people’s opinions all that much. I like my own opinion. My wife, I listen to her; I’ve got no choice but to do that. I’d get in trouble if not. If you get in that situation, whether you like her opinion or not, you may want to take that one and really contemplate. When you look around, when we’ve been able to build a facility, have an AD that’s been a coach, have a president that hugely supports our football team, you build a team that’s a Top 25 program in my mind. Look at the atmosphere Saturday night. I have a great job.”

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