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September 10, 2013

Mullen: Auburn, "A big challenge" on Saturday

Mississippi State put a lot of minds at ease a bit with their blowout win over Alcorn State on Saturday, 51-7. The offense led a balanced attack and a lot of players got experience that will help them progress moving forward. The 57 carries were the most of any SEC team so far this season as the Bulldogs were on their way to 277 yards. They had a total of 87 plays run and the offense looked much more fluid. A key note is that they were playing Alcorn State, but they certainly looked like a team looking to prove much more after a bad week against Oklahoma State. With the loss of the starting qb, Dak Prescott stepped up and performed well throwing for 174 yards on 12-19 passing with two touchdowns as well as rushing for another on four carries and 20 yards.

"I feel comfortable with Dak (Prescott) and I think our team is very comfortable with him," Mullen said. "It's just the leadership role that he has. You don't prepare a starting quarterback to be a backup, you prepare starting quarterbacks. Dak prepares to be the starter and we prepare to be the starter, we have since last year when we were doing the same thing. One thing you don't want is the team not having confidence in the guy coming into the game and you're one step away from that happening. I think Dak really came on and took that approach and really did a good job of preparing himself to become the starting quarterback. In his leadership and the way that he does things, the team kind of feels the same way that he's ready to be the starting quarterback. It's not a big deal for us."

Now a bigger measuring stick presents itself as MSU travels to the plains of Auburn. It seems every year that this game is a pivotal one for the Bulldogs as they have now started their SEC season against the Tigers the last six years winning only one of those. A win last year proved to be big at the time and this year MSU is looking to earn back-to-back wins against Auburn for the first time since winning four straight from 1997-2000. Dan Mullen knows the challenge is real for the Bulldogs in the first SEC game.

"We're excited to get into SEC play. Not that the non-conference games aren't huge, but these are the big games," Mullen said about this week. "You get eight conference games every year and that's what you're judged on each year, how you finish in your conference. It's going to be a big deal for us getting into this game. It's going to be a great challenge. Every year since I've been here, that first game can give you a huge boost or be a big knock for you too. I don't think it defines the entire season for you but I think it can give you a good boost to having a great conference schedule and having a great year."

Auburn comes in with a brand new system under former coordinator Gus Malzahn who's returned after one year away from the program. The quick offensive approach and talented roster makes it tough for scouting, Mullen said.

"Every year it's been something new with them. This year we have two games (of film) on them but usually it's only one. It certainly does make it difficult. You're looking at a whole new offensive staff," Mullen said. "You want to look at this year's team and what they're doing with their players because there are very good coaches over there and they'll make sure that they'll put their players where they need to be in their system. They're very talented and have a lot of playmakers that can make plays. They've got three big-time running backs, dynamic wide receivers that can beat you before and after a catch for big plays and they have a quarterback that has hit a lot of big throws down the field to keep you honest but he can improvise and if you don't keep account of him he's going to hurt you."

The Bulldogs saw what they needed to improve on in their opening day loss and performed well against a weaker opponent last week. Now MSU has a different matchup against SEC competition and Mullen is ready to see how they stack up among the rest of the conference.

"We're getting there. I think we've had two totally different styles of games in the first two games so we've got to see how this one plays out. Game one, we made some errors and overcome mistakes even though I thought we played well. We had to overcome a lot of injuries over the course of the game. It will be a good test. I think the team is still developing its own personality of what is this year's team. Right now we're playing a lot of players and a lot of new faces so those guys are still learning how they fit in to the team over the season."

When Mullen said lots of new faces were on the team, he means LOTS of new faces with seven new starters against Alcorn and three more true freshman seeing their redshirts burned joining the four that already played the week prior.

"They have to be ready to play. I won't play them unless they're ready to play, that's priority number one," Mullen said of the true freshmen. "Need also has an effect. When they're ready to play and there's a need, we're going to try to put them out there to play and not just play somebody just for the sake of playing them. We might not be done yet trying to play guys like (tight end) Artimus Samuel who I think was ready to get in the game but with Rufus Warren back healthy now I don't know how many reps he's going to get that would warrant burning his redshirt right now."

One of those players who is ready to play is running back Ashton Shumpert who had a stellar debut on Saturday toting the ball 22 times for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Mullen said he has work to do, but he's proud of his progression.

"He's a physical runner and gets tough yardage for you as a powerful back," Mullen said about Shumpert. "He's got to learn to run lower and you see that from run to run. He would run people over on one play and the next play he's not getting yards after contact running high. Those are the little things that he has to learn."

Shumpert was one of four backs that got into the mix on Saturday as the group ran 40 times for 160 of the MSU rushing yards in the absence of Perkins. Mullen wants to see that rotation working fluently and hopes they all stay healthy.

"You would love to roll guys through and keep everyone fresh," Mullen said of his running back situation. "Obviously game dictates it on how many reps they get and injuries and health can always dictate it. When Perk comes back you feel like you have some good depth at running back then you look at the offensive line when someone went down and now the depth gets a little bit shaky. Having that depth and having those guys ready to go you feel comfortable about the depth you have coming in to this game."

Chris Jones has been a hot topic among Bulldog fans since this time last year when he was playing football for Houston High School. He's still making conversation as we were able to finally talk to him for the first time Saturday after the game in which he earned his first start, but at defensive tackle and not end. It's not the ideal position for him, but the coaches want to put him where he will help the team the most.

"A lot of that is dictated by the teams that we're playing," Mullen said about Jones. "He's athletic enough to play defensive end for us, but when you're playing a lot of hurry-up spread teams he gives you an added help inside for the teams that are trying to spread you out. I think that was kind of our thought moving him inside for the first couple of games. (Auburn) is the type of team with all the tempo, but they're a little bit more of a power running team than the other teams that we played so he could get some more reps moving back out to defensive end this week to go up against that scheme."

Mullen said that he expects most of the injured players to be back healthy and ready to go for the game including quarterback Tyler Russell who is coming off of a concussion. He has yet to be fully cleared in testing but they will begin that today and he will be off limits as usual in practice. Linebacker Ferlando Bohanna is also recovering from a concussion and is the only questionable player on the roster with Justin Malone, Jay Hughes and Gus Walley already deemed out for the season.



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