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MSU overcomes lack of enthusiasm, focus to beat UMass

 

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was 14-for-26 with 139 yards and two interceptions, but he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns.

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was 14-for-26 with 139 yards and two interceptions, but he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch  Buy this photo.

 

Slim Smith

 

 

It is the custom for the team that has Alabama on its schedule the next week to be serenaded by its fans as soon as that day's opponent has been defeated. 

 

The chorus of "We want Bama!" usually echoes through stadiums the week before teams play the Crimson Tide. 

 

That chant didn't sweep through Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday. 

 

"We want Bama?" For much of Saturday, the No. 21 Mississippi State football team didn't appear like it wanted Massachusetts (2-6). 

 

Yes, MSU won 34-23 for its fourth-straight game to improve to 7-2, but the game was more like an obligation than an opportunity. The word for long stretches was lethargy, as UMass insisted on making a game of it. You know how annoying that can be. 

 

In the first half, the Bulldogs seemed like they were looking for a good spot to take a nap, a mood matched by a crowd of 57,374, nearly 4,000 short of a sellout. Blame the 11 a.m. starting time if you want, but even the fans' demeanor suggested they were there because Aunt Martha drove down from Tennessee and you promised her you would take her to a game and, heck, I might as well get it over with. 

 

MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald threw two first-half interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown that gave the Hold-On-Just-A-Minutemen their first lead early in the second quarter. UMass later exposed the secondary on a 69-yard touchdown pass that gave it a 20-13 halftime lead. 

 

Don't you hate it when that happens? 

 

Even the Bulldogs' running game, generally so reliable, was out of sync and gained only 85 yards on 20 attempts. 

 

As uneven as the first-half performance was, coach Dan Mullen said his primary concern was getting his players to calm down. 

 

Mullen described an agitated locker room. 

 

"I think part of it is, in that situation a lot of guys can start to press," Mullen said. "It's 'give me the ball and I'll make the play,' or 'Call this play.' On defense it's 'I gotta do this or that.' 

 

Mullen's response to that was simple.  

 

"Calm down. Do your job. Quarterbacks, if it's a give, give. If it's a throw, throw. If it's a keep, keep. Check it this way, check it that way. 

 

"Running backs, don't try go bounce and make big runs. Put your head down and get the yardage and make the right read. 

 

"Offensive line, don't try to do anything special blocking come off the ball. We don't need guys jumping out of their gaps on defense or trying in coverage to make a special play. 

 

"All we need is 11 guys to come out and do their jobs. We did that much better in the second half." 

 

The Bulldogs collected themselves and, in workmanlike fashion, drove for two touchdowns to open the second half, primarily by running the football. MSU ran for 169 yards in the second half, as Fitzgerald (135 yards, two touchdown runs) and Aeris Williams (24 carries, 116 yards) eclipsed the 100-yard mark in the same game for the third time this season. 

 

MSU also had an interception return for a touchdown for the third-straight game, and fourth time this season, and had its first punt return for a touchdown since 2015 -- an 83-yard return from Deddrick Thomas with five minutes left that sealed the win. 

 

"We didn't bring our 'A' game for the whole game," Mullen said. "But when we needed a big return, we got a big return. When we needed a drive to start the second half, we got a drive to start the second half. When we needed a stop on defense we got a stop on defense." 

 

In short, the Bulldog did what they had to, a little more than they had to. 

 

Mullen will take it. 

 

"You're talking about 18- to 22-year-old kids," he said. "It happens sometimes." 

 

Now, it's time to prepare to play Alabama. There shouldn't be any concerns about enthusiasm or focus. 

 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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