STARKVILLE — After the victory lap, after the hug and kiss from his wife, after staring up at the scoreboard to let the final score sink in, Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen had two people he needed to see in the aftermath of his team’s 38-23 victory against No. 2 Auburn on Saturday night.
Carrying the game ball in his right hand and sporting a broad smile six years in the making, Mullen walked from end zone to end zone at MSU’s Davis Wade Stadium before finding MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum and Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin.
Mullen handed Keenum the game ball and embraced both men, as the work of all three was drowned out by cheers and celebration in the wake of the biggest win in school history.
“This was special,” Mullen said. “It takes everybody to build a program. It really does. For us, it has taken the school president, the athletic director, the student body, the alumni. A lot of programs are already built and they can put big seasons up there because they have the foundation. When I got here six years ago, we had to build this one and it took everyone pulling in the same direction.
“It’s not over because we haven’t accomplished our goals yet, but it has been a great three-game stretch.”
It’s a stretch that now features three-consecutive wins against top-10 teams, but the latest was the most meaningful to date for Mullen.
Entering the game ranked in the top five of The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in school history, the game against Auburn provided MSU with an opportunity for a watershed moment. It was a test of whether MSU belonged in the national spotlight.
From Mullen to his players, the Bulldogs passed the test, administering a two-touchdown thumping of favored Auburn.
“It’s the No. 1 game since I’ve been here,” said MSU junior cornerback Taveze Calhoun, who had a team-high six tackles and a forced fumble. “I wouldn’t say surreal because we expected it to happen. This has always been the goal, to win every game we play.”
It’s an attitude that comes from the top. It started with Keenum, who hired Mullen away from his post as offensive coordinator at Florida six years ago. It trickles down to Stricklin, the athletic director who has overseen a turnaround of the football program, to Mullen, who has MSU on the brink of one of the greatest seasons in school history.
It’s also a leadership that can be seen in MSU’s players, who enter games expecting to win rather than hoping.
“I always knew this was possible,” said MSU defensive tackle Preston Smith, who had four tackles and a sack of quarterback Nick Marshall. “To be here now, 6-0 and possibly being ranked No. 1, I feel juiced up. It comes from coach Mullen. I have to give him the credit.”
That leadership manifested itself multiple times through Saturday. After the Bulldogs built a 21-0 lead midway through the first quarter, the Bulldogs turned the ball over on four of their next five possessions and allowed Auburn to cut the gap to 21-13. But the Bulldogs’ resolve proved too much to overcome, as junior quarterback Dak Prescott scored on a 15-yard run with five minutes left in the second quarter. The Tigers didn’t get closer than eight points again.
“I thought our entire team showed great leadership,” Mullen said. “It’s really easy to look at a guy like Dak Prescott and see he bounced back when we made some mistakes. That’s leadership. But then you have guys like Jay Hughes intercepting the ball. You have a guy like (tight end) Malcolm Johnson coming up and saying, ‘Coach, let’s run this play.’ Then we run it and he goes and makes a huge catch, sets up a touchdown. This team is special.”
It took a special effort to beat Auburn. Behind Marshall, Auburn entered having won 16 of its last 17 regular-season games and brought with it the SEC’s top scoring offense in conference play. But the Tigers left Starkville with a loss and their lowest scoring output in two seasons under coach Gus Malzahn.
“They are a very good football team,” Malzahn said of MSU. “We knew we would have to play well to beat them, and we did not do that. They had something to do with that.”
The Bulldogs did more than that. MSU forced four turnovers and harassed Marshall from the start to move to 6-0 for the fourth time in school history, and the second time under Mullen.
But unlike 2012, when the Bulldogs started 7-0 before finishing 8-5, this team has stared down the nation’s best and walked away with convincing victories each time. In taking down then-No. 8 LSU, then-No. 6 Texas A&M,and No. 2 Auburn in consecutive games, MSU has been impressive each time, building a lead of more than 20 points in each game. The win against Auburn helped MSU become one of five teams in the history of The AP poll to beat three-straight top-10 opponents.
“That’s a top-10 football team,” Mullen said of Auburn. “Top to bottom, back to front, you can line them up against anybody in the country and they will stand up to it.”
But Saturday wasn’t about Auburn. It was about Mullen’s Bulldogs, and their rapid — and somewhat unexpected — ascension to the top of the college football world. It’s the realization of a vision Mullen had for the program when Keenum hired him in 2008, and it is a vision that was there when Mullen presented the game ball to MSU’s president with a smile on his face.
“That was a great team win by our guys, but, more importantly, it was a great team win by our university,” Mullen said. “We got here six years ago and we told the fans, ‘If you show up, we’ll build a winning program.’ The fans did that today.”
Starting at 8 a.m. Saturday, with ESPN’s College GameDay, its weekly lead-in-show, emanating from The Junction, MSU’s tailgating area, Bulldogs’ fans were present and vocal. When MSU took a 21-0 lead, the record-crowd of 62,945 was deafening, just as it was in the final minutes when Mullen put the finishing touches on the program’s third-straight signature win.
But it wasn’t easy, particularly in the second half. After Prescott and the offense helped build the 28-13 halftime lead, Auburn outplayed MSU for much of the third quarter, getting a 15-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to wide receiver Dhaquille Williams to make it 28-20.
In the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs showed why they might be special. After taking a 31-20 lead on a 21-yard field goal by kicker Evan Sobiesk with 11 minutes, 33 seconds to go, the Bulldogs turned in a big play on special teams. Sophomore linebacker Quadry Antoine forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and senior Matthew Wells recovered it. Four plays later, tailback Josh Robinson, who rushed for 97 yards, scored on a 1-yard run to start the celebration in Starkville.
“It’s wonderful,” MSU sophomore wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson said. “I dreamed about this game, I dreamed about getting this win. It’s everything I thought it could be.”
But under the leadership of Mullen, the Bulldogs aren’t satisfied. When the clock hit zero, MSU fans didn’t rush the field, the goal posts remained upright. But the celebration was emotional, and in the middle of it was Mullen, the sixth-year coach who has built a winner in Starkville.
“We are right where we wanted to be,” Mullen said. “We are not satisfied, though. We are only halfway through. They don’t give away trophies for half the season. They give them at the end. That’s what we want. We want to be champions.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat