October 8, 2012 10:09:03 AM
STARKVILLE -- The start or the finish aren't what concerns Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen.
Instead, Mullen will try to find on ways to get the Bulldogs to focus on the middle of games so they can build on their starts and make their finishes even easier.
"We get out there and get a lead and we take our foot off the gas, and you can't do that," Mullen said Sunday in his weekly teleconference. "The positive thing is we are winning games and (are) up big on people, but we have to execute at a very high level and keep our focus for all 60 minutes even when we have a lead."
In its first 5-0 start to a season in 14 years, No. 19 MSU has outscored its opponents 171-67, including 105-23 in the first half. However, the Bulldogs' advantage slips to 65-44 after halftime.
"That's what you have to defend against," said Mullen, whose team beat the University of Kentucky 27-14 on Saturday. "If we are behind we have to be ready to come back, and when we are ahead we just have to be able to put people away."
After a 27-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Chad Bumphis gave MSU a 27-7 lead Saturday, the Bulldogs managed just five first downs, including two three-and-outs and a turnover to allow Kentucky to stay close.
Mullen said his young team has to eliminate the "brain farts" that have allowed Troy University and Kentucky to stay in games until the end.
"That's a focus (issue)," Mullen said. "You're playing for three and a half hours. I know they say 60 minutes, but it's for three and a half hours you have to have a complete focus on doing your job on every snap. I think we lost that a couple of different times during the game. Whether it be miss-aligned on defense, not rocking off the ball on the offensive line, missing a couple of protections, a turnover, or shanking a punt. It's those type of things that I wasn't real pleased with."
Despite having a career-high 23 completions and 269 passing yards, MSU junior quarterback Tyler Russell said he missed some "easy throws" in the second half that he would normally would have completed.
"When you miss the little ones, they kind of get under your skin, and you're like, 'Man, I'm too good of a quarterback, and our team is too
good, to miss those little throws like that,' " Russell said Saturday. "When you're playing against Tennessee and teams like that, you've got to be able to make easy throws like that. We're going to come back (today) and work on it."
Mullen stressed MSU will need to correct those mental errors in time for its game at 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) against the University of Tennessee (3-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) at Davis Wade Stadium.
"The nice thing about it is even when we've been up and we start to slip a little bit, when we need to make plays we make plays," Mullen said. "We haven't just put people away, but when we've had to make plays we've made plays to win the game."
Malone gets third-straight start, but Smith plays
MSU senior offensive guard Tobias Smith didn't start Saturday, but he saw action for the first time in three weeks after sitting out the past two games due to complications from his surgically repaired knee.
Mullen said the team would make a decision about Smith in warmups prior to the game. Smith was on the field for MSU's second possession. Malone started the first drive that resulted in a touchdown.
MSU moves up to No. 19 in The Associated Press poll
MSU is ranked 18th in the USA Today Coaches' poll and No. 19 in The Associated Press poll. Both rankings were released Sunday afternoon.
Roanoke (Va.) Times reporter Doug Doughty is the only voter to have the Bulldogs in the top 10 at No. 10. The Bulldogs received 450 voting points and were ranked in 59 of the 60 AP voters' ballots. Harold Gutmann, of the Herald-Sun newspaper in Durham N.C., is the only voter to leave MSU off his ballot.
The Bulldogs haven't played a team that is ranked in either poll this season. Tennessee fell out of the rankings two weeks ago.
"They're 3-2, but their two losses are to teams ranked in the top 10 in pretty close games," Mullen said Saturday. "I don't think I get a vote, but I'd vote them as a top 25-type team. They've got that potential and that ability. It'll be a good battle."