September 10, 2010 10:30:00 AM
All the Mississippi State football team had to do was grab it.
The Bulldogs had every opportunity Thursday night to back up all of their excited talk after a lopsided victory against the University of Memphis.
Instead, faced with an opportunity to beat a ranked team at home in their Southeastern Conference opener, MSU struggled to find someone -- anyone -- to make a game-changing play.
As a result, No. 21 Auburn escaped with a 17-14 victory in front of a crowd of 54,806 at Davis Wade Stadium.
"The opportunity was there for us to win and we didn''t grab it, and we need to do that to turn the corner," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "We have to expect to make the plays and to expect to win those games. With a young team we''re trying to build, there are times when they are looking around and it is time to make a play. Oh, I am the one that is going to do it, instead of it is time to make to a play, that''s me coach, give me the ball. We will develop that kind of attitude and swagger, hopefully, in the very near future."
The Bulldogs need only to look at themselves to wonder how this one slipped away. Dropped passes (and potential interceptions), poorly timed penalties, curious playcalling, and turnovers all came together to bring MSU back to reality.
Yes, the Bulldogs have plenty of options in the running and passing game. The fact remains none of those players stood up and grabbed the spotlight. With a row of NFL scouts gathered in the press box, it would have been an ideal time for Chris Relf or Tyler Russell or Chad Bumphis or Leon Berry, just to name four, to make a play that burned into those NFL brains and made them add a red circle or star to their list of special names to remember.
Instead, this one will go down as a "could-have been" moment. It could have been a wonderful way to certify the arrival of Mullen''s spread offense. But an inability to find a play in the final five series that worked was mystifying. Relf had time most of the evening to make throws, which is a credit to solid offensive line play, but too often his touch was off or he didn''t put enough on his throws.
"Every time we hit the high note nobody made the play," Mullen said. "That is from me all of the way down. ... If you''re going to win in the Southeastern Conference, when you hit those high notes you have to explode and you have to make those plays. You have to make the great calls as coaches and the great plays as players. That''s what this league is all about."
Aside from a leaping catch by Arceto Clark on fourth down that went for 22 yards on the final drive, no one else emerged on the final five series to say, "I''m the man, and I am going to lead this offense."
Bumphis, a sophomore wide receiver, showed signs he could be that player when he gained 15 yards on an option pitch. But faced with a third-and-3 from its 44, MSU, for some reason, asked Relf to make a shovel pass to senior tight end Brandon Henderson, who went for 1 yard into the middle of the defense.
"(It''s a) sick (feeling)," Bumphis said. "We had chance after chance to win, but, like I said, we didn''t make the best of the opportunity."
To their credit, Mullen, Bumphis -- even co-defensive coordinator Manny Diaz -- admitted the Bulldogs didn''t do enough to grab a winnable game. They pointed the finger back at themselves for not catching passes, not making the right blocks, allowing too many points for their offense to overcome, and letting a chance to make a statement slip away after four consecutive incompletions in the final 45 seconds.
"Tonight it''s on the defense," Diaz said. "Whatever we get, we have to hold them to one less. That''s our standard. I am proud of our effort. I thought our kids battled, but, ultimately, to be where we want to be, we can''t give up the points we did.
"We know we can play so much better than we did. That will be the hardest part for the kids. The defense let the team down because we gave up more points than our offense could score. ... We had an interception for a touchdown that we batted to the ground. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. We have got to get the confidence to make those plays in this type of environment."
Said Bumphis, "I think it''s time we step up and make those plays. Give credit to Auburn. They played great. But I think it is time for us as receivers, and me as well, to step up and make big plays."
Maybe it''s for the best. Maybe Relf and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell needed a loss like this to push them to work even harder to become the team leader on offense this squad so desperately needs.
Mullen said Relf remains the team''s starting quarterback, and will stay in that position until Russell does something great to push him out. He didn''t have the same magic Thursday that he showed against Memphis, which is to be expected in his first SEC test.
But Mullen has set the bar higher at MSU, and he isn''t going to accept moral victories. He won''t allow the Bulldogs to use youth as an excuse this season. They shouldn''t. This team has too much talent to allow more of these games not to be grabbed. The challenge for this team before its next game at LSU on Sept. 18 is to find someone who will be the game-changer and who will step up and say, "I''m the man, and I will lead this team to victory."
Until that happens in a SEC game, all of the Bulldogs'' potential remains on paper and unfulfilled.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. Reach him at: email@example.com
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.