October 18, 2010 11:45:00 AM
When Mississippi State arrived back on campus a little after 1 a.m. Sunday morning, a throng of fans awaited to celebrate the Bulldogs'' 10-7 victory over No. 22 Florida in The Swamp.
Coach Dan Mullen said the "wild scene" was a great experience and a first during his time with the Bulldogs.
By Sunday afternoon, Mullen saw something else he hasn''t experienced during his two-year tenure: a national ranking next to his program''s name.
On the strength of a four-game winning streak, including Saturday''s first road win over a ranked opponent since 2007, the Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2 SEC) entered the rankings at No. 24.
It''s the first time they''ve been ranked since Sept. 21, 2001, when they were No. 21.
"We''re going to enjoy this win, but we need to be a much better football team," Mullen said. "There''s no secret about it. We didn''t cross the finish line with a win over Florida. But maybe this was the second jolt of energy to keep us going."
Mullen''s charge is to make sure his team keeps a level head, but he''s also quick to say the Bulldogs'' victory over Florida was no fluke. The Bulldogs won in The Swamp for the first time since 1965, breaking a 16-game losing streak.
"It shouldn''t have been as close as it was," Mullen said. "We made mistakes early and we made mistakes late. We shouldn''t have had to make that stop on the final drive."
The Mississippi State defense did anyway, forcing Florida into a long field goal attempt with just seconds remaining. Chas Henry''s 42-yard try sailed wide right, and the celebration began.
Though Mullen has always been optimistic about the Bulldogs'' ability to compete in the SEC, he admits his young team was a little slow to join him. But now, they''re oozing confidence and only expect to improve.
"With all these young guys," said sophomore cornerback Johnthan Banks, "the future could be scary for people."
Banks grabbed an interception during Saturday''s win, leading a Bulldogs'' defense that held Florida to just 361 total yards and forced two crucial turnovers. Linebacker Chris White made 11 tackles, including 4 1/2 for a loss with 2 1/2 sacks.
The Bulldogs led 10-0 at halftime, providing just enough cushion for the defense.
"The second half we knew they were going to come out swinging but we had to come out swinging back," White said.
The Bulldogs'' offense wasn''t as effective. As the game progressed, Mullen''s play-calling became conservative. Even on third-and-long, the Bulldogs stayed almost exclusively grounded.
They passed only nine times out of 58 plays, and those attempts weren''t particularly effective. Quarterback Chris Relf completed 4 of 9 passes for 33 yards.
But there was enough success on the ground to chew up the clock and keep Florida''s offense on the sideline. Vick Ballard rushed for a team-high 98 yards while Relf added 82 yards and a touchdown.
Mullen said he hasn''t lost confidence in Relf''s ability to throw, but the grinding nature of the game called for running plays.
"Playing against an opportunistic defense, 3rd and long is not when you want to take your shots," Mullen said.
Though all might not be perfect, Mississippi State finds itself in a very good position, needing just one victory to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. And with home games against UAB and Kentucky over the next two weeks, the Bulldogs have a legitimate opportunity to have a 7-2 record going into their bye week.
In the jumbled world of the SEC Western Division -- which includes five nationally ranked teams -- there''s still much to be decided.
For the first time in a long time, Mississippi State is right in the middle of the fray.
"We''ve done a tremendous job of dealing with defeats and working hard and regaining focus after losses," Mullen said. "Now we''re going to see how we deal with some success."
1. Wright carving out role with MSU men COLLEGE SPORTS
2. MSU women receives commitment from Australian Bibby COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Okorie's improved play provides spark for MSU women COLLEGE SPORTS
5. Clinton High's Akers has one more shot to win title LOCAL COLUMNS