STARKVILLE — If Mississippi State fans want to point fingers, stretch one in the direction of the coaching staff.
Following a 24-10 loss at Georgia, the third straight Southeastern Conference setback to start the season, the onus was on MSU’s coaches.
MSU coach Dan Mullen said so Saturday and repeated the message Sunday during his weekly teleconference with local reporters.
“We have some fundamental things we have to make sure we improve as coaches with our guys,” the third-year coach said.
MSU (2-3, 0-3 SEC) has battled injuries on the offensive line, a jumbled lineup and plenty of frustrating moments on offense and defense. With the midway point of the season arriving Saturday with a trip to winless Alabama-Birmingham (11 a.m., SportSouth), time has suddenly become an issue for the Bulldogs, who must show some improvement in the coming weeks if a trip to a second consecutive bowl game – the first in 11 years – is truly desired.
That might mean overhauling certain facets of the team, but not necessarily the personnel.
“We have to tweak and make sure that we are putting guys in position to be successful,” Mullen said. “You have to really evaluate the talents of the younger guys and the newer guys who are playing.”
Developing players will be the focus in the coming weeks, though it appears the hopeful freshmen who have yet to play this season will remain on the sideline. An injury or two will be the only avenue a first-year player – such as highly touted receiver Joe Morrow – will see significant playing time in the final half of the season, Mullen said Sunday.
Still, those plans could change.
The breakdowns on offense and defense have been a point of frustration, and it’s why Mullen and his coaching staff have asked for the attention rather than shifting the ire toward players.
Especially after Saturday, when James Carmon re-entered the mix on the offensive line, which allowed five sacks against Georgia. Chemistry has been an issue up front, which has led to subpar performances (two offensive touchdowns in the last three games).
“We just have to execute,” quarterback Chris Relf said. “The younger guys have to step up. Like I said, we play on an SEC team. They have to come and play their A-game.”
Relf, a senior, has repeatedly talked about his year-end goal in recent weeks. Like a countdown ticking away on his career as a football player, he continues to promise a special end to his up-and-down career at MSU – one that has ebbed to the tune of 814 passing yards and four touchdowns with five interceptions in 2011.
“The season is not over yet,” he said. “We can still go 9-3. I’ll always say that.”
Meanwhile, Mullen, who said Saturday his goal was to win six games and reach a bowl game, clarified his comments Sunday: a bowl game in January is MSU’s ultimate goal.
Mullen also uttered sharp terms such as “realistic.” The dream of winning an SEC West championship this season, he admitted Sunday, ended Saturday with the loss to Georgia.
“Going into a season, I don’t ever set win goals,” he said. “Maybe everybody took that the wrong way (Saturday). Our goal is not to win just six games. Our goal is to win the rest of our games. For the development … in our program, it’s critical to get to a bowl game.”
Said senior Quentin Saulsberry, who has played two positions already this season: “You’ve got to win ballgames. We have to get back to our identity. We have to find out who we are and that starts with the locker room and the seniors.”