FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was a throwaway question asked after a throwaway game played 1,300 miles from Starkville, about an unremarkable play that precious few watched live.
But the answer might as well sum up 2016 for Mississippi State.
How big was that touchdown at the end of the first half?
Trailing UMass 14-6 with the clock approaching 00:30, Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald took the snap, stood up in a clean pocket and fired at Fred Ross, his best receiver who had run a short dig route out of the slot. With a man on top of him, Ross caught it and fell toward the goal line for what was called a 9-yard touchdown.
Replay seemed to indicate — or at least raised the question — that Ross may not have crossed the goal line. After the game, even Ross admitted he didn’t think he scored. But with limited replay angles available for the game, which wasn’t televised, the play stood as called.
“I thought it was big for us, just some momentum going into halftime,” said Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen, who momentarily paused before a more important thought occurred to him.
“Our guys worry about a lot of things,” he continued. “We’ve won an awful lot of football games over the last couple of years. And we have a lot of guys who are just used to winning without having done a whole lot for us to win. And they’re learning, ‘Hey, what do I have to do to continue to make that happen? It’s a lot harder than I thought it was.’”
MSU went on to rally for 28 third-quarter points and outlast the feisty Minutemen, 47-35, before an announced Gillette Stadium crowd of 13,074. Many of them were family or personal friends of Mullen, who grew up nearby in Manchester, N.H.
Saturday was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts for the coach who has launched Mississippi State to unprecedented heights since 2009 — six straight bowl game appearances, six straight winning seasons. Instead, it became another example of a harsh football reality:
“It takes time.”
“It takes a lot of time for (the coaching staff’s message) to sink in,” Mullen said. “A couple of years ago it took a lot of time. We had a really young football team (in 2013). We were 4-6 at one point. And finally the message sunk in, we won two games, and all of a sudden all the same guys that went 4-6 go and reel off however many we won in a row (nine straight in 2014). They finally figured it out.”
If Mullen is trying to re-immerse himself in what it felt like to be part of that dominant 2014 squad — No. 1 in the country, 10-game winner, maybe the school’s best team ever — Sunday’s stop might have provided that escape. On his way back from New England, he detoured to Arlington, Texas, where he watched his old QB throw his first NFL touchdown for the Dallas Cowboys.
Yet, at the same time, it’s another reminder for Mullen and his players: Dak Prescott, like most of the 2014 team, is history. Most are long gone from Starkville. There’s a chance Prescott is a one-in-a-million success story, a modern marvel of what good coaching can do when paired with talent.
This new batch of players won’t have him. They don’t have those memories, those experiences. And in order for the Bulldogs to return to the lofty heights Mullen seeks, they need to grasp how to win in the SEC.
“A lot of those guys were not on that 2014 team that was No. 1. A lot of those guys were just scout team players,” Ross said. “They’re learning what it takes to win games. We got to keep moving forward.”
As for Mullen, he’ll need to do with Fitzgerald precisely what he did with Prescott — mold a 3-star player into a college star, one who can compensate for Mississippi State’s inability to recruit with the likes of Alabama, LSU or Ole Miss.
And that, well, that’ll take time, too. Even Prescott, who threw 10 touchdowns to 7 interceptions as a sophomore, took his lumps at first.
“He understands, I’m a young guy, it’s my first time starting. He works with me every day,” Fitzgerald said of Mullen. “There’s frustration and then there’s happiness. He’s trying to coach me up to be a better leader, better quarterback.”
The question might not even be if Mississippi State’s quarterbacks guru can develop another star. But will Mullen have enough time to pull off the improbable again? All around him in the SEC West, slow stretches have left Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin on hot seats. They cost Les Miles his job on Sunday.
Success is fleeting in the SEC. Mullen, through all the wild ups and downs of this season to date, is perhaps now realizing he needs to enjoy every bit.
“It’s great to get a win and put a big smile on our face,” he said. “Everybody should have smiles on their face. Won the game. Guys aren’t sure. There’s guys, that’s how young a team we are. ‘Are we supposed to smile? Not? But I made a mistake, am I allowed to smile?’ Yeah, we won a game. Enjoy it all.”