Nationals

No. 15 Mississippi State in center of SEC race

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No. 15 Mississippi State in center of SEC race

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Midway through the college football season, No. 15 Mississippi State is doing something it hasn't done in more than a decade: contending for the Southeastern Conference Western Division title and a spot in a BCS bowl game.

Those are realities not often seen in Starkville, though the Bulldogs are getting used to the attention.

``This is a lot of what they expected coming into the season,'' Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. ``To be in this situation as a program, this is what we drill in our guys to expect.

``And you know - it's fantastic.''

Especially considering:

- The Bulldogs haven't been ranked this high since 2000.

- Mississippi State's No. 12 spot in the current BCS standings is the third-highest in school history.

- The Bulldogs haven't been undefeated this late in a season since 1999.

Not that Mississippi State has a lot of time to bask in its early success. The Bulldogs (6-0) host Middle Tennessee State (4-2) on Saturday before a brutal stretch that includes showdowns at Alabama, against Texas A&M and at LSU.

Mullen isn't complaining about the schedule, he's just excited about the opportunity.

``In late October and in November you want to be playing big games,'' Mullen said. ``We've put ourselves in position to do that.''

Mississippi State's rise into the SEC's top tier isn't necessarily a huge surprise since the Bulldogs have been hanging around the national scene for nearly three years.

One reason is an improved offense that is much more balanced than in the recent past. Mullen was forced to go with a run-heavy approach his first three seasons because it suited his personnel, but first-year starting quarterback Tyler Russell has proven to be a much more potent big-play passing threat.

Russell threw for a career-high 23 completions and 291 yards in Saturday's 41-31 victory over Tennessee. The Bulldogs have scored at least 25 points in their first six games for the first time in the 113-year history of the football program.

Russell's favorite targets have been Chad Bumphis (468 yards, six touchdowns) and tight end Marcus Green (five touchdowns), but the Bulldogs have five players with at least 10 receptions. Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning said Russell's ability to consistently complete long passes has made his job easier.

``There's no doubt,'' Koenning said. ``Anytime you can get the big plays to happen, it's really good.''

It's certainly helped LaDarius Perkins find plenty of running room. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior is third in the SEC with 599 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

Koenning said the Tennessee victory was important because it proved the Bulldogs could win a true shootout.

``I was proud of the way our team reacted,'' Koenning said. ``It was like a heavyweight fight. You get hit and what are you going to do? You're going to hit back. I saw that. Our team responded in every way. That's the sign of a good football team.''

Now there's conversation about whether the Bulldogs can become a great team.

There are reasons to be skeptical. After all, Mississippi State's three SEC wins have come against teams that are a combined 0-11 in conference play.

Mullen has two national championship rings from his days as the offensive coordinator at Florida. He said he doesn't talk to his team about goals on a national scale, instead focusing on an SEC championship.

``If we do that, I imagine great things will happen for us, and we'll be rewarded accordingly,'' Mullen said.

But the path to an SEC championship is never easy. And before the Bulldogs jump back into conference play, they're worried about a Middle Tennessee team that beat Georgia Tech by three touchdowns earlier this season.

And as the Bulldogs continue to win, the pressure gets more intense.

``You're not tricking anybody going into the second half of the season,'' MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. ``Everybody knows who's who and we know what we like and we know what they like. We've got to be a cleaner and more efficient. That comes down to preparation.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

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USA Today

Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

WASHINGTON -- Daniel Murphy's two-run single drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning and the Washington Nationals rallied past the Philadelphia Phillies 8-6 on Sunday night to salvage the finale of the three-game series.

Anthony Rendon homered and doubled, Bryce Harper tied a career high with three doubles and Michael A. Taylor and Murphy each had three singles in a game that was delayed 38 minutes by rain in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams homered for the Phillies, who had won three straight.

Pinch hitter Brian Goodwin led off the eighth with a walk against Victor Arano. With one out, right-hander Seranthony Dominguez (1-2) came on to face Harper, who doubled to right, with Goodwin stopping at third.

After Rendon grounded out, Juan Soto was intentionally walked and Murphy lined a 1-2 pitch to shallow right. Taylor's single made it 8-6.

Ryan Madson (2-3) pitched the eighth inning, and Sean Doolittle finished it for his 21st save.

The Phillies took a 6-2 lead in the fifth on a two-run triple by Odubel Herrera and a two-run homer by Williams.

Washington pulled within a run at 6-5 in the sixth with four two-out hits, including an RBI triple by Trea Turner and RBI doubles by Harper and Rendon.

Nick Pivetta went five innings and allowed two runs on eight hits for the Phillies.

Washington starter Jefry Rodriguez was charged with four runs and five hits in four-plus innings.

The Phillies broke on top on Hoskins's two-run homer in the third.

Rendon made it 2-1 with a solo homer in the fourth. The next three hitters singled, tying the game, but with the rain intensifying, out came the tarp. When play resumed, Pivetta struck out three straight to end the inning.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Phillies: C Andrew Knapp left in the seventh with a right knee contusion. ... 3B Maikel Franco slipped on first base and fell hard in the eighth. He stayed in to run, but left after the half-inning. ... INF Jesmuel Valent?n was placed on the paternity leave list and OF Dylan Cozens (left quadriceps strain) was reinstated from the 10-day DL.

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson (right hamstring strain) allowed 11 runs in 4 2/3 innings of a rehab start at Class A Potomac on Sunday. "I'm more concerned with the way he feels," manager Dave Martinez said, downplaying the results. "We'll go from there." ... RH reliever Brandon Kintzler (right forearm flexor strain) threw a scoreless inning at Potomac. ... RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) played catch on the field again. "We'll keep doing his throwing progression and figure out when he can actually throw from the mound," Martinez said.

UP NEXT

Phillies: RHP Vince Velasquez (5-7, 4.82) starts the opener of a series against the Yankees on Monday. He is 0-0 with a 3.24 ERA in two games vs. New York.

Nationals: RHP Gio Gonzalez (6-4, 3.08) opens a series at Tampa Bay on Monday. He is 2-2 with a 5.54 ERA in six games against the Rays.

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Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

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USA TODAY Sports

Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

As June minicamp concluded, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden pulled no punches when asked about expectations for new quarterback Alex Smith. 

"He has got to get it down by the first game," Gruden said of Smith. 

While that might not sound overly demanding, remember this is Smith's first season in Washington. The QB will be playing with new teammates and implementing new terminology. 

Still, Smith is a veteran with a lot of experience, and frankly, it seems like Gruden isn't worried about a transition period. 

"We are not in here to build the team around him, the team is built and he has to lead it like right now," the coach said. "This isn’t a two- or three-year process. This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away."

Gruden made things quite clear. He expects the best from Smith, yesterday. 

Those comments created headlines, but there was something else the coach said about his passer that also stood out. Asked about Smith's veteran presence, Gruden talked about what the quarterback might mean for his teammates. 

"The whole job a quarterback has is obviously getting the most out of the people around you. That’s what I think he does as good as anybody," Gruden said. "He’ll get the most out of the tight ends. He’ll get the most out of the backs."

The coach continued, and things got a bit more interesting.

"He’ll get the most out of the receivers and offensive line because they’re going to want to play for him and they’re going to feel confident that he’s going to make something happen in a positive way or at least give it everything he’s got and take responsibility if something doesn’t work out."

Redskins fans are often a weirdly divided bunch. Many liked former QB Kirk Cousins but plenty did not think he was worth the type of money he was paid the last two seasons. Along the way, some fans will read Gruden's comments about making something happen and taking responsibility as a jab at Cousins. That's probably wrong. 

Remember, Trent Williams played through a serious knee injury last season. Asked why, Williams said he wanted to be out there to protect Cousins. Guys played for Cousins. 

The responsibility comment might mean something else, though. Their was a rather hostile back-and-forth last season between Gruden and Cousins last season, when the QB and coach disagreed about taking more risks with the football. A quick reminder of the scene: Cousins told a reporter that he would throw 20 interceptions if he played like Gruden wanted. The coach responded that while the interceptions might pile up, the QB would also throw 60 touchdowns. (Relive it here)

Throughout his career, Smith has thrown less interceptions than Cousins. But that doesn't mean Smith doesn't take risks or put his receivers in position to make plays. 

It's entirely possible Gruden simply expects Smith, a veteran, to be a responsible player and leader. And it's likely that comment had nothing to do with the Redskins previous quarterbacks. 

The bottom line is that Smith better be ready to go Week 1, and his coach made that clear. And if Smith isn't, Gruden expects his quarterback to take responsibility. 

MORE REDSKINS NEWS:

— Contract years: Redskins face 5 tough decisions 

— Dead Money: Trades, misses and mistakes hurt Redskins salary cap

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