PREVIEW: LSU v. Miss. State

Three weeks ago, the Sylvester Croom era got off to a fine start in Starkville, Miss., when the Mississippi State Bulldogs downed Tulane 28-7 for a historic season-opening win.

Unfortunately for the maroon and white that was as good as it got, as a 43-14 loss to Auburn two weeks ago was followed by a shocking 9-7 loss to Division I-AA Maine at home on Saturday, to leave the Bulldogs reeling at 1-2.


The task does not get any easier for Mississippi State either, as next up on the schedule is a trip to Baton Rouge, La., to face an LSU team (2-1) dealing with issues of its own.


The 2003 national champions have looked like shells of their former selves in 2004, and are misfiring on all cylinders after a 10-9 loss on the road to Auburn that saw yet another missed extra point decide the outcome of a game.


Right now, the Bulldogs would just like to be close enough to score extra points, as an offensive attack that looked potent against the Green Wave has now all but dried up completely. Mississippi State raked up 310 yards of total offense against Tulane, but lost their way completely against the Tigers, totaling a mere 271 total yards – two thirds of which came through the air, as sophomore quarterback Omar Connor completed 16-of-26 for 113 yards, while backup Kyle York completed 8-of-10 for a further 77 yards and both touchdown passes, by which time the Bulldogs were already trailing 43-0 and playing against Auburn's backups.


The story got even worse against Maine, ranked No. 15 in the latest I-AA poll, as Mississippi State drew blood in the first quarter but were then shut out the rest of the way, and failed to even reach field goal range against the Black Bears in their final two drives as time ran out.


As a result, Mississippi State is now left scratching its head, with an offensive unit currently ranked No. 87 in Division I-A – behind Hawaii, UL-Lafayette, and Army, three teams with a combined 1-6 record.


The Bulldogs are faring better on the defensive side of the ball, ranked No. 6 in the SEC and No. 37 in the nation, but the old adage "defense wins championships" still hinges on the offense's ability to put up at least a few points on the board – and when you can score no more than a single touchdown at home against a I-AA school that had never beaten a I-A school before, there are serious problems that need to be looked at.


Through three games, Mississippi State has put up more first downs and run more than 30 plays more than its opponents, and has a 20-yard per game advantage in total offense. The Bulldogs have passed for more yards, intercepted more passes, and converted more third- and fourth-downs than anyone they have played against, and have twice as much fourth-quarter possession as Tulane, Auburn, and Maine.


The problem, simply, is that they can't get the ball into the end zone.


Three times Mississippi State had the ball in Tulane territory and came away empty-handed. Three times Mississippi State had the ball in Auburn territory and came away empty-handed.


But both of those ineptitudes pale in comparison to the performance against Maine. Five times the Bulldogs crossed into Bear territory and failed to score. There was a missed field goal from the 15-yard line, a fumble on the four-yard line, an interception at the 14-yard line, a fumble on the goalline – that led to Maine's sole touchdown drive – and an incomplete pass at the 46-yard line as time expired. 


All of these failed opportunities indicate an impotent attack that no longer scares even a I-AA opponent.


Connor has completed 60 percent of his passes for 465 yards, but has only thrown two touchdown passes with one interception. Mississippi State's main offensive weapons appear to be running backs Jerious Norwood and Fred Reid, who have combined for 317 yards and two touchdowns – 74 yards and one score fewer than LSU's triple tailback combination of Justin Vincent, Alley Broussard, and Joseph Addai.


The Bulldogs' leading receiver?  Sophomore wideout Will Prosser, who with 168 yards on nine catches would rank third on the Tigers' roster behind sophomores Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis.


Ineptitude has been a theme on the Mississippi State sidelines for some time now, and Croom has to break an ingrained culture of losing in Starkville if he hopes to turn the Bulldogs around and set them back on a path to respectability.


The problem is, Mississippi State plays in the Southeastern Conference, where the amount of time a team has to catch it's breath between games is approximately the amount of time between the full-time whistle on a Saturday night, and the unlocking of the weight room doors on a Monday morning.


After opening the 2004 season with three straight road games – and losing two – the Bulldogs now head on the road to play an LSU team still smarting from a one-point loss to Auburn, and then to Nashville, Tenn., to play a Vanderbilt team that led Ole Miss for minutes in Oxford, Miss., before losing in overtime.


The Tigers looked plain awful in all facets of the game in Auburn, but really only have issues in three main areas. Unfortunately, those areas are offense, defense, and special teams. Once again the team failed to convert a point-after attempt, but this time it cost them the game – the completion of a cosmic circle started by Oregon State's maligned freshman place kicker Alexis Serna.


On paper, LSU should be heavily-favored to beat a Mississippi State team that is finding new ways to redefine the term ‘cellar-dweller' on a weekly basis. While the Tigers are finding extra points to be their Achilles heel, the Bulldogs are struggling to simply find points. Any points.


In addition to the missed 32-yard field goal against Maine, Mississippi State did not even attempt a field goal from Auburn's 30-yard line during one drive against the Tigers, electing instead to punt the ball away. The maroon and white have been able to string drives together, but haven't been able to cross the goal line when it matters – a fact reinforced by Saturday night's debacle.


If the Bulldogs hope to be competitive against LSU, they will have to find character from somewhere – and they would do well to look in a different location than the one they chose to use after getting blown out by Auburn.


As for LSU, for the second time in four weeks the Tigers are gifted a soft opponent to try and iron out the kinks with, and in theory should use Mississippi State as a glorified training run, much like they did with Arkansas State.


But after Georgia was taken to the wire by Marshall, Ole Miss was taken to the wire by Vanderbilt, and the Bulldogs lost to an average school from a lower division, it is apparent that this is a season in which absolutely anything can happen, and no win is guaranteed.


That, after all, is why they play the game, isn't it?

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