The first opponent on LSU's conference checklist is Mississippi State, who comes to Tiger Stadium for an 11:30 a.m. matchup to be broadcast by Jefferson Pilot. Head coach Nick Saban has had a bye week to prepare his No. 24 team for league play, to get the Tigers' focus and intensity ready for the games that will determine if they repeat as SEC champions.
While the Tigers' foes so far could be considered "tune-up" opponents, the fact is that LSU has not performed up to the standard that many fans have come to expect in the wake of last year's Sugar Bowl-winning spectacle. LSU's decisive victory over Miami (Ohio) Sept. 14 showed echoes of past intensity, but it followed a pair of forgettable games — a season-opening loss to Virginia Tech and a sleeper of a win over Division I-AA The Citadel a week later.
Both fortunately and unfortunately for LSU, Mississippi State will not really offer much more competition than the Miami RedHawks did two weeks ago. That is fortunate because LSU should be able to easily notch another victory and begin is trek for the SEC West crown with a 1-0 league record. What is unfortunate is that the LSU players know this, and it may affect their intensity level heading into the game.
The Bulldogs began their SEC season at home last Thursday by getting drummed 42-14 by Auburn to drop to 1-2 (0-1 SEC). State opened the season with a 36-13 loss at No. 15 Oregon before releasing their frustration on I-AA Jacksonville State with a 51-13 win.
The key to the Bulldogs' success (or lack thereof) so far has lied in junior quarterback Kevin Fant, whose effectiveness essentially reflects the play of the rest of the team.
Fant didn't play in State's Aug. 31 loss to Oregon after being suspended by the NCAA. According to MSU athletics director Larry Templeton, a Bulldogs booster used a credit card to secure tires and rims for Fant's vehicle, but Fant later bought them with a check from his mother. In Fant's place, redshirt freshman Kyle York made his first collegiate start, completing 18 of 37 passes for 192 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in a effective performance that was never able to catch up to the Ducks' offensive outpouring.
Back in the saddle, Fant threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns to lead Mississippi State over Jacksonville State on Sept. 14. Though the Gamecocks pulled to within 19-13 in the first half, the Bulldogs tacked up 32 unanswered points to close out the game.
Fant's 15-for-26 performance included an 89-yard touchdown pass to Ray Ray Bivines that was the longest pass in school history.
State totaled 547 yards of offense, including 175 rushing, while holding the Gamecocks to 248 yards. The Gamecocks moved the ball only 68 yards in the second half.
Only five days later, the Bulldogs met Auburn in a rare Thursday night SEC matchup to open State's conference schedule. The Tigers were already 1-0 in the league, having dispatched Vanderbilt, 31-6, the previous Saturday.
MSU hung tough with Auburn through most of the first half, and the game was tied at 7 with a little over five minutes to play in the second quarter before a State meltdown led to 14 Tiger points being put on the board.
It all began when a Damon Duval punt deep in Bulldog territory bounced backward and off of Richard Ball's foot. The ball was recovered by the Tigers at the 13-yard line, and Auburn quarterback Daniel Cobb found Marcel Willis three plays later for a touchdown and 14-7 lead with 4:07 to play in the second quarter.
After an unproductive State possession, the Tigers took over at the State 47 with only 28 seconds on the clock. On the second play from scrimmage, Cobb hit Ben Obomanu on the sideline for a 45-yard strike and a 21-7 lead.
"The kids were down 21-7 at halftime," MSU head coach Jackie Sherrill said, "but they came back in the second half and played very, very hard and played well. We got back to 21-14, but then we make some mistakes, … You can't do that in a game like this and still have an opportunity (to win)."
Fant played well (19-of-31 for 215 yards) when his offensive line gave him time, but constant pressure from the Auburn defense led him to commit three of his team's six turnovers — an interception and two fumbles. The six Bulldog turnovers were the most in a game since the 1999 against Ole Miss in Starkville.
"You can say turnovers kill you," said Fant, who was also sacked five times. "When you play a good football team like Auburn, you can't turn the ball over, especially when you give them good field position. They are going to capitalize on it."
"In a game like this, you have to be able to control certain things and we weren't able to control them," Sherrill said. "The kids played well in spurts, but you can't make mistakes like we made. You can't turn it over."
One of Fant's fumbles was caused and recovered by Reggie Torbor and gave Auburn the ball at the Bulldogs' 17 with 10:30 left in the fourth quarter. About a minute later, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams scored on a 5-yard touchdown run to make the score 35-14.
"I didn't secure the ball well enough," Fant said, "and the guy came up from behind me and got the ball out (of my hands). He did a good job, but it was my fault for not securing the ball."
"(Fant) should have tucked the ball in when he was running down the field," Sherrill said of the turnover. "When he had a chance to make the first down, he should have tucked the ball in but he didn't. The other one was when the ball was knocked out of his hand; we should have protected him."
If Mississippi State continues to exhibit the mental and physical miscues that it did against Auburn, LSU should have no problem dispatching the Bulldogs and preparing for its final "tune-up" game — a homecoming game against UL-Lafayette. But as in the past, being too farsighted or taking MSU too lightly could cause the Tigers problems, and SEC play certainly is not the time for things like that.
As said above, playtime's over.