Those that looked at Saturday’s results on paper wondered how LSU managed to escape Starkville with the victory.
Those that watched or listened in wondered many of the same thoughts.
Truth be told, neither team played good football on a rain-soaked field in Starkville – both sides plagued by turnovers and missed opportunities.
Yet, when MSU put themselves in position to take the lead with under two minutes to play, a tired, beaten LSU defense that had been on the field all day came up with its’ biggest stop of the year.
After the Bulldogs marched from midfield to set up a first and goal from the two-yard line, LSU managed four straight stops to force the turnover and seal the ball game.
MSU was unable to punch the ball in on their first two rushing attempts, and – hoping to catch the LSU defense asleep – attempted a play-action pass on third and inches. That is when Chad Jones came up with arguably the afternoon’s most important play.
“It was an all out blitz, and I was on the weak side,” Jones said. “The play went to the strong side, and I sprinted over when the ball went into the air and I tipped it down.
“I knew it was a touchdown,” he added. “He was just sitting there waiting.”
Had Jones not made the play, the Tiger offense would have been hard-pressed to come up with an answer in under a minute, let alone on the same wet field that had slowed them all day.
Instead, after an allowed safety, a kickoff and the subsequent defensive stop, LSU escaped to take home the 30-26 victory.
"When the play was there to be made at the biggest times of the game, they made the play,” said MSU head coach Dan Mullen.
MSU center J.C. Brignone said that the final few plays of the drive were there for the taking, and the Tigers made the stronger push.
“We were right there, six inches from the goal line. That just comes down to who wants it more.”
Though they never tell the complete tale of a game, the stats did not look good for Tiger head coach Les Miles.
While quarterback Jordan Jefferson completed 15-of-28 passes for 233 yards, the lack of a running game – 30 yards on 31 carries – overshadowed most positives on the offensive side. Freshman backup quarterback Russell Shepard, who only saw carries on four snaps, led the Tigers in rushing with 26 yards – all of which came in the first half.
MSU finished with 111 more yards than LSU (374-263) behind a balanced attack of 223 yards passing and 151 yards rushing. MSU also converted 8-of-19 third downs, while LSU managed just 2-of-13 conversions.
At the end of the day, the Achilles heel for the Bulldogs became turnovers - three interceptions and a fumble that handed the Tigers 10 of their 30 points.
“Our defense has got heart; real character and courage,” Miles said.
On Saturday, it certainly took all three - and then some.
Patrick Peterson led the game off with a pick-six on Tyson Lee’s first snap from scrimmage. Just like that, it was 7-0.
Well, not so fast. The Tigers mishandled the extra point snap and missed the try, which kept the score at 6-0. Both sides then traded quick touchdown possessions to move the scoring to 13-7 with 3:45 left in the first quarter.
Then came the next mental mishap, again by way of the special teams unit. Long snapper Alex Russian soared a snap over Derek Helton’s head from inside the LSU 20-yard line for the second time this season. This time, however, Helton fielded the ball at the goal line instead of taking the safety – costing LSU seven points on the third special teams blunder of the first quarter.
After the Tigers recovered a fumble in the second quarter and drove the ball down to a first and goal from the 10-yard line, the wheels quit moving. Three plays later, LSU was stuffed and settled for a field goal to retake the lead, 16-14.
When LSU forced a punt on the next possession, Peterson extended the Bulldog drive with a roughing the punter call – the fourth mistake by the special teams unit in less than a half of play. The drive would eventually end on a fourth-down interception by Brandon Taylor.
Headed into the half, Charles Scott and Keiland Williams had combined for 22 yards rushing on 10 carries, while Jefferson was 10-of-16 passing for 108 yards and a touchdown.
On the first play of the third quarter, Jefferson added 58-yards and another touchdown to his total with his second scoring strike to LaFell. Lee and the Bulldogs then cut the lead to 23-21 on a 50-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Green with 6:33 left to go in the period.
After a 41-yard kickoff return by Trindon Holliday, the Tigers found themselves knocking on the door to extend the lead once more. Instead, special teams blunders continued as Jasper missed a 19-yard field goal after Helton bobbled the hold.
MSU drove the ball to midfield before Mullen decided to punt on fourth and three, a decision that pushed the tide of the game in LSU’s direction.
After a few bounces, Jones fielded the ball inside the 10 and – behind a wave of Tiger blockers – maneuvered his way 93 yards for the score.
“I caught it to make it stop rolling, made a move and saw daylight,” he said. “I just tried to get to the wall. Everyone was blocking for me; Peterson was waving me, and I was trying to run as fast as I could.”
MSU answered with a 22-yard field goal to trim the lead to 30-24. After the Bulldogs stopped the Tigers on their next possession, Mullen’s crew worked their way inside the five-yard line – where their four-straight attempts went awry.
In the end, it was a thrilling victory for an LSU team that looked all but out of luck on the afternoon. Yet, the tone from the Tiger headman tells the tale of the improvements that must be made before the trip to Athens next weekend.
“The play Chad made in the end zone was spectacular, and his return was unbelievable,” Miles said. “But if we don’t have miscues and we managed the game easier, then it doesn’t have to be this kind of ending.
“I told the team, don’t come to work on Monday if you don’t want to be better,” he added. “There is too much talent for us not to play well.”