The Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1 SEC) gave away a safety on the last snap that ran out the clock without risking a punt near Mississippi State's goal line. All the two free points meant was further frustration for the Bulldogs (3-4) in their fourth league loss of the season.
"We made some plays, we missed some plays," Coach Dan Mullen said. "We're not far off from where we want to be but we have to finish these games out and find a way to make the big play to win when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter."
Which is exactly what bowl-eligible South Carolina did with tough-minded fourth quarter on both sides of the ball. State broke the 7-7 tie that had held since 6:21 of the second period, driving as far as the—ironically—Gamecock four-yard line before settling for a field goal at 9:50. The Bulldogs had taken three shots from that short range after WR Chad Bumphis was held in the end zone for pass interference. Two Tyler Russell passes went awry, around a no-gain rush.
So PK Derek DePasquale, having missed 40- and 53-yard attempts in the half, chipped a 22-yarder through for State's last lead. It didn't shake South Carolina confidence at all, Mullen said.
"They showed a lot of resiliency, showed why they're a top-15 team. They made plays at key moments of the game." In this must-score situation they did it with star tailback Marcus Lattimore on the bench, injured, too. New starting quarterback Connor Shaw mixed perfect passes with tough running from Bruce Ellington—who also tossed a completed throw in the drive—getting his team inside State's five-yard line.
On third down after a timeout Shaw looked over the Bulldog defense and saw off to his left the 6-4, at least, Jeffrey matched on 5-10, maybe, CB Corey Broomfield. Much of the drive and whole game State had shadowed Jeffrey with 6-2 Johnthan Banks, and that cornerback had produced one outright interception of his own and a deflection caught by a teammate.
But this time Banks was on the far right side with Banks man-on and S Nickoe Whitley—who caught that Banks deflection earlier—supporting. Everyone in Davis Wade Stadium could guess what was coming and Shaw agreed, taking a quick step back before lofting. Jeffrey had no trouble hauling it in.
"I just saw the ball in the air and Ashlon make a great play and came down with it," said DT Fletcher Cox, who with the rest of State's defensive front had absolutely no time or chance of getting pressure on the passer.
"We'll look at the call we made defensively to make sure we had our kids in the best positions," said Mullen. "When you're playing a guy that size, that we put everybody in the best position to make the play on."
There was still sufficient time, and one timeout, for State to answer. Russell got a 22-yard catch from WR Arceto Clark and scrambled for eleven more himself to the S.C. 32-yard line. That's where any comeback hope ended, as Russell went again for Clark against a man-defense. "I was going to back-shoulder it," Russell said. "I just didn't look off the free safety and he intercepted it." Russell might have had his follow-through affected by a rusher but that made safety D.J. Swearingen's coming-across interception no less well played.
"He checked, he was looking down the field to throw a fade down the sideline to Arceto, it was one-on-one and the guy was playing hard inside," Mullen said. "He didn't get enough zip on the ball, it kind of floated and let the safety get over the top."
It was the second pick of the day for South Carolina, the SEC's top passing defense by yardage and now in interceptions. This was not an ideal unit for Russell to make his first college start against, and the sophomore finished with 11-of-29 throwing, 165 yards, and a first-quarter touchdown. And, the two turnovers.
"I didn't do well enough to win the game," Russell said. "That's what you look at. At times I made some plays and times I didn't, I feel we were off on a couple of throws and just missing it." Clark caught four of his balls for 54 yards while WR Chris Smith had three grabs and 34 yards, including the touchdown on a well-executed matchup with Stephon Gillmore at 1:09 after a ten-play drive.
Shaw, himself made the full-time starter just last week, came up a few yards shorter and had his own pair of picks. Both were off batted balls at the Bulldog goal line. But the sophomore was 20-of-28 for 155 yards and of course had the game-winning throw. Shaw also ran for 60 yards in gains and took 32 more in losses to keep State's defense spread.
"They didn't do anything different, they ran the ball and the quarterback made a couple of plays with his feet," Cox said. "Overall I thought we did a good job of tackling but it could have been better." The Bulldogs did a much better job than most against Lattimore, making him pay for his 39 net yards on 17 carries. But Lattimore still got on the scoreboard with that tying second-quarter touchdown, when he side-slipped S Charles Mitchell and jogged across from—of course—four yards out.
South Carolina still had to settle for 289 yards on 75 snaps and just 110 of that via rushing. "The scheme that Coach Wilson and Coach Collins gave us was basically going in and stopping the run, and holding Alshon Jeffrey, said MLB Wilson. "And I thought we did that for the most part."
"I thought the defense played well," said Mullen. "When you hold a back like Marcus Lattimore to 39 yards rushing that's a pretty good day. With the talent that team had I thought our guys overall played pretty well."
The Gamecock defense wasn't any pushover either as State managed 296 yards. TB Vick Ballard got 67 of that on 20 tough carries and nothing longer than nine yards. TB LaDarius Perkins had 46 yards on nine rushes and the closest thing to a breakaway run with his 16 yard option scamper.
The Bulldogs could point to other not-quite situations where this one could have gone another way. State got second-quarter possession just inside midfield after a shanked S.C. punt with the 7-0 lead, and three Perkins rushes netted seven yards before a return punt. South Carolina's touchdown series came after that exchange in fact.
The missed 40-yard field goal would have added priceless margin going into the third quarter as well as momentum. Though, that series was really stopped on a badly-executed double-reverse pass play that ought to have been intercepted anyway. DePasquale was asked to try the 52-yarder on the first play of the last period after changing ends and getting a little wind behind it, but the ball was undercut and far short.
But it was the failure to produce more than three points in the fourth quarter opportunity that left MSU wanting . Though as Mullen reminded, it wasn't so much failure of one team. "I like the series we had down there at the goal line. Give them some credit, they made some plays in the red zone. We had some one-on-one shots and we just missed them."
And with it the chance for a much-needed league win going into State's open date. Instead of riding some new momentum the Bulldogs will keep addressing older issues. The plan, said Cox, is "Just come off the bye week, go to Kentucky and play ball again. We're going to take the off week and get back to fundamentals. It's going to be like every week, high intensity and everybody flying around. We're just going to keep playing and compete every weekend."
The head coach was more upbeat about things. "For our guys we're not far off where we want to be, but that final step is a tough one," Mullen said. "We've got to take that final step to get over that hump and become a top ten, top 15 team and I don't see us very far off from that right now."