"They won just about every one-on-one battle on the edge with their wideouts," Coach Dan Mullen said. "That's as good a wide receiver play as I've seen in a long time. A long, long time."
The pair of pass-catchers stole Saturday's show. But what turned an intense SEC contest, with a 31-26 Tiger lead after three quarters, into a runaway romp on the final score were several strong supporting performances. Most notably from quarterback Zach Mettenberger who assuredly caught NFL eyes as well. The senior slinger connected on 25 of his 29 throws for 340 yards and the two touchdowns, both tossed to Beckham.
Despite seeing what Mettenberger did in a frantic effort at Georgia last week, the Bulldog defense spent its two weeks preparing for a trademark Tiger ground game. Mettenberger made them pay and dearly.
"We came out planning for the run the whole week," DT Chris Jones said. "They tricked us coming out throwing the ball. We had packages planned for the run game and they came out passing, it kind of shocked us." The throw-and-catch trio might have been shocked how smoothly they functioned. It wasn't just the total numbers that mattered, but the consistency. Out of the 17 combined catches, 13 went for first downs.
Meaning that in key situations Mississippi State knew who Mettenberger would look for. And he not only found them but delivered despite it all, most of the time against cornerbacks and safeties who just were not going to contain two sure-fire pro prospects. "There were some times, especially early , we were playing a bunch of man coverage," Mullen said. "He put the ball where we weren't, and they've got some great receivers that made a bunch of spectacular catches early.'
As the air attack succeeded LSU was able to do what they still prefer, pound away on the ground. All four running backs took turns and three scored with Jeremy Hill setting pace. He tallied 158 yards on just 16 totes, over half it on one 69-yard blast in the first quarter for the first of his two touchdowns. Kenny Hilliard took scoring honors though with three touchdowns on runs of three, 34, and 4 yards, out of just six carries.
And still for three periods the Bulldogs were a play away from changing the game, in fact taking a short-lived lead in the second quarter. "Give LSU some credit, they made big plays out there," Mullen said. "I thought we did a great job battling for three quarters, then we wore down a little bit there in the fourth quarter and didn't finish."
For two weeks the Bulldog buzz was about starting, specifically quarterback. Senior Tyler Russell was cleared for contact and Mullen had said, sort-of, that he would get the ball first for this SEC home game. Then in warmups it became clear Dak Prescott, who'd started three times since Russell's opening-day concussion, was still number one.
Prescott played like it too, directing both scoring series in the first quarter before Russell took his turn. That worked very well also, with a pair of touchdown passes and 23-21 lead. The ‘two starters' system Mullen had proclaimed for two weeks worked fine for a half, and in the third quarter Prescott took all offensive snaps as the game stayed close.
"I thought they did a pretty good job both of them when they were in the game," Mullen said. "Made some big plays, made some good checks, made things happen for us. that's what you want."
Prescott finished with 106 passing yards on 9-of-20 throwing with an interception; while Russell was good for 146 yards on 7-of-11 passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He did lose a fumbled pitch in the fourth quarter though. And Prescott's superior running showed with 103 yards on a dozen keepers with a 28-yard touchdown.
Still everything State's offense could do, the Tigers could do a little bit better and more often. They came out flinging too, with a first-play completion of 27 yards to Beckham followed by a 24-yard connection. Landry's ten-yard catch set up three rushes and a touchdown, though on Hilliard's three-yard pitch-sweep DE Ryan Brown was clearly held by two hands from chasing down the back. Mullen's frustration with the no-call lasted most of the quarter.
Meanwhile his offense came back quickly, aided by WR Jameon Lewis' 46-yard kickoff return. RB LaDarius Perkins broke a 28-yard run, then on second down as the pocket collapsed Prescott stepped up and took off. He slid inside a block by OG Gabe Jackson and with WR De'Runnya Wilson cleaning-out a downfield defender made the goal line at 8:42. But a two-point attempt, which Mullen said had been decided on Thursday for the first touchdown, failed as Prescott threw low between two potential targets.
LSU used just three plays of their own to trump, the third Hill's 69-yard burst through left guard with two quick tackles broken and no other Dogs left in his way.
A Prescott scramble of 22 yards sparked his squad on a drive that would have produced another six, had not Tiger defensive back Rashard Robinson shed a blocker and got to WR Joe Morrow on a throw-back with nobody else between him and the goal. The tackle forced a 35-yard field goal made by Devon Bell at 3:04. Even a holding penalty on kickoff didn't stop LSU's next turn as Beckham made consecutive 23-yard gains. On first play of the second quarter Hill cracked left guard for a 34-yard touchdown. Russell finally returned to action and produced his first scoring drive of the senior season, a 75-yard surge capped by his perfect throw to Lewis on the left sideline. The 20-yard touchdown play was followed by a great gift as S Nickoe Whitley intercepted Metterberger's floated screen pass at the Tiger 35. A holding call on OT Charles Siddoway spotted State beyond Bell's range and a fourth-down pass was broken up, wasting the opportunity.
But a third-down sack by Jones cost the Tigers ten yards to force the evening's first punt. Russell needed just two plays, both passes, for a Bulldog lead. After finding Lewis for 14 yards to the MSU 41, he again had time to find freshman Wilson battling Tre'Davious White around the 25-yard line. Wilson's size and length fought off the defender for a catch and his athletic gifts let him keep balance to run on in for the touchdown at 6:28. The connection gave Russell the program touchdowns-tossed record of 38 as well.
The game might well have changed LSU's way when a 3rd-and-2 play with the clock inside three minutes produced an incomplete pass. LSU had 2:10 left to make something happen, which was more than enough as they went back to the big-play passing approach that'd worked so well earlier. After rushing for one first down, a naked screen to Hill netted 18 yards and Landry was wide-open for 14 more to the Bulldog 24. Landry seemed to get banged-up on a eight-yard gainer but stayed on the field while Mettenberger quickly called the next play.
It went to Beckham who out-jumped CB Taveze Calhoun inside the left pylon for touchdown and 28-23 lead at 0:17. The teams had combined for 608 yards already with a whole half ahead.
Mullen had deferred the opening kick, and State used first turn of the new half to shave three points off their deficit with Bell hitting from 22 yards out at 12:01. LSU followed suit with a 29-yard kick of their own at 4:33, as the beleaguered defenses made some sorts of stops for a change. But when Bell's 42-yard field goal drifted wide, something seemed to change on both sidelines.
LSU went back to the air and to Beckham. He started the key drive with a 15-yard catch, and finished it on a 33-yarder as he caught the ball in front of two State safeties and spun away from both to score untouched at 14:50. If that wasn't damaging enough, an interception of Prescott by White and return down to the five-yard line was the back-breaker. Hill bounced off contact for the touchdown and 45-26 lead.
Up to then, "I felt pretty good," Mullen said. "Once we threw that interception I thought that was a turning point right there. That put us down a couple of scores or three scores. Then we got a drive and didn't finish it off." Because on 4th-and-18 at the Tiger 34 Russell's shot for Joe Morrow was broken-up. Six rushes and 66 yards later LSU had scored again, this one by Alfred Blue in relief of Hill. Their final points came after Russell's pitch to Josh Robinson was wild and recovered by the Tigers at State's 25. Again it was a six-rush drive, aided when State waited until the play clock was inside ten seconds to try running three different defenders onfield. The penalty put the ball on the eight and Terrence Magee ran it in from there.
LSU finished with 563 yards compared to 468 for State, on just one more play from scrimmage. By no means were the Bulldogs lacking in good plays as they netted seven yards each snap. But the Tigers were just plain explosive at 8.3 yards-per. The Dog defense did get some heat on Mettenberger with sacks by DE Preston Smith and Jones, a handful of hurries, and more aggressiveness than seen before this SEC season.
"I feel like we didn't play the best football we're known for playing," Smith said. "I don't know, we made too many mistakes and LSU capitalized on them." Whitley had a team-best eight tackles and the 13th pick of his career, putting him alone in second place all-time at State.
None of which mattered as the Dogs left their home field 2-3, 0-2 SEC. LSU is 5-1, 2-1 SEC and should stay in the top-ten this week. Yet, "We can play with them," Prescott said. "We played with them for three quarters and we just got to finish out the game and show we can."