"We did a lot of good enough things to win," Mullen said. "Give them credit they didn't make the mistakes and made plays. We made mistakes and didn't make enough plays."
State's coach wasn't exaggerating about good things from his squad. The Bulldogs made the first defensive stop of the day, scored the first touchdown, and seemed ready to make a road-game statement. For that matter even after the foot-shooting began Mississippi State (4-4, 1-3 SEC) made some of Mullen's plays.
Such as, he ticked through the list; "11 more first downs than them, better pass completion percentage, a lot more yards, a lot more plays. We were better on third down than they were, better on fourth down than they were. But if you're going to turn the ball over five times and have minus-five turnover ratio on the road in the SEC, that'll put your chance of winning at about 1%."
Bulldog defenders agreed with their coach's comment about not just turnovers but the ratio. "We came out ready to play, we created a lot of three-and-outs," said MLB Benardrick McKinney. "We just didn't force turnovers that would have changed the game."
No Dog was bit harder by the giveaway bug than QB Dak Prescott. Three of his 43 passes were intercepted, matching his entire seven-game turnover total coming in. The first resulted in a touchdown drive by South Carolina, the others in field goals. Yet maybe as damaging a mistake as any was Prescott's fumble to begin the second half when it was a 17-10 game and the Bulldogs were across midfield after a fouled-up Gamecock kickoff.
Running into the middle of a mob on 2nd-and-four Prescott simply had the ball batted loose by Chaz Sutton, scooped by Sharrod Golightly and returned to the Bulldog 23. Four plays later it was a two-touchdown lead as Connor Shaw found Damiere Byrd for the six-yard completion. There were almost 13 minutes left in the half but enough emotional damage had been done.
"It starts with myself," said Prescott. "We didn't do a good job of being focused and making the right plays, and it begins with me."
State's offense began well with Prescott as he completed 28 of his 43 throws, both the most by a Mullen quarterback in his five seasons. Prescott's 235 yards statistically out-shined Shaw's 147, as the USC senior was 10-of-20. But Shaw, coming off both illness and injury, had a career-high four of those completions go for touchdowns.
"Their quarterback is 10-of-20 and throws four touchdowns," Mullen said. "Ours goes 28-of-43 and has three interceptions. In the end that's the entire story of the game."
For that matter South Carolina's potent ground game finished with 160 yards to State's 150 on one less carry. But with the Bulldogs playing support against bruiser Mike Davis (15 rushes, 128 yards) there were a lot of single-matchups available downfield. Shaw found several of them and completed a few, most notably to wideout Shaq Roland with a pair of touchdown catches. His 14-yarder tied the game and 43-yarder gave USC the lead for keeps at 14-7. They were his only catches all day in fact, as Byrd and Jerell Adams accounted for the other two scoring pass plays.
"He's a great quarterback," said CB Cedric Jiles of Shaw. "But we put ourselves in bad position. We could have stopped most of the throws, it was just bad communication." This didn't give Roland enough credit as he beat SS Kendrick Market out of the slot for his first touchdown, then made FS Nickoe Whitley miss on a sideline catch and jog into the end zone.
What made the go-ahead play sting worse was that it A) came after a Bulldog turnover and B) after a great defensive play. Prescott's first interception wasn't all his fault, as he went to the right receiver WR Joe Morrow. Gamecock defensive back Victor Hampton recovered for a deflection that caromed into the hands of supporting safety Skai Moore at the Carolina 46. McKinney looked to have halted the drive before it began with a 13-yard sack of Shaw.
State brought the pressure on second down too, only to have Shaw dump it to Shon Carson with a convoy, for a 24-yard gainer. "We didn't read the screen and they got us on a big play," said McKinney. The next play became Roland's go-ahead touchdown.
"We have them 2nd-and-25 and give up boom-boom two plays, touchdown," said Mullen. "That's on the coaches more than the players."
The greater frustration was how the game began so well for the Bulldogs. The defense forced a three-and-through to begin, something the Gamecocks aren't prone to. The offense took a short punt and field position to manufacture a first-drive touchdown of nine efficient plays. Prescott threw for 24 yards and ran for 17 more including the one needed to score at 8:46.
"That's how the game should have went the whole game," Prescott said. "We just didn't execute, we beat ourselves up. The first drive should have been like the rest of the game."
Swapped field goals meant a 17-10 margin in the second period, and State had two more turns before halftime. One used up just 54 seconds before punting. Yet after CB Taveze Calhoun broke up a touchdown attempt the Bulldogs got the ball back at 0:58, and three plays later were on the Gamecock 30-yard line using the first timeout. Prescott, who'd scrambled 21 yards to get this far, had some very specific instructions.
"The last thing we say is don't even get to your second read with the pass-rush they have," Mullen said, meaning if the one primary receiver wasn't available to throw it away. Instead Prescott held the ball past a second read and into a third before unloading as he was going down. The grounding call cost 11 yards and field goal range.
Worse, after using another timeout somebody—not identified—lined up wrong and Prescott burned the last timeout to prevent another breakdown. And the play that was run netted seven yards over the middle as nobody on the flanks was open. The field goal team tried to take the field while Prescott tried to line up for a snap and time ran out on everyone.
That just kills you not to get points there," Mullen said, "it could have been a little bit of momentum. My fault probably for the play call, I probably should have called something conservative there and not take a shot to the end zone." So when South Carolina forced a turnover as play resumed and scored, the Dogs had been double-whammied.
Shaw's four-yard flip to Adams for touchdown and a 37-yard field goal stretched the margin to 34-10 through three periods. State had three fourth-quarter series and the first did net a touchdown as Prescott cut inside the pylon on an 11-yard keeper. His two-point pass was low. That 15-play drive ate up 5:35 though. The second drive made South Carolina's 29 where WR Robert Johnson simply had the ball ripped from his hands by Victor Hampton for an official fumble. Turnover #5 didn't change anything but did emphasize the Bulldogs' biggest breakdown.
Robert Johnson and WR Jameon Lewis both had seven catches, for 53 and 45 yards, as Prescott spread the ball around well. The quarterback also was team-leading rusher at 78 yards, having lost 22 on a sack and the fumble. LB Deontae Skinner was awarded five total tackles while McKinney had the only sack, his first all season. And though they got beat painfully on isolated passes the secondary did bust up their share of throws.
So on the stat sheet where State ran 78 plays to 54 for the home team and led 385 to 307 in yards it had the makings of a very competitive contest…if not for five total and four fatal Bulldog turnovers. All from a team that had shown no such tendencies to-date.
"Our guys take a lot of pride in taking care of the football," Mullen said. "We didn't do it today, so it's not a shock, the result is not going to be a shock when that happens."