A very good one as measured by the 35-3 final at Ladd-Peeples Stadium. Not perfect by any means, as Mississippi State (3-0) took a quarter or so to be the team Prescott predicted. Once the Bulldogs put it all together, they took the Jaguars (1-1) apart before a 38,129 gate for South Alabama’s first sellout.
Yes, LB Benardrick McKinney said, the Dogs can play better. Still “I think the defense did a pretty good job. Dak led the offense and did a pretty good job. And we just worked together on all cylinders and did what we were supposed to do.”
What the Bulldogs did was what any reasonable soul would have expected. The SEC squad put superior size, strength, and skill to good effect on both sides of the line. The statistics sheet wasn’t entirely lopsided; South Alabama did pick up 345 yards and even ran many more plays, 82 to 69. But the scoreboard? That had tilted entirely to Mississippi State’s side by halftime after a three-touchdown barrage in the second period.
For the second time on the young season the Dog defense didn’t allow a touchdown, too. Coach Dan Mullen admitted he wasn’t completely pleased with the yards allowed, as well as some close Jaguar calls that could have made this more competitive.
”But we only gave up three points. In the end defense is about giving up points and it’s hard to ask them to play a lot better.” Particularly when State came up with two fumbles and as many interceptions to win the turnover contest as well.
Meanwhile the Bulldog offense shook off a sputtering start to score four touchdowns in a six-series stretch, with one of those ended by a fumble. “We kind of stubbed our toes a little bit there,” said Prescott. “Penalties really slowed us down. But we got it going and got some points on the board.” A lot and in a hurry, at that.
Playing three full quarters this game instead of alternating early as in the previous two weekends, Prescott produced 201 passing yards on 13-of-21 efficiency with a touchdown tossed to TE Malcolm Johnson. Prescott also played receiver, a la his 2013 gadget play heroics, to score on a 24-yard throw by WR Jameon Lewis; and rounded out the ‘trifecta’ by calling his own number for a 40-yard touchdown dash and the day’s last points.
That keeper symbolized State’s real strength over South Alabama. The Bulldogs pounded the ground for 288 yards and three of the touchdowns. Prescott finished as top runner with 139 yards and the score, while RB Josh Robinson had the first two-TD day of his career and netted 77 yards on 12 totes.
The Jaguars did gain ground, albeit almost always via the airways. Quarterback Brandon Bridge, who State saw back in 2010 slinging the ball for Alcorn State, was still slinging four years later. The senior was 21-of-39 for 203 yards and USA netted 288 total yards on 28-of-55 passing. But two of those throws ended up in Bulldog hands (CBs Will Redmond and Tolanda Cleveland), a few more ought have been intercepted; and worse for Bridge he had some mighty fine throws just plain dropped by open targets.
Yet this reflected what was the real difference between the teams: South Alabama simply could not run the ball forward. The official 27 carries netted only 57 yards. And neither pass nor rush produced a touchdown all day.
“We dedicate ourselves to stopping the run,” LB Beniquez Brown said. “They tried to air it out so we worked hard on the pass this week. It was just playing yard, make sure they don’t get in the end zone.”
The 80% home crowd had early reason for optimism when for the first time this season State failed to score on the opening series. Or the second. Meanwhile the Jaguars came uncomfortably close to lighting the board first, as Bridge threw a perfect strike to Claude Garrett behind two Dog defenders at the five-yard line. Only to see it dropped.
A sliced MSU punt only got to the 33-yard line and USA was able to move the chains before the 1B Dog defense stuffed a third-and-short rush. The 31-yard field goal was miss-hit and just missed at 7:48.
Having escaped early scathing, the Dog offense finally got something going with RB Ashton Shumpert moving the chains on two carries. Prescott made up for an offensive interference call with a 15-yard keeper, then made use of Robinson who’d come in for that series. The Jaguars blitzed and Prescott bought enough time for the back to slip out left. The throw was bobbled but controlled and with tight end Johnson de-cleating a safety Robinson got 39 yards to the 15.
Mullen didn’t see the big block by Johnson, but “I did see the great touchdown catch!” as State called on the blocking end to be receiver the next snap. “We felt we had a big play, we wanted to get up over the ball and go fast,” Mullen said. “In the red zone they’re a huge pressure team so we knew we’d get a good macthup with Malcolm in man-to-man coverage.” Johnson caught Prescott’s shot at the five and fought off contact for the touchdown at 4:56.
State ought have struck again quickly after Bridge dropped the ball and LB Richie Brown recovered at the Jaguar 31. Except Shumpert immediately fumbled the ball right back. A swap of series later South Alabama manufactured their only points with two big Bridge completions getting to State’s eight-yard line. The short field though limited USA’s offensive options and blitzing S Deontay Evans rattled Bridges into a third-down incompletion. Aleem Sunanon’s 21-yard field goal was good at 9:30.
7-3 was as close as it would get. After nearly throwing a first-down pick, Prescott pulled it down for two productive runs; then found WR Fred Brown a stride in front of coverage for a run down to the 24-yard line. A flag proved to be on the defense and ignored; as was another flag when Prescott took off under pressure for a run down to the Jaguar two. From there Robinson was able to vault the line at 7:00 for the 14-3 lead.
For the back-breaker, State hauled one out of the 2013 playbook. Getting the ball back at 5:47 the needed just 80 seconds to score from their own 48, though not without a bit of luck for Prescott again as he was very nearly intercepted by Jackie Brigham on a slow-developing sideline throw. Again the quarterback came back with a big rush of 14 yards on a scramble to the 24.
With first down Lewis took the toss on the left side but with a lateral throw while Prescott looped back to the right behind just about the entire offensive line. Lewis lobbed back and the quarterback had his way cleared for the touchdown ramble at 1:20. And the second-quarter assault wasn’t over.
Bridge finally pushed his pass-luck too hard and Redmond picked him at the USA 32-yard line. Prescott ran 15 yards for a fast first down, then Robinson found a crease on the left side and was gone for the 15-yard touchdown at 28-3 intermission margin. It could have been even more as the defense made a stop, only to hand the Jaguars 15 free yards as DT Chris Jones celebrated his sack a bit too long for official’s favor.
“We’d have had the ball at the 35 or some yard line with two minutes and all our timeouts and had just been rolling,” Mullen said. “The chance to put the game away there at halftime, that penalty kind of killed us.”
Mullen was even less delighted when State’s first series of the last half got to the five-yard line before Robinson fumbled it away. But realistically the Jaguars were already dead. Getting the ball back at the USA 40 after an end zone punt, Prescott changed the play after the snap and scooted for that 40-yard dash. WR Robert Johnson made sure nobody hit his quarterback around the goal with a big block.
Bridge’s day ended after a long third-quarter drive reaching State’s 18. On second down DE Preston Smith led a host of Dogs who caved-in Jaguar blocking for the sack-and-strip, with McKinney recovering. Matt Floyd would work the rest of the USA day.
For his part Prescott returned to overcome a holding penalty with a 16-yard scamper that moved the chains…and keyed QB Damian Williams’ entry to run out the afternoon. He didn’t direct any scoring drives but neither did Floyd as the Jaguars lost the ball on downs, and then were picked by Cleveland at State’s 15.
No one Bulldog defender got lots of tackles; ten had four or more. Which suited Mullen just fine, being able to roll the 1A and 1B squads in at will and let the reserves run things out. Two-time SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week Smith’s two tackles were both sacks with another hurry. State was credited with six sacks, all of Bridge and the most by the team since the 2011 Music City Bowl.
Prescott, Bell, and Lewis were a combined 16-of-24 for 226 yards in a nicely balanced offense, and ten Dogs caught a pass with Lewis leading the way with six balls for 76 yards. And, PK Evan Sobiesk was perfect on PATs, normally not a note but in State’s early-season case an encouraging sign.
So is winning all three non-conference tests. But just how well the Bulldogs are prepared for the next road trip and first SEC game is now the question. At least the head coach was upbeat as thoughts began turning to LSU.
“We’re 3-0 and we’ve done things you need to do to win games,” said Mullen. “All three wins have been very different and we’ve done different things to win. But when you get into SEC play you’d better learn how to win. But we’re doing the things you need to do to win football games and I think guys will grasp on to that. And we’re going to need to do a lot of those things next week in Baton Rouge.”