A 4-0 start to the season with a successful conference opener against the top-ten Tigers has vaulted Mississippi State into the polls. The Bulldogs can relax this bye-week while enjoying their #14 ranking by Associated Press. They are #16 in the Coaches polling.
LSU took a hit as expected but remains solidly in the top-twenty, a status shared with no less than seven more SEC squads. That only reinforces Coach Dan Mullen’s capsule commentary after beating LSU 34-29 in Tiger Stadium.
“It’s one game. It certainly puts us in the right position. I’ve been talking about going to Atlanta for six years now and we’re 1-0 in the SEC West. I believe the next two games are against teams (Texas A&M, Auburn) ranked higher than LSU is, which is hard to believe; and Alabama is even higher than those two. So there’s so much to play for.”
State was last part of the polls in November 2012 when they took a #25 rating to the Egg Bowl. That season Mullen’s team reached a highest ranking of #11, in October. The 2010 team ended the year in the top-25 after a Gator Bowl victory.
The ranking is fun and something State can savor during the open date. What matters more to Mullen is starting SEC season—or as he said it, Western Division play—with a 1-0 mark. So the coach downplayed another angle, that he’d finally been able to take down LSU after five prior chances.
“I’ll take it. I guess everybody can write now that I’ve beaten LSU once during my career, there you go! It’s still not great but I’ll take it.”
SO BELIEVE IN SOBES: Among so many game-week themes, one aspect came up regularly: that in a game expected to be brutally physical and likely low-scoring, special teams would be decisive. Or lack of it rather.
Well, the 34-29 final certainly belied conventional wisdom. But what PK Evan Sobiesk did was able to mute the early-season angst about Bulldog placekicking. Twice he stepped to the tee for field goals and converted both, as well as his four PATs.
Never mind the three-pointers were what for most programs are chip shots, 27 and 28 yards. Nothing is regarded as a gimme in Mississippi State circles these days…yet Sobiesk tuned-out media and fan critics to stay at his job.
“You know, I always knew I could do it. I can’t really take any credit, I give credit to my long snapper and Dak is the holder, the line is big up-front. In reality I’m just taking three-back, two-over, it’s everybody else that kind of does everything.”
Well said, and not true. Because somebody must put boot to ball after the other ten do their part, one of if not the most specialized skill in football. Sobiesk hadn’t attempted a field goal through three games, and cohort PK Westin Graves’ one try on opening day was missed though Mullen reminded the snap-and-spot were more an issue than the actual kicking. The same was true on those PATs each kicker missed against UAB.
Yet Mullen stood up for his specialists all along. “Nobody believes me when I say they’re really good at practice!” he said at Baton Rouge. “We see it at practice all the time.”
At practice, yes. Just not yet for real, and it doesn’t get more for-real than lining up a kick with thousands upon thousands of, shall we say, voluble LSU fans sending enough sound from end zone seats to deflect the ball themselves. Sobiesk hadn’t tried a live field goal since the Egg Bowl, too.
“I was a little nervous pre-game. Honestly in the game I was just more excited than anything. I got a couple of extra points under my belt so the field goal really was just another extra point.” Yes, he means it exactly as he said it. “Every kick is the same, you never treat any kick any different. It’s all the same steps and all supposed to go straight.”
Emphasis on ‘supposed to’ of course. But Sobiesk drilled each along with his point-afters without any drama involved. “So maybe now he’s going to have some confidence,” Mullen said, then “Let’s get everybody to blow-up Twitter about how great he is so they can all get some confidence now! And I tell you, Graves looked good warming up too!”
But it was sorta unthinkable not to let Sobiesk take the heat in this trip. His best friend from high school attends LSU and his older brother graduated from the university. “I actually grew up coming to LSU games. This was a pretty cool experience, being able to come back and actually play as a player and performing pretty well.”
THE 1 TO WATCH: The page is titled ‘career record book watch’ but it is quickly becoming the Dak Prescott Stat Facts page. The Bulldog quarterback is shooting up all-time charts much like he runs through an overmatched secondary.
To summarize quickly following his great big night in Baton Rouge, Prescott now ranks: tied for 9th in rushing touchdowns at 20 with Michael Haddix and Walter Packer, both full-time runners remember; is now 8th in total offensive yards and just a couple of weeks’ work behind predecessor Chris Relf for 7th; now 10th pasing yardage, also right behind Relf; tied for 5th in 200-yards passing games; and tied with Tony Shell for 7th in touchdown passes at 25.
Throw in, so to speak, Prescott’s footwork and he’s now tied for 3rd in touchdowns-responble at 45. That’s tied with his former teammate Tyler Russell, but more to the point on a pace to obliterate the Bulldog record of 52 by Don Smith. Plus, he’s the most accurate percentage passer in program history already.
All of which must be kept in this exciting perspective: Prescott has done all this in just 26 games and 11 starts. The MSU mind boggles what he will achieve before this junior year is over and through the senior season.FULL HAND: During a midweek press meet, receivers coach Billy Gonzales said of his group “We want to make five big plays.” He raised it partly because the wideouts didn’t achieve that at South Alabama. A week later, the air corps met their quota.
Five passing plays went for 20 or more yards, starting with the very first State snap when he flipped to TE Malcolm Johnson—who’d lined up in the backfield as a twist to show LSU’s defense—behind the line for what became a 25-yard gainer. That drive led to a tone-setting touchdown for the Dogs.
Two series later in the same quarter, Prescott went to WR Derunnya Wilson for a 26-yard play; then came back for another 44-yard connection. In the third period came the biggest statistical play of the night, when on a scramble Prescott found WR Jameon Lewis for what became a 74-yard touchdown.
And before the third quarter ended it was Prescott and Lewis hooking up for a 21-yard play that led to good field goal position and State’s final points. Vital ones as it turned out, as well as reaching Gonzales’ requirement. There were more double-digit pass plays as well that didn’t meet the ‘big’ description numerically…but then big plays have a way of shortening the field. And when all one needs is nine yards to score, as did Wilson for the game’s first touchdown, that must count as ‘big’ too.
Either way, “We knew we’d have a lot of one-on-one matchups,” Mullen said. “A big key was controlling the line of scrimmage, I think we did that. And then make big plays in one-on-one matchups down the field.”
Last season stat-trackers were updating how many 10-or-more-yard plays the Bulldogs made. Maybe this year it’s 20-or-better which should be the standard? “We’ve done that all season, get some big plays of 20-plus yards plays,” Prescott said. “Any time we do that we seize momentum, get the confidence going, and usually put a touchdown on.”
UN-BEARABLE: Notice how in the first half, or quarter specifically, it was Wilson who provided Prescott the most productive target. His touchdown on the opening series was a marvel as Prescott left the throw a bit high and wide on the end zone’s left sideline. Plus, LSU defensive back Dwayne Thomas was literally on Wilson’s back and grabbing around the rib-cage too. ‘Bear’ Wilson stayed with the play for the catch and foot-drag and held on at landing just to make sure it counted.
If the Tiger secondary thought that was a show of strength, they hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. Wilson made a terrific and terrifically key catch to get the Dogs out of pinned-deep position at their two-yard line, taking his smaller cornerback up the left sideline before spinning in-air for the catch under more contact. The body balance showed why Wilson had been a prime basketball prospect in high school. And three snaps later Wilson again muscled his defender on a slant for the catch and dragged the man another ten yards.
Prescott might be more careful throwing at other targets in traffic depending on matchups, but not #1. “Bear one-on-one with any defensive back in the country, I’ll take. He’s a great receiver and can use his body, and you saw that tonight.”
ON THE BLOCK: Speaking of using the body…Wilson didn’t score on the play but he played a real part in Prescott’s 56-yard touchdown jaunt. To be sure the quarterback did all the hard stuff, cracking the line of scrimmage first and stiff-arming one Tiger, then torqueing another into the turf with a cut-back move. Prescott would probably have scored anyway but Wilson made sure it was without extra and unnecessary contact, with a block of poor Thomas at the five-yard line.
There had to be some irony involved, because a week ago Wilson was penalized for a block in the back at South Alabama which negated a big play. He also drew an offensive interference call by pushing aside a Jaguar before catching the ball. Gonzales complimented the effort and critiqued the execution or just plain awareness. Against another breed of cat, Wilson showed he’d learned the lessons.
In fact Bulldog receivers, split ends and tight alike, are fast earning a reputation for formidable downfield blocking that has to have future foes worried about keeping heads-on-swivels. And if a defender is worried about getting de-cleated by a receiver, it can be just the bit of extra edge a runner needs to find open room. Besides, Gonzales said last week, “If you’re blocking, you’re going to be able to probably grade a Champion. If you’re going to grade out a Champion you’re going to be a starter in the game.”
CLEVER CALL: Wilson’s second-half production tailed off, which had Mullen second-guessing himself. “We might have gotten away from him, I might have gotten a little conservative.” But that wasn’t the case in another of those pivotal moments; when after LSU had scored the defensive touchdown and the Dogs were on their 25-yard line with 3rd-and-10.
Every emotional element was with the home team suddenly and if nothing else State needed a first down to make a better punting position eventually. But it was going to be tough because in such situations Tiger defensive history shows they like bringing pressure. So Mullen went for something designed to hopefully make the pass rush work in State’s favor.
“The call was a wide receiver screen,” Mullen said. “We saw them in a blitz and checked to the wide receiver screen and had him one-on-one at the right time.” The running back was in-motion to the MSU left, and Prescott further sold that by starting the same direction…
…before stopping, spinning, and despite two Tigers coming hard having patience to let OG Ben Beckwith and OT Justin Senior get out to the right. They were the screeners who sealed a huge void for Wilson to run through to get 12 yards, a move of the chains, and soon Prescott’s momentum-regaining run.
It doesn’t work against any team or in any situation. But Mullen and Prescott knew what to expect from LSU and the Tiger defense obliged. “That was huge,” said Mullen.
LAST AND GASP: The head coach had given the obligatory four-quarter-game instructions to his team, and it proved too true. “As it turned out we had to play for every second,” Mullen said. Including a few more after clock expiration with a potential game-losing throw in the air.
Instead the Tigers threw a literal late flurry at State to score two touchdowns and make things interesting. Then they benefited from a wildly-high hike from backup C Archie Muniz that sailed over Prescott’s reach and was recovered by LSU at the 30-yard line. Two snaps later the Tigers were within five points, and the same margin stood when State had to punt it back to them at 0:20.
A pass and a run left LSU on the Bulldog 46 with five seconds showing. Substitute slinger Brandon Harris, replacing the struggling Anthony Jennings, ran away from DE Preston Smith—who was being held by the jersey from behind—and heaved the throw before DT Chris Jones caught him on the State sideline.
MLB Benardrick McKinney admitted what everyone knew. “I was very nervous. I was in the back of the end zone and I saw the ball in the air, it was like slow-motion. I ran other there and I saw Will (Redmond) with the ball, it was a good relief.”
A relief but not a surprise. “We practice that play every Thursday,” McKinney said. His coach had something else to say, commenting Redmond would have been better off knocking the ball down than risking an interception attempt that too easily could bounce bizarrely into Tiger hands. Fortunately for the collective sanity of State folk Redmond caught it cleanly; and just in case there were two more Dogs flanking the lone Tiger receiver in that vicinity.
Still it was just a bit tooooo close for comfort, even if Mullen could joke “Weird stuff certainly does happen here on a Saturday night!” The coach really meant the whole fourth quarter as LSU reeled off three touchdowns; it proved even more fortune LSU went for two points with a 34-16 score and failed; then had to try it again at 34-22 and also were stopped. A success either time could have let the Tigers play for field goal positioning on the last chance.
“A lot of things could have turned the other way for us,” Mullen admitted. However, it was more likely that had LSU made the first two-point conversion State would have played for more points instead of just running into the middle four times from the Tiger 12 yard line and being stopped with a 34-16 lead and less than four minutes left.
“How we won tonight, I was feeling pretty good about it with three minutes to go,” said Mullen. “And I honestly probably aged about seven to ten years in the last three minutes there!”