“The game had it all. On-side kicks, blocked punts, fumbled special teams, goal line stands, long runs, kickoff returns for touchdown. You name it, it had it in this game. Any viewer that stayed up to watch they probably saw a pretty exciting game.”
The Bulldog coach could afford a little post-win joviality. His talk and tone likely were not nearly so nice at halftime. Not after the heavy-favored Bulldogs literally fumbled and figuratively stumbled through two quarters, falling behind twice, and barely led 14-10.
Pretty, no. Panic? Never. “I just knew we had to pick it up. But I don’t think anybody was concerned,” WR Brandon Holloway said. “We knew what we could do, we just had to play to our level.”
To their credit the Golden Eagles played at a level beyond anything seen in recent seasons. Mississippi State did expect to see a better opponent than the club they clubbed 49-0 to open 2014. Southern Mississippi exceeded expectations, with a record 36,641 at Roberts Stadium.
“That’s a much-improved football team from last year in every single facet,” Mullen said. But not improved enough to pull off a major upset despite a less-than-sharp showing from their SEC guests.
“I tell you one thing, I’m happy we got the win,” WR De’Runnya Wilson said. “It’s a great feeling walking off that field knowing you go the W.”
No Bulldog was feeling good at all for a full half. Though, they were within a stride of setting the sort of anticipated tone. After stopping USM on fourth down at their own 33-yard line Mississippi State quickly got to the Eagle ten-yard line with first down. RB Ashton Shumpert was about to make it a fast 7-0 lead, only to be stripped by D’Nerious Antoine for a touchback.
The first Eagle points came on another Bulldog mistake as WR Fred Ross inexplicably grabbed at a bouncing punt, starting a fumble recovered finally by the Eagles on the 11-yard line. This resulted in a short field goal at 5:39. Even after State did take a 7-3 lead on Holloway’s end-to-end kickoff return at 5:25, the home team wasn’t rattled.
Instead a 70-yard drive and 19-yard touchdown pass play against a blown coverage gave them back a lead. USM even successfully on-sides kicked, giving a chance to grab some real momentum.
But a Bulldog defense that was on the field all but 105 seconds of the first quarter held the line—literally—right there, forcing a punt. And, another big special teams play. LB Beniquez Brown came through for the block, the ball went out at the 21-yard line, and five plays later TE Justin Johnson slipped free in front of QB Dak Prescott for a five-yard touchdown play.
“Really huge plays,” said Mullen of the two transforming feats from kicking teams. This area wasn’t done for the night either, for both good and bad. With USM kicking short rather than risk Holloway’s speed LB Gerri Green fumbled the first kickoff of the new half. WR Gabe Myles fell on it at the five, and Prescott responded with a nine-play drive. His four-yard throw to TE Gus Walley effectively put State in controlling position the rest of the evening.
It helped that PK Westin Graves was able to knock through field goals of 38 and 37 yards in the same quarter, to match a pair of Eagle field goals. It also helped that despite giving up many more plays than acceptable, the Bulldog defense kept Southern out of the end zone for three quarters.
“Our defense made some good plays at some valuable moments,” said DT Chris Jones.
None bigger than a goal-line stand before halftime. Down 14-10, the Eagles ran a double-reverse and throwback pass play with Nick Mullens hitting Brian Anderson at the Bulldog three. It was their chance to take a lead again and into their locker room.
Four runs right up the middle later the ball was still safely short of the goal. On 4th-and-short a host of Dogs, led by DE A.J. Jefferson and S Kivon Coman, stuffed Jalen Richard for nothing.
“It was a great feeling,” Jefferson said. “After every play I’d get up and look at the guys and they’re talking about put the ball down.”
That stand symbolized State’s decisive strength. The Eagle ground game never got going. Their only bright spot was a 44-yard bust in the third quarter by Ito Smith; otherwise USM netted just 58 yards on 35 other running plays or keepers.
“If we can take away the A-gap runs they won’t have anything,” Jefferson said. “And our inside guys did a pretty good job taking it away.”
Mississippi State got 205 rushing yards on 28 carries. That included seven by Prescott as he called his own number for the clinching touchdown at 5:55 of the fourth quarter. Prescott ran a few more times than hoped, eight rushes and 72 yards. Holloway was good for 51 yards on seven tries and Shumpert overcame his fumble for 38 tough yards.
Prescott was 22 of 38 passing for 237 yards and two touchdowns, in the process becoming the all-time leader in scoring passes with 43. But he wasn’t crisp either, over-throwing some open targets and leaving a couple of balls short. Part of it was a defensive surprise, as USM came out in cover-one or –three rather than what State had schemed for.
“So we had to go back to the base offense,” Prescott said. “We had some little mistakes. We had some big mistakes as well. But things we’ll get cleaned-up.”
Mullen was of the same mind as his squad was just too streaky for an opening night they’d had weeks to prepare for. “A lot of things we’ve got to get cleaned-up if we want to go play and be as successful as we want to be in the SEC.”
Which begins next Saturday, at Scott Field as Louisiana State visits. The Tigers did not have the opening they expected either, as storms washed out their game when barely begun. It will not be made-up, so the Tigers are 0-0 coming to Starkville.
The Bulldogs are 1-0. Which was all that mattered after opening night. Or morning as the game ended at 12:30am. Mullen and team were ready to get on the bus and head home, if only to do the press corps a favor.
“You guys have to start writing, you’ve got Tuesday deadline to make right now!”