Just how damaging a 21-19 defeat by #14 Louisiana State will eventually be to Mississippi State ambitions, only the full season will show. It will cost the Bulldogs (1-1, 0-1 SEC) their #25 ranking. It also put State in an instant Western Division deficit while the Tigers (1-0, 1-0 SEC) got a leg-up on everyone else.
“It’s game-two of a very, very long season of what is going to be a very difficult schedule,” Coach Dan Mullen said.
Mullen and MSU can’t do much about the schedule. They can and will apply lessons from this loss to upcoming games. Primarily, everyone agreed, to start faster and not let things come down to a 52-yard placekick.
“It ***** to be on the losing end of it,” QB Dak Prescott said. “I’m sure if we make that field goal or convert the conversion and come out the win, it’s the greatest game, the greatest feeling in the world. But right now it doesn’t feel so hot.”
The Bulldogs certainly sent a chill down Tiger spines down the stretch. Trailing 21-6 as the fourth quarter began, Prescott finished a 14-play, 87-yard drive by bouncing across the goal line at 14:45.
Still down 21-13 with possession at 5:32, Mississippi State used six Prescott passes, all completed, to go 82 yards. The last five came on a remarkable batted-to-self catch and dive across the goal by WR De’Runnya Wilson at 4:00. There was no question of trying for the tie, but Prescott finally missed a connection. LSU brought pressure off both ends and the throw had to be a little early and a little behind RB Ashton Shumpert, who might have been ruled down on the one had he made the catch anyway.
LSU was only able to burn off 2:23 with a first down as State used two timeouts, keeping one in the bank. That would be a post-game issue, too. The punt was just about perfect, pinning State on the 10-yard line. Yet with five completions and a couple of spikings, the ball was on LSU’s 29 with third down and 0:08 left.
And, the play clock running. It caught State with ball un-snapped. Mullen, expecting pressure again, wanted what he called a ‘man beater play’ but also thought the wideouts needed a little bit of breath.
“I was trying to get a quick throw off, another five yards. It’s my fault for adding motion to that play.”
The penalty meant a 52-yard spot rather than 47 or so. Bell, the ‘long’ kicker of the group, would have swung at the other distance too Mullen said. He did boot it as LSU used a timeout, going wide left. After another Tiger timeout, he got the next one off and left it both right and short.
“I had my eyes closed,” RB Brandon Holloway said. “But we put a lot of pressure on our kicker in that moment which I think he shouldn’t have had. So it was a tough way to lose.”
At halftime, losing on a last-chance might have sounded tempting. LSU, who barely broke a sweat in their washed-out opener, looked game-sharp. After an initial three-and-out, their next series—aided by a short State punt—mixed muscle and speed for a 7-0 lead. Leonard Fournette took the direct snap and vaulted the line at 4:37.
Another short punt later the Tigers used two big plays. Brandon Harris hit Malachi Dupre for 20 yards, then Fournette cracked the left corner for 26 more and a 14-0 scoreboard.
Fournette finished with 159 yards on 28 rushes, and scored the third Tiger touchdown on an 18-yard bounce through the right end in the third quarter. “We knew he was going to run hard,” DE Chris Jones said. “He came out and did what we thought he was going to do.”
He wasn’t the only Tiger ground-gainer, as Darrell Williams got 45 yards on 12 rushes and quarterback Brandon Harris 48 on five rushes. LSU was so efficient running, with 266 total yards, that Harris only had to throw 14 passes. Nine were caught, for 71 yards, though one touchdown was called back on penalty. So was another Tiger running score for that matter, which if clean would have blown the game open at halftime.
It didn’t because State’s defense steadied, got to the ball with more authority and slowed Fournette just enough to prevent a real runaway.
“We’re not watching the score, we’re going to get the ball back,” said Jones, who had eight tackles. LB Richie Brown had 11 stops and safety Kendrick Market eight more, reminding how much support had to be given to the front. It did not hurt that LSU seemed to dial back their attack after the third score, confident the Dogs hadn’t enough firepower to rally.
First-half evidence supported this. Only two Dog drives moved the chains more than once, and one came just before intermission. It was a nine-snap series getting in PK Westin Grave’s range to hit a 43-yard field goal at 0:44. Graves came back in the third quarter to make a 24-yarder after State got within six yards of the goal. LSU immediately answered that with Fournette’s third touchdown, for what proved just enough points.
What changed for a State offense with only 109 first-half yards, and barely any rushing gains? It wasn’t schematic, WR Fred Ross said.
“(Mullen) told us just relax and play football. We were all trying to do too much and waiting for somebody to make the play.”
If tactics didn’t adapt, Prescott use of players did. Unable to get receivers open more than a few strides downfield, and in those rare chances with no time to fire far, State went almost exclusively to slot receivers, tight ends, and backs. Such pass plays got position for the field goals.
As the third quarter ended they were going for more than four or five yards. Instead Prescott’s passes were netting eight, nine, or more at a time. LSU did appear to soften coverage somewhat to avoid being burned deep. Still the chip, chip, chip was as good as running the ball…better as Prescott couldn’t. There was no room and no edge either for that matter.
When the Tigers did tighten up, suddenly Wilson was open or making his own space. Seven of his eight catches and all of WR Fred Brown’s three grabs came after halftime. Prescott finished 34-of-52, in the process setting the career record for completions; and the caught balls were good for 335 yards.
“It was getting in the flow of the game,” Prescott said. “Seeing the first half what they were going to give us.” In the end it wasn’t enough. Or enough time, or something.
Mullen put it plainly. “They made one more play than we did.”
Nor were excuses offered. “We knew what to expect,” said OC Jamaal Clayborn. “We didn’t execute when the time was called.”