“That’s what we have to do,” said WR Malik Dear, one of the replacements. “It’s not like a surprise, we just have to come out and execute when our number is called.”
Those numbers got called early and often. With Mississippi State staggered by a fast 14-0 deficit, a bunch of front-liners either already sidelined or knocked-out during the day, and the first teams on both sides struggling, someone had to give a spark.
Several ones did, when it mattered most.
“The talent is deep across the board,” QB Dak Prescott said. “When guys go down we know we don’t really bat an eye.”
If Mississippi State (5-2) was going to blink, it was when the visiting Bulldogs scored touchdowns on the first two possessions with frightening ease. Offense and defense alike weren’t in any sort of synch, and Louisiana Tech (4-3) was adding injury to insult by hitting home Dogs with abandon. Before halftime starting WR Fred Ross and TE Gus Walley were out, joining first team RB Ashton Shumpert and two rotation receivers on the sideline.
The Bulldogs didn’t rattle. They rolled, with Prescott personally taking things “on my shoulders” and a bunch of backups treating challenge as opportunity.
Such as Dear. After Ross banged-up a shoulder, with three catches and 36 yards already, the true freshman filled-in just fine. Dear ended with six catches and 70 yards and kept a couple of key drives going. In the backfield, when RB Brandon Holloway struggled against a physical defense, redshirts Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee were better. They combined for nine carries and 47 yards, using muscle and moves. Williams also scored State’s first touchdown on a two-yard dive which did much to settle Bulldog nerves.
If not freshmen, TE Darrion Hutcherson finally had a productive offensive game. He had two outstanding catches in the first half to extend drives and three total balls for 41 yards. And Coach Dan Mullen counts WR Donald Gray, a sophomore transfer, as a freshman in all but name. Gray created the signature play of the day by blocking a punt before halftime. OLB J.T. Gray, who should be a freshman if not for 2014 emergency, led State with ten tackles. Redshirt freshman S Brandon Bryant recovered at the two-yard line so Prescott could bounce into the end zone and score State’s first lead.
And it was Bryant turning a fourth-quarter interception into a 77-yard return for State’s final margin of victory. In every period a first- or second-year Dog made something happen on offense, defense, and special teams to turn a bad start into a strong finish.
“Guys are ready for those situations when their number is called,” Mullen echoed.
Louisiana Tech was obviously ready for game time. The other Bulldogs stunned State with consecutive scores, on drives of 80 and 73 yards and 18 combined snaps. Almost all of them were passes, as former Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel looked like a SEC star. In just the opening quarter he was 11-of-16 for 147 yards and touchdowns to Paul Turner and Trent Taylor.
Where Tech had two touchdowns, State had just two first downs. We came out and started slow,” said Mullen in vast understatement.
But, Louisiana Tech would not find an end zone again, just field goals as the Dog defense got a grip on things. “We held them to only six points for the rest of the game,” Mullen said. Driskel finished 25-of-41 for 303 yards with his third touchdown thrown to the wrong team. Playing without leading rusher Kenneth Dixon, the visiting Bulldogs had 110 yards running on 32 carries.
Mississippi State wasn’t any better on the ground. A bit worse in fact with 93 yards on 30 tries. But…when the Bulldogs needed a tough run they got it. Usually from Prescott. After a half-season focusing on being a progression passer, the 2014 Dak attack was back.
“I was trying to go out there and set the tone I guess,” Prescott said. “We’ve been trying to get that meanness and that nastiness about ourselves back. I wanted to show that today.”
With his team down 14-0 and the whole offense sputtering, Prescott moved the chains four times himself by running—including a crucial 4th-and-5 where he bulled through traffic for six yards. Tech adjusted for the quarterback keeper and let other Dogs get open for Prescott passes. Two tosses to Hutcherson in the first scoring series set up Williams short touchdown dive and relaxed the crowd somewhat.
A field goal by PK Westin Graves in the second quarter helped more, as did State starting to make defensive stops. Still down 17-10, it was Prescott mixing fast footwork and strong arm on a 12-play drive of 85 yards. After Holloway turned a hot-route dump into 19 yards for first and goal Prescott’ fired a bullet to WR De’Runnya Wilson tying it up.
It was special teams play which entirely turned the tempo. With Tech punting from their 23, Gray was first of several Dogs attacking the kicker to get to the ball and stuff it. Bryant found it at the two-yard line, and on first down Prescott called his own number for a lead at last.
Mullen has been around Prescott for five seasons now, but there was something in the senior’s face that even gave his coach pause. “I don’t know if you wanted to get in front of him at that point. He had a look in his eye and wanted to go make things happen.”
Prescott kept it up in the third quarter, erasing any remaining doubts of the outcome. He found Wilson for another touchdown, a 20-yard connection at 8:55. The next series ended with a 12-yard pylon strike to WR Fred Brown at 1:30.
“We didn’t want to let them hang around and think they had a shot against us,” Prescott said. “So we had to take over immediately or the game was going to drag out.”
Prescott was 30-of-43 for 347 yards and three touchdowns, as well as rushing for another. In the process the senior achieved the only remaining MSU passing records he didn’t already own, reaching the throws and completions marks. He also extended his streak of passes without an interception to 274, the NCAA’s longest active stretch, though one third-quarter toss came a little too close for comfort.
Wilson was the favorite target with seven catches and 85 yards, to go with his two touchdowns. “I knew what it took to go out there and make the play,” he said. The 30 catches were distributed among nine Dogs.
Defensively, after Gray’s eleven stops MLB Richie Brown had seven tackles and shared a sack with DE Ryan Brown. DT Chris Jones had the other sack, though Driskel took a beating from State’s aggressive pass rush all afternoon. Bryant’s pick-six and PAT provided a fitting finish, and made a second-straight weekend with defensive points.
Mullen wasn’t happy about a two-TD deficit to begin another game. “But we outscored them 45-6,” he said. “So we ended up turning it around and playing very well in all phases.” Not just phases, but all levels of the depth chart as all those replacements kept Homecoming from turning out wrong.
And, prevented a body-blow to Bulldog ambitions. Next week begins the five-game stretch of SEC opponents. Maybe this win was more intense than expected, but it might end up the right sort of momentum heading into next week’s visit from Kentucky.
“We can build on that,” said Prescott. “That was the team we know we can be. We’re dominating when we get things going in our favor and play with some tempo on offense and the defense feeds off us."