South Alabama shook off a three-score deficit to spoil Mississippi State’s season opener 21-20. It was the first Jaguar win over a Southeastern Conference squad in five tries; and the first Bulldog loss to a Sun Belt program since 2001, at home to Troy.
It was also a completely unexpected way to start their 2016 season. Even allowing that the program is in a new phase with Dak Prescott moved on to NFL play, nobody foresaw the Bulldogs stumbling out of the gate this dramatically. Certainly not Mississippi State players who’d been part of a record 19 wins the past two seasons.
“Kind of numb,” senior WR Fred Ross said.
Many would rather remain numb than come to grips with what they witnessed on Scott Field. Especially the sickening second half, when South Alabama responded to a 17-0 deficit with touchdown drives of 75, 99, and 71 yards. The last ended at 0:57 and gave the Jaguars that one-point margin which held up.
But only because State specialists duplicated what their South Alabama counterparts had in the first half, missing a pair of field goals.
The MSU misses were much more dramatic, though. Still leading 20-14, the home team used good field position to get to USA’s 21-yard line with first down after strong running plays. At that point tactics inexplicably changed to passes with two misses and a eight-yard sack of QB Damian Williams. The 46-yard try which would likely have sealed a win at 6:03 was off to the left.
South Alabama rode the reprieve to a go-ahead touchdown pass from Dallas Davis to Gerald Everett inside the final minute. It was still enough time for Williams to run off seven plays and get the ball on USA’s 11-yard line. Williams even had time and a timeout to try centering the ball. But he kept upright too long and was dragged nearly to the left hashmark.
It gave PK Westin Graves a sharper angle on the 21-yard attempt, and he pushed it directly into the left upright.
“We had some opportunities to win, that we didn’t take advantage of,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “They made the plays when they needed to.”
Actually the Jaguars did not make as many plays as they could and should. Those two missed field goals in the second quarter were looming large during the comeback. And as State ground the ball downfield into routine SEC kicking range the South Alabama defense didn’t have an answer. Other than, to hope for matching misses.
“I just feel like those things happen,” DT A.J. Jefferson said.
Whether it should happen in such a matchup is the larger question. Mississippi State expected a transition season of some sort, most obviously on offense with somebody new running the show. Or not entirely new, as fourth-year junior QB Damian Williams and third-soph QB Nick Fitzgerald did have some experience. But neither are Prescott and based on today are far, far from ever becoming so.
Fitzgerald got the start, based on better practice grades per Mullen. Consecutive 3-and-out series with dropped or deflected passes were his day’s work, save for a curious kneel-down appearance before halftime. Mullen said the plan was to change after two turns anyway and give Williams consecutive series.
Williams, who sat out 2015, took advantage. He was 5-of-5 passing on a 60-yard touchdown drive, hitting WR Deddrick Thomas from four yards out to open scoring. Williams’ second turn only needed two throws, both complete, as Ross opened with a 46-yard rush. Starting RB Brandon Holloway capped the 80-yard drive with his seven-yard scamper up the middle.
Graves made it 17-0 with his 37-yarder at 4:41 before halftime. Meanwhile two Jaguar drives into the Bulldog red zone were stopped short with missed kicks.
Ross said the halftime locker room was normal business, but something happened once back on the field. “We just got relaxed.”
South Alabama by contrast cranked it up, getting on the board in eight plays including a 4th-and-1 conversion at State’s 41. Davis hit Magee for a 20-yard score at 10:13. The Bulldogs did semi-answer with Williams still at quarterback. Mullen indicated he would likely have gone back to Fitzgerald had the Jaguars not scored.
A 11-play grind set up Graves to try a career-long 48-yarder that was good at 6:35. State got the ball back soon, too, and could have put things away right there. Instead the Jaguars got the ball back at 2:30; never mind it was on their one-yard line after CB Chris Rayford caught a Logan Cooke punt.
Even then the game could have and should have been settled on first snap. LB Trevor Jung had Tyreis Thomas in his grasp short of the goal line for a sealing safety. Thomas squirmed out and found no other Dog in his path, going 37 yards before CB Jamoral Graham saved the touchdown.
Only for a while. Thomas slashed four yards for touchdown at 12:51. Leading only 20-14 now the Bulldogs still seemed oddly unhurried, playing more to grind clock than score. When they did push the pace later State moved the ball into good kicking positions…only to misfire.
South Alabama ran two fewer plays but had possession almost 37 minutes, with 379 yards to show for it. New starting quarterback Davis was 24-of-34 for 285 yards and two touchdowns, and found open deep targets between the hashes almost at-will. Even covered throws went well for the Jaguars as three Dog defenders surrounded Magee in the third quarter, in the end zone. He still came down with the ball, part of his 7-catch, 113-yard day.
Tight end Gerald Everett had eight catches and 95 yards. Thomas averaged 8.3 yards on his ten totes. Plus, “We didn’t have any turnovers,” Jefferson said for State’s frustrated defense. “We could have helped out a lot by flipping field position if we had stuff like that.” Jefferson still had a big day, with a personal-best 4.0 tackles for losses and two sacks.
Williams was 20-of-28, impressive efficiency. But his completions averaged seven yards and the longest pass play was a backfield flip to Holloway that he broke for 19 yards on his own. Williams did run for 93 net yards on 12 tries.
“He played hard, he gave it his all,” Ross said. “He did everything he could to close it out.”
Ross himself wasn’t exactly over-worked, with six catches for 34 yards and that 46-yard keeper. State gave about as many snaps to redshirts and even rookie receivers as old hands Ross and Donald Gray, good for their development but maybe not the most productive approach. A number of passes were thrown, even forced to TE Justin Johnson.
For all the odd personnel choices and substitutions, State still managed 382 yards and were repeatedly one play from locking up an opening day win. An uncomfortable one in big-picture thinking to be sure, but better than what happened.
It was also only the second time Mullen had lost after leading at halftime or after three quarters, in 52 games. And this was a three-score lead squandered.
But the real takeaway was, there is no Prescott to pull State out of such fires. Or to make sure such collapses don’t occur at all.
“I’m probably going to watch film tomorrow,” Jefferson said. “And call a couple of young guys in with me. I want to see the stuff we could have done better to get the win.”