Louisiana State (2-1, 1-0 SEC) rode their power running and play-action passing to a 23-3 halftime lead, then held off Mississippi State’s frantic comeback. The Bulldogs (1-2, 1-1) scored a pair of touchdowns behind substitute QB Damian Williams, and had the ball back with 2:15 remaining and even a timeout.
The rally ended there. Williams was sacked on 4th-and-8 and fumbled in the process, a meaningless turnover at 1:35 allowing LSU to run out the clock.
That fourth-quarter frenzy was not enough to offset the other three periods though. So Coach Dan Mullen had to mix his messages.
“I liked the effort our guys played with at the end. They came up short but they’ve got to play with that effort the entire 60 minutes to be successful.”
A success the Bulldogs claimed was there for their taking. “The plays were there to be made and we just didn’t make them,” starting QB Nick Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s just something we have to grow on.”
Mississippi State could too easily have wilted away in the final period. The Tigers were literally a foot from locking it up at seven minutes of the game, when back Leonard Fournette went left to convert a 4th-and-one. LB Dezmond Harris not only stopped the all-American but stripped the ball free and fell on it as well at 6:50.
Then on 3rd-and-3 Fitzgerald lost both a yard and his helmet, slipping free on a tackle. State was going on 4th-and-4 anyway with Williams rushed in. He responded with a 24-yard strike to WR Donald Gray. More catches of 11 and 27 yards, the latter a great jumping grab by Ross at the three-yard line, set up Williams for two dives plays and State’s first touchdown at 4:10.
23-13 would have been just statistics. Harris coming up big again, recovering the on-sides kick, meant it really was a rally. Two throws to Ross for 25 and seven yards got into the end zone again at 3:30.
Mullen, with two timeouts and a rested defense, opted not to on-sides this kickoff. It was the right call as LSU helped out. Two rushes lost ground and a third-down pass was short, saving one timeout. But Tiger punter Josh Growden boomed the ball 61 yards and Ross couldn’t do anything with it.
A strange first-down interior run by RB Brandon Holloway only netted two yards and ran the clock. Williams missed Gray on consecutive throws before taking the sealing sack.
Williams, who did not play in the win over South Carolina, was 5-of-8 for 94 yards and a score; and had the one-yard dive for another. “I thought he did a great job,” Mullen said, after saying this did not change the quarterback competition. But, “(Fitzgerald’s) helmet pops off, he’s ready, comes in and doesn’t miss a beat.”
“He came in and gave us a spark, he did a good job,” said Ross, who led with six catches and 89 yards and the TD grab. “He scored a touchdown and threw a touchdown.”
Still, for all the closing acts, the Bulldogs could not erase LSU’s first-half domination. The Tigers did exactly what they do, giving Fournette the ball early and often to wear a defense down. Then when the box is loaded to bursting, new starting quarterback Danny Etling would look downfield. Etling ended up 19-of-30 for 215 yards, including a 37-yard strike for the evening’s first points.
That play was pure LSU, a play-action and post-pattern that hung high and long for DJ Chalk to run under, a step ahead of beaten CB Jamoral Graham. Two series later, after forcing State to punt out of its end zone, LSU pounded into field goal range for a made kick. But State’s DL Jonathan Calvin ran into the kicker, the Tigers took three points off the board, and Fournette made it six with carries of eight and five yards for touchdown at 0:35.
In the second period it was Fournette showing off his read, steps, strength and speed. And, better blocking too as he let a seam develop before using it on a 25-yard touchdown burst at 8:25. Mississippi State got on the board at last with a 41-yard field goal by PK Westin Graves.
LSU did match that just before halftime, with a three-pointer at 0:07. Yet now 23-3 was something of a turning point for State because the defense stopped the Tigers after 11 plays at the 10-yard line.
“I could tell we were starting to wake up,” Jefferson said. “Everybody wanted to make plays.”
“The first half I think guys were worried about some wrong things,” Mullen said. “The score, the crowd, they weren’t worried about just going as hard as they could. We talked about that at halftime.”
Maybe the Bulldogs got worried about being embarrassed. Whatever the reason, State owned the third period with yardage, possession time, and snaps. However, only a 37-yard Graves field goal at 6:41 resulted. Drives reached the Tiger 20 and 29. Ross went up in the end zone to prevent an interception and get two hands on the ball, but “I should have caught it,” he said. “Catch that and we win the game.”
The other chance ended on a seven-yard sack of Fitzgerald.
Fournette finished with 147 yards rushing and two touchdowns, with 28 of his team’s 39 official rushes. Of that, 90 yards and all his points came in the first half as the Tigers played with power.
“I think they did a good job up front blocking our defensive line,” Jefferson said. “They had a bunch of plays they went full protection, chipped the ends, the quarterback had a lot of time.” LSU even had time to try a trio of gadget plays in the half, none of which worked out well.
State’s core problem was inability to get a ground game going other than having Fitzgerald haul the ball himself. Starting back Holloway was 5-for-15 yards, then RB Ashton Shumpert (6-for-34) and RB Aeris Williams (2-for-4) took over until that bizarre final first-down snap. Shumpert did have a strong third quarter series with 22 yards on four-straight runs, then having reached LSU’s 29 the play-calling went to three-straight passes with two missed and the last a sacking. Fitzgerald was 12-of-24 for 120 yards.
LSU could trump all of that in the first half, and even when they sputtered Growden bailed them out averaging 49 yards with punts of 67 and 61 on a 35-yard average.
Mullen talked again about how “young” his team is, noting the travel roster had just 16 veterans of the 2014 victory at Tiger Stadium. Yet that did not really explain much less excuse the struggling start.
“There were a lot of plays to be made the first half. (LSU) were making some plays, we weren’t,” Mullen said. “But, it all comes down to the effort.”