Tight end Tanner Balderree’s 25-yard catch and touchdown run to open a second extra period staked Brigham Young to their first and only lead. The Cougar defense made that 28-21 margin hold with just enough of a stop, flushing QB Nick Fitzgerald all the way to the sideline on 4th-and-9 before unloading towards TE Justin Johnson.
Coverage was there and the throw high as well. As Cougar fans swarmed Edwards Field to celebrate their program’s first home victory over a SEC program, State walked off it 2-4.
Coach Dan Mullen didn’t spend long in the locker room talking to the troops. He was even less talkative in a media conference of under four minutes.
“We didn’t win. So there’s no positive,” said Mullen, who also said he meant to spend the three-hour flight home grading the game. The closest to plusses in Mullen’s mind at that moment were Bulldog effort overall and a much more physical approach.
“They played really hard. And they played hard enough to win the game. We just didn’t do a good enough job as coaches to make sure they were ready to go make the plays to win.”
Mississippi State nearly forced a third overtime. On first play after BYU had taken the lead WR Fred Ross had coverage beat down the sideline and in the end zone. Fitzgerald’s throw was there, only to go off Ross’ hands and then facemask incomplete.
“I think we played a complete game tonight,” Fitzgerald said. “Really we played more than a complete game tonight. We just couldn’t pull it out in the end.”
The host Cougars (4-3) did. But it was close. Down 14-7 after three periods, they seemed to have been stopped on 3rd-and-goal at the Bulldog six and forced to kick for three. But as Taysom Hill’s throw missed any target State V Will Coleman, only returning to action this night, was flagged for roughing.
It still took three more plays to tie it up. Or four because a third-down completion in the end zone was negated on holding. Hill shook it off and now from State’s 15-yard line found Moroni Laulu-Pututou open at the goal line for the 14-14 deadlock.
The Bulldogs still had two strong chances to regain their lead and win it in regulation. Drives of 11 and 10 plays got close to the BYU red zone, though never nearly close enough to think of a field goal kick. Certainly not after PK Westin Grave’s 42-yard miss on the first possession of the game.
Reaching the 29-yard line, on 3rd-and-12 Fitzgerald tried to find Ross only to have Kai Nacua step in front for the interception at 7:58. A series later State got to the 30, with 3rd-and-one this time. Fitzgerald took the shotgun snap, stepped towards his right…and fell flat without any contact. It was only a formality that DT A.J. Jefferson sacked Hill to end regulation with a meaningless turnover.
Taking first shot in first overtime Fitzgerald made a true highlight play, running around left end and hurdling Fred Warner at the goal line. “I just took my chances and took off,” he said. The scoring chance was set up by a shaky pass interference call on BYU’s Michael Davis contacting WR Donald Gray.
The Cougars answered in seven plays, though the third was State’s chance to clinch it. Jefferson forced his second fumble, from Hill again, and Balderree saved their day by falling on the loose ball. “Balls don’t seem to be bouncing our way,” Mullen said. Hill tied it 21-21 on a two-yard blast at right guard, then with BYU changing ends of the field flipped the first-down toss to Balderree.
“We had called the right call, and the coaches gave us a good play,” SS Mark McLaurin said. “But we just missed a tackle and he made a good play.”
Losing this one in the way they did seemed to sting Bulldogs more than last week’s rout by Auburn. They led most of the evening, and scored first when WR Keith Mixon turned Fitzgerald’s clever late-pitch on a scramble into a 44-yard touchdown dash down the sideline.
The Cougars answered two series later with Hill throwing a one-yard touchdown before the first quarter ended. But State stayed calm, even when Fitzgerald was intercepted to open the second period. The Dog defense made a stop at their 24 and forced a missed field goal. Given another chance the offense went on a 75-yard drive of 14 plays ending on Fitzgerald’s one-yard keeper at 3:54.
That was all of State’s scoring though, as the second half netted no points despite repeated fourth-quarter chances. Cougars suggested altitude got to the visitors; Mullen denied it. “No effect. No effect.” His team even ran more offensive plays, 86 to 75, and out-gained the home team 386 to 311.
Still State couldn’t make that one more big play, get one more scoring play on the board that could have put the Cougars in real trouble. The Bulldog defense did muscle up and contain Jamaal Williams reasonably well with 76 net yards and no touchdowns. Hill hauled the ball 17 times himself for the one touchdown and 53 yards.
But State was fine with allowing BYU’s ground game only 3.1 yards per attempt. Hill did throw for 165 yards and three scores, yet the longest strike was the go-ahead play. McLaurin had the one pick, should have had another, and on BYU’s first series LB Richie Brown had a pick-six on his hands that caromed away.
“Coach had been teaching us the whole week about the pivot routes and the digs,” said first-time starter McLaurin.
The Bulldog offense finally showed signs of life in the ground game other than Fitzgerald keepers, too. He did run for 41 net yards, while RB Aeris Williams got a career-high 82 yards on 21 tries, and was often one more defender from breaking something really big. “Yeah, he ran hard,” Mullen said. So hard that a couple of times the ‘tackle’ was made by one of his offensive linemen blocking the way after gains.
Fitzgerald was hot-and-cold in the air, with a lot of high misses in the first half before settling into a better second-half rhythm. His best call was going to Ross, with five balls and 69 yards. Mixon had the same total on four catches.
The misses, forced or not, left Fitzgerald 17-of-36 for 214 yards with the two interceptions. Still “He made some plays at the right times to win the game, and did some good things,” said Mullen. His quarterback wasn’t hearing of good things.
“You lose, you lose,” said Fitzgerald. “It doesn’t matter if you lose by a point or by 100 points.” Asked what the locker room mood was, “I mean, what do you expect?”
Mullen wasn’t expected to be chipper either, but the brusque post-game was telling of tensions building. After previous defeats the coach has been able to discuss aspects of game or team or season. What was different about this loss or situation?
“I don’t like losing,” Mullen said. “Nothing. I’m still me."