In fact the win didn't come at all until the very last play of the night, when Tulane quarterback Lester Ricard's desperate heave into an end-zone crowd was knocked up and away by Bulldog cornerback Kevin Dockery. Only then could State's sideline exhale in raw relief. "I was hoping either we would get it or they did not get it!" defensive end Willie Evans said. "Thankfully they didn't catch it."
No one was more thankful than the head coach, who won his first away-game at State. If the outcome was too close for comfort, it was still satisfying. "You win a close game on the road, on the last play of the game, it says something about what's inside of you," Croom said. "So I'm proud of our players for that." The players were reasonably proud of themselves as well.
"It feels good, winning on the road," said quarterback Omarr Conner. "We hadn't won one in what, three years?" Correct, as State's last non-campus success was at Memphis in 2002, when Conner and most of the MSU roster was still in high school uniforms. Finding the last neutral-site success in a regular season meant looking back to 1990.
When Tulane's last-gasp attempt fell in the back of the end zone some Dogs may have felt they'd aged 15 seasons through four frustrating quarters. The first half was particularly painful as the squads struggled—as much with themselves as the opposition—to a 0-0 deadlock. The intermission story could be summed in comparing the 13 combined punts to nine first downs…and Tulane had eight of those chain-moves.
Yet the matching zeroes on the halftime scoreboard looked surprisingly good to the Mississippi State coach and actually played into an overall plan. Croom goal coming to Shreveport was as much to not-lose as to win. "It was just like boxing," he said. "We wanted to feel them out and not let them get a knockout punch early."
This cautious approach was due to the unique nature of the game, especially for a Tulane team that had seen their home campus and playing field ravaged by Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago. The Green Wave was playing in the opposite corner of their state after finding a home-away-from-home, and opening their season to boot. This created a natural sentiment favoring a team trying to get on with a semblance of normal football life, and even made the Bulldogs the unintended ‘bad guys.'
More than that, State's staff had no fresh scouting material for the matchup while Tulane had two games for use in preparations. Given that, MSU coaches opted to play it safe. "We just didn't want anything bad or something to get us in trouble on the road," Croom explained. "That was by gameplan, we were not going to turn the ball over or let something bad happen to let the emotions overrun us on the road. So we were very pleased to leave the half 0-0." Then if things developed as hoped the Dogs would try some second-half haymakers.
It all worked, sort-of. Mississippi State turned up the tempo and lit up the scoreboard at last with a pair of third-quarter scores. On 3rd-and-goal from the three-yard line Conner rolled out and flipped to a wide-open Jerious Norwood to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead at 12:17. The drive, 65 yards in eight plays, produced a pair of genuine offensive first-downs and a 34-yard burst by Norwood to set up the score.
Two series later State, benefiting from the superior punting of Blake McAdams, needed to go just 39 yards to double the lead on another Conner throw. This time he was forced to roll out to his right, but tight end Eric Butler read the situation rightly and slipped down the sideline and behind the safety to catch a 18-yard scoring strike at 6:50.
"The second half we came out more explosive," Conner said. "We just stayed focused. Coach told us to keep our heads in and go make plays."
But the Bulldogs couldn't connect with a knockout punch. Worse, Tulane responded with a flurry of their own to even up all scorecards. As soon as State went up 14-0 the Wave stormed back with the longest drive of anyone's night, going 83 yards. Junior quarterback Ricard mixed his throws for strikes of 23, 9, and 7 yards and got 15 free yards on a MSU roughing call. Running back Javon Jackson got a first down at the 11-yard line, then Ricard laid a throw in the end zone that Damarcus Davis laid-out to grab for Tulane's first score, at 3:43.
The Wave botched an onsides kickoff but State couldn't make use of the gift. An exchange of punts later the Bulldogs were at midfield when Conner connected with Will Prosser for what should have been an eight-yard gain. Instead the flanker had the ball knocked free by Darren Sapp, and Sean Lucas ran the recovery back inside the five-yard line. A holding call on the return meant Tulane had to start at State's 28, but it was close enough. After MSU cornerman David Heard led a sure pickoff-and-touchdown return go right through his paws Tulane moved the chains, then on third down Ricard noticed a three-man front and deep coverage.
Changing to a draw was the perfect call as Jackson bounced through the middle for 18 yards and a tying touchdown. And when State had to punt again the Green Wave had eight minutes to break the tie their way.
Only, the Bulldogs got the break they needed. McAdam's 43-yard punt was fumbled by Israel Route under pressure from Lance Long, who also came up with the bouncing ball at Tulane's 17-yard line. "Just hard work and perserverance," said Conner. "Lance made a good play, we got it back." And this time the Dogs cashed in a gift as on the first play Norwood started up the middle, shed an ankle-tackle at the 10 and rambled rambled across the goal line at 7:44 for what proved the margin of MSU victory.
Because the Dog defense came through under late-game pressure. Tulane reached midfield by faking a 4th-down punt and drawing pass interference, before really punting on 4th-and-7 at 3:59, with a group-sack led by Evans the key play. State burned yards and time before giving the ball back with 77 seconds left. Another well-called draw netted a first down, but the Dogs stuffed the next delay and called a timeout with 0:27 left when only ten men were on the field. It worked in the defense's favor though.
Ricard's throw for Davis on the left sideline was broken up by both Demario Bobo and Keith Fitzhugh; a second-down heave to the other sideline was defended by Derek Pegues. On third down State dropped coverage to force a throw in front and Fitzhugh immediately dropped Terranova at the MSU 39-yard line, forcing Tulane to use their last timeout at 0:08. Preston Brown and Brian King were in the vicinity of the last pass but Dockery had the position to break things up.
"Tulane's coaches did a great job," Croom said. "I thought we could stay with it the second half but they made some nice adjustments." He also noted painful penalties and the fluke turnover by Prosser that gave the Wave life. "I guess our players wanted to keep everybody from going to bed."
Certainly the scoreless first half threatened to put folk to sleep. The Bulldogs were absolutely in-offensive for two periods, snapping the ball 20 times (not counting six punts) with just 39 net yards to show for it. By contrast they had 30 yards worth of first-half penalties, and if not for a Tulane facemask State would have had no first downs at all. Tulane didn't do much more to cheer with 119 yards on 43 plays, and seven punts of their own. In fact, the Bulldog MVP of the whole game was McAdams with his 45.7-yard average on 10 boots. The field position off his foot likely made the real difference, Croom agreed.
Tulane didn't punt as well, at 38.6 yards, though the Wave did have a successful fake in the second quarter to continue a fruitless series. The ‘home' team also came out better in most of the stat sheet with 293 net yards to State's mere 225. Ricard was 26-of-47 throwing for 179 yards, while Conner was 13-of-26 for 108 yards. Norwood netted 99 yards on 21 attempts and got his first rushing touchdown of the season, in the 12th quarter. His touchdown catch was a career-first.
Still it was defense and kicking that kept this game going, more or less, according to plan. The D was dominated by Evans, credited with four sacks and ten total tackles. The senior said he'd never had a four-sack game at any level. "That was my season's total right there! But it felt pretty good to have four sacks."
It felt even better to get out of Shreveport with a victory, no matter how scary and often ugly. "I'm just glad it's over, guys," said Croom, talking about the game and not the school's road-loss streak. Emotions did run high much of the evening and early in the second period the referee called team captains together for a calm-it-down talk. The Bulldogs didn't like the pre-game role they were assigned by outsiders, either.
"We did have a little feeling of being the bad guys coming in and I was concerned how our players would handle it," Croom said. "They handled it very well."