Certainly State (2-3, 0-3 SEC) was not anywhere close to good enough to keep this edition of the annual matchup with LSU (2-1, 1-1 SEC) close enough to call a real contest. After spotting the Bulldogs a surprising first-series touchdown on a 66-yard pass from Omarr Conner to Joey Sanders at 12:46, the #4-ranked Tigers roared away with a victory only five days after suffering an agonizing loss at home to Tennessee.
The visitors might have been a bit weary, but it was hard to say so after watching them simply whip State all over the field for the decisive middle-quarters. "We got beat today by a football team that was a lot better than we were," Croom said.
Trailing 7-3 late in the first period, the Tigers started on their 33-yard and scored the go-ahead points in four plays. The big one was the fourth, as track star Xavier Carter took a wide-reverse back towards the right side and streaked 36 yards for a touchdown at 2:19. A short kickoff return and quick Bulldog punt gave LSU the ball back on State's side of midfield and this drive needed just three snaps to complete. A bootleg pass from JaMarcus Russell to Early Doucet advanced the Tigers to the 25-yard line as one quarter ended, and 15 seconds after the next began Russell found Dwayne Bowe running along the goal line in front of coverage.
The 14-yard touchdown pass made the margin 17-7 and showed what LSU's offense was really capable of. "They got us matched up in some one-on-one situations and their athleticism was highly obvious," said Croom. Bulldog defenders were more blunt. "We know they had a lot of talent," said defensive end Willie Evans, "we consider our defense pretty good and we had a big head coming into the game. They capitalized on our mistakes and made us pay for it."
By the time all bills had been paid the Tigers had piled up 402 yards on a 6.2-per-snap average. Russell, supposedly vulnerable after Monday night's second-half collapse, responded with a magnificent effort. He completed a career-high 20 passes in just 23 throws, setting a 24-year-old school record of 87% accuracy in SEC play. And Russell did it by making use of eight receivers, led by Skyler Green with eight balls for 55 yards. Doucet had 60 yards on five catches, while Bowe only snared a pair but scored touchdowns on both.
"Most of their pass plays were simple quick routes that they turned into positive yards," cornerback Kevin Dockery said. "I guess when they figured out what was working for them they stuck with it." LSU didn't ignore the ground game either with 180 yards rushing. Joseph Addai had 86 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown.
The offensive story for State was sadly too similar to the production in losses to Auburn and Georgia, with a net of 229 yards on 54 snaps. Conner's 66-yard touchdown toss on the initial series was the highlight of his day, as otherwise the junior was only 8-of-21 for 76 yards. Backup Mike Henig played the whole fourth period and was 2-of-4 for 32 yards. Between them the two were sacked five times, because again the Dogs had no ground game to keep a defense honest.
"We came out focused and wanted to establish ourselves early," Conner said. "As the game went on we lost our attention to detail and lost our focus. We can't do that against teams like LSU." Especially not after the Tigers shut down any semblance of a State rushing attack and thus could turn the pass-rushers loose at will.
Still, "We had opportunities early to keep the ball game close," Croom said. "I felt if we did in the late part our conditioning would pay off." And when State strung the Tigers early the plan did seem sound. On a 2nd-and-11 Conner rolled left and with the rush coming looked downfield where Sanders stood literally alone, ten yards behind blown coverage. The throw was actually a long lob and took a minor eternity to reach the waiting Sanders at the LSU 40-yard line. "The throw was tough because he was so open," Conner admitted.
Only then could the wideout turn the right way and race for the end zone with before turning around and racing for the end zone with linebacker Cameron Vaughn in pursuit. Sanders won his race to the pylon at 12:46.
But after a swap of punts put LSU on the Bulldog 48-yard line the visitors' offense came to life. A couple of catch-and-runs got the Tigers close enough for Chris Jackson (no, not that one) to chip in a 30-yard field goal at 5:02. The scoring-ice broken, LSU followed with the quick-strike touchdowns for the ten-point lead.
The Bulldogs weren't done though, and drove close enough for Keith Andrews to attempt a 47-yarder field goal that had plenty of leg but was wide-right at 10:52 of the second period. Sacks by Evans and Andrew Powell got the ball back via punt and State started another, fateful drive. The key play, with implications for the rest of the day, was on a catch-and-run by halfback Jerious Norwood. He picked up 19 yards to the MSU 49 that ended in a brutal three-man collision, resulting in a concussion that ended Norwood's day with six minutes left in the half.
"It was a heck of a collision," Croom said. Even without Norwood the offense kept moving as on 4th-and-a long one Conner rolled fast and far enough to buy time and get Bryson Davis open 12 yards down the sideline. In the process the quarterback was knocked into the bench and had to take a play off. He returned and on the second ensuing snap rolled left on 3rd-and-3 with plenty of open ground in front to get the first down.
But he also saw Keon Humphries open at the goal line. A sharp pass would have scored; instead Conner lofted another lob with Humphries frozen in place. "I didn't see the defender come over and that's my fault," Conner said. Safety Ronnie Prude was the defender and muscled in front of Humphries for the end-zone pick.
"That interception totally destroyed any confidence that we had," Croom said. "I had to get it back up at the half and obviously I didn't do a good job." Because when the second half began LSU produced a 13-play, eight-minute drive covering 80 yards and ending with fullback Jacob Hester crashing the center of the line for a one-yard touchdown dive at 6:58. The PAT clanked off an upright but LSU had a 23-7 lead and total control.
"They came out and ran the ball down our throat and took it to us," said Dockery. "You just have to give them credit." And when State had to punt it back from their 12-yard line the Tigers expanded the lead, with Russell throwing again to Bowe. The big wideout should have been held to ‘just' 24 yards but he spun off safety De'Mon Glanton's hit and high-stepped the rest of the way for a 44-yard touchdown play at 4:33.
The last points came after a 37-yard punt return by Green to the Bulldog 21-yard line. Addai did all the work on runs of 1, 19, and the last yard to the goal line at 1:38. In the third quarter the Tigers had the ball nearly ten minutes and added 150 yards even to their total, scoring three times.
Henig handled the whole fourth quarter and suffered three sacks in the process. With Brandon Thornton running in place of Norwood the Bulldogs did drive form their eight-yard line to LSU's 13 in nine plays, before Henig missed Thornton on 4th-and-8. Those 79 yards netted were over a third of all the ground State gained the whole day, and for no points. LSU's fast-striking assault was a painful contrast to an almost-futile day for the Dogs, since the Tigers produced four touchdowns on ‘drives' of three or four plays.
Croom said LSU did play power-ball a lot of the time, but that only set up opportunity to get play-makers isolated in open space. "They gave the ball to their athletes and they ran into the end zone." Meanwhile his offense only got in the end zone once, and that on a semi-fluke that could not be repeated. Conner's stats were all too obvious. "He made some throws that were not smart," said the coach.
"But people have got to make plays. If we just catch the football in the first half we can move and get first downs and keep drives alive so we can run the football." Even when he was in the game Norwood was easily held in check with just nine yards on seven pre-concussion carries. Production such as that wasn't going to beat LSU any more than it did Georgia.
And now the Bulldogs have to take on one more SEC power, and another angry one at that after Florida was whipped at Alabama. It will be the third time State has met a league foe coming off a defeat, and the Gators will likely be more annoyed than either LSU or Auburn were. It doesn't bode well for the coming weekend, but that can't be a MSU concern.
"We've got to not worry about what they're doing," said Conner. "We've got to go make plays. We've got to win a game."