Visiting South Carolina shut out Mississippi State 15-0 in the opening game of this Southeastern Conference season. The Gamecocks turned three placekicks and one gadget play into more than enough points to take care of a Bulldog team unable to find an end zone. Any end zone.
"When the plays were there we just did not make them," said Coach Sylvester Croom.
As if the scoreboard didn't tell the story already, the stat sheet emphasized the degree of Dog frustration. A rebuilt Gamecock defense with only one returning starter held State to 161 total yards and less than three yards per snap. The Bulldogs did not net a first down in the whole first quarter and only 11 all evening. Most tellingly, perhaps, was the fact that State's offense never pushed the ball as far as the South Carolina red zone…not even when handed it via turnover at the Gamecock 28-yard line.
"A lot of things didn't go our way," said receiver Omarr Conner. "We didn't execute as well as we should."
The collective frustration was amplified by the fact that State needed only to execute in a few select situations to put their opening effort in a better light. South Carolina's offense didn't burn up the turf either with 274 yards and, incredibly, one fewer first down than the Dogs. The difference was that the Gamecocks cashed in when the ball got close enough for a kick, all three times, while State's Adam Carlson missed badly on a 38-yarder in the opening quarter.
Maybe more importantly, South Carolina followed up the most glaring State failure to convert by striking back immediately. Trailing 6-0 as the fourth quarter began the Bulldogs were across midfield on hard running by rookie halfback Anthony Dixon. A keeper by substitute quarterback Tray Rutland made it 4th-and-1 at the S.C. 45-yard line, and Croom left the offense on the field.
Dixon got the ball, hesitated, and was dropped for loss of a yard at 14:16. "I thought we were going to start rolling and get it in. But once I stepped I guess the hole closed up." Croom called it the critical point of the game, and it was.
Because S.C. Coach Steve Spurrier went for the kill instantly. Quarterback Blake Mitchell threw laterally to his left for Syvelle Newton, a former Gamecock quarterback. He threw back to the right and downfield where tailback Cory Boyd was waiting, undefended. The catch at the 31-yard line produced a quick jog into the end zone for a 54-yard touchdown and 12-0 lead. The two-point pass was deflected but State's back had been broken. The third field goal by Ryan Succop, at 8:19, was superfluous.
"The critical part of the game was I made the decision to go on 4th-and-1 and we didn't make it," Croom said. "That's where the game was lost, so if anybody wants to blame anybody blame me."
"It's not Coach's fault," Rutland countered. "If it's anybody's fault it's the team's fault."
But no one was blaming the Dog defense, even after getting stung by that gimmick. The aggressiveness S.C. took advantage of was why State was even in the game at that point. "Our defense played extremely hard and I'm very proud of them," Croom said. Linebackers Jamar Chaney and Quinton Culberson and safety Jeramie Johnson combined for 23 tackles, three for losses, and three pass break-ups. They benefited from a front that kept the pressure on Mitchell, or his first-half sub Chris Smelley. Of S.C.'s total yards 193 came in the air, though Boyd did bull for 93 rushing yards.
Still it was nothing an opportunistic offense couldn't overcome. But the Bulldogs failed at every turn, most notably when on the very first play of the evening Mitchell was pressured by tackle Andrew Powell into a rushed throw picked off by Culberson at the S.C. 28-yard line. Three plays later Carlson was missing what turned out to be State's best chance to put up points.
Not only was chance lost but starting quarterback Mike Henig, knocked out late in the second by a cracked collarbone. Croom didn't have a definitive report right after the game, "But I don't feel good about it right now." Henig was 2-of-8 passing for 19 yards with two sacks. Rutland finished 6-of-15 for 63 yards with two overthrown passes picked off and three sackings.
Dixon's 64 yards on 14 runs in his college debut would have been a highlight save for that fourth-down failure. Starting halfback Brandon Thornton had 25 yards on nine runs.
The first quarter produced no points for either side and only 37 combined yards. Mitchell was almost knocked out himself when, hit by Culberson and tackle Deljuan Robinson, he fell into his own blocker and twisted the right leg. Smelly stepped into the temporary breach and delivered for the only score of the first half. On first down in the second quarter wideout Kenny McKinley got behind MSU cornerback David Heard for a superb catch at the 12-yard line while being interfered with. Smelley ‘sacked' himself with a third-down stumble so Succop came in for the 39-yard kick at 12:11.
Hard running by Thornton , then Dixon finally got a Dog drive going with a 51-yard surge to the Gamecock 44-yard line. But suddenly Henig was out, taking a shot to the left shoulder. Rutland had been told he would play in the opener. In fact, "They told me to get ready before Mike hurt himself." He nearly struck it big on his first State snap, throwing deep for Keon Humphries who couldn't complete the play at the seven-yard line with 33 seconds left in the half.
But after moving the chains once to open the third quarter Rutland threw too far for Conner and Chris Hampton outfought a teammate for the interception at S.C.'s 21-yard line. State's defense forced a punt only to have a kicking team breakdown when Jarvis Kyles overran the kicker, who had pulled up fearing a block. Succop took off and got 14 yards to maintain possession. A 20-yard throw to Jared Cook had the Gamecocks in State's red zone where Mitchell just overthrew Rice in the end zone; then should have had another throw for the star wideout picked by Adron Chambers in the end zone.
Rice stripped the ball, came up with it in a pile, and initially had a touchdown ruled. Croom challenged the call and review showed the ball did touch turf first. South Carolina again settled for three points as Succop was good at 8:18 to double the lead to 6-0.
Then the gimmick double-pass doubled it again. Rutland scrambled for a MSU first down at midfield only to leave another pass too long for Conner, with Fred Bennett getting this pick and a 30-yard return. Six plays later Succop put up the final points. State got the ball twice more and failed to break up the shutout.
Croom still saw opportunities for the offense to do its part. Losing Henig so early was an obvious problem, though the starter had not been throwing well up to then. Rutland also missed some potential connections, such as with Conner on those two picks. He only hooked up with tight end Eric Butler once and never found Tony Burks. Lance Long had five of the eight catches and 41 yards.
Beyond that, Croom said at times the Dog ground game was close to accomplishing its plan of just wearing down the Gamecock defense. "Offensively we did some things, I thought we had had chances to move it."
With all the opening-night frenzy, not to mention constant references to this game by coach and team alike since spring practices, defeat was painful enough without being blanked. Still the head coach, who has seen his teams shut out four times now, thought this one different in a crucial way. "Don't blame our football team because they played their hearts out," he said. "All I wanted was great effort out of them. Put the loss on my shoulders and they're big enough to carry it."
In fact, Croom said he was so proud of the effort that the Dogs can take the weekend off and won't have to practice Monday, with just review and scouting work for next Saturday's matchup with Auburn. The Tigers will likely bring a top-five ranking to town. Safety Johnson admitted bouncing back from such a deflating defeat can be hard.
"But we're a football team and all of us are brothers, so we've got to put it together and come through as one."