A surprising portion of the 38,130 attending hung around for a frantic fourth quarter that saw their home side score 22 unanswered points and make things interesting very late. But Tulane's Gabe Ratcliff secured the obvious onsides kickoff with 1:41 on the clock and no timeouts left for State. Two snaps took care of the time and let an ecstatic Wave squad walk off a SEC field victorious for the first time since 1989 at Vanderbilt. One giddy Tulaner even taunted the home team with "Thanks for the check, guys!" shouted en route to his locker room.
There was nothing the Bulldogs could say in response. "Tulane deserved to win," MSU Coach Sylvester Croom said. "We didn't. I told the players that I am real disappointed and that there are still a couple of things that are a mystery to me." State players found the evening hard to explain also. "I don't think we took them lightly," cornerback Derek Pegues said. "I just feel we weren't ready to play." A mystery indeed, particularly as State was not only favored to win this matchup but had taken care of Tulane in 2004 and '05.
But after this Wave team turned the opening possession into a 77-yard touchdown drive it was painfully clear the third time would not be charmed for State. "When you let somebody take the first drive down the field you're in for a dogfight," Croom said. A fight these Dogs lost despite showing life on offense at last.
State finished with 350 net yards, more than produced in the previous two home games against South Carolina and Auburn. And the 29 points were infinitely better than those back-to-back shutouts, all produced after starting receiver Omarr Conner returned to his former job of quarterback in place of Tray Rutland. State's return game also came to life with Pegues netting 192 combined yards on punts and kickoffs, the most in over a decade for a Dog. Yet the real net result was still another ‘L' on the record as State had dug a three-quarter hole too deep to scramble out of.
"We are just not making plays," Croom said. "We are still making way too many mistakes and it is on both sides of the ball."
Indeed, a Dog defense that acquitted itself respectably in SEC action was ripped apart by a Tulane offense that had managed only seven points in a 45-7 loss at Houston last Saturday. Senior quarterback Lester Ricard broke his winless streak against State with 298 passing yards, completing 16-of-23 throws with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Four different targets caught those scoring tosses, but Ricard favored Damarcus Davis with four grabs and 90 yards.
More surprisingly, Wave halfback Matt Forte ground out 170 yards on 29 tough runs, with a half-yard dive at the end of the third period accounting for Tulane's final points and thus margin of eventual victory. It was a humbling evening for State's defense. "I think we came out early and played a little soft," end Titus Brown said. "We were not able to stop them and did not meet their intensity."
"They did not surprise us," Croom said. "There were times we had them right were we are supposed to, and they would step up and make the plays.
The game was broken open by Tulane's three third-quarter scores, but Croom said the evening was lost earlier. "If we play the first half with the intensity we did in the second half we get this thing under control." Instead the visitors made themselves at home first, starting with that opening drive of seven snaps. Ricard worked the left side for consecutive completions of 11 and 23 yards before Forte burned off 27 yards down to the State six. On second down Kenneth Guidroz out-jumped nickel-cornerback Adron Chambers in the end zone for the touchdown at 11:28. That play would be called on again.
Tulane missed a chance to pad the lead in the quarter, or rather had it swatted away at 6:17 as Brown blocked a 46-yard field goal attempt. The loose ball ended up at the 47-yard line but the Bulldogs did nothing with this break, even after a pass interference on Lance Long put the ball across midfield. Rutland was short on a third-down throw for Tony Burks, as the redshirt freshman struggled to find some sort of offensive pattern.
"I believe it was just inexperience," Croom said. "He prepared well but the inexperience showed tonight."
Further frustration was in-store. Pegues made another strong punt return, of 26 yards to the Wave 38-yard line. Rutland was sacked on third down, and instead of punting Blake McAdams threw complete to Long as Tulane was playing back a bit. But by the time the ball got there so had another defender and Long was stopped four yards short of the marker.
And Tulane made it hurt by doubling their margin in just four plays. Two were negative with a sack by Brown and Quinton Culberson blitz-breakup. But Ricard came back with a strike down the right sideline to Davis, a stride ahead of Pegues. He got to the 27-yard line with a 50-yard completion. On the next snap back Ray Boudreaux came out of the backfield, slipped behind Culberson, and hauled in a perfect throw at the five-yard line. Culberson stripped the ball at the line and Croom still believed after review the takeaway was in time, but the touchdown stood.
Pegues provided his best runback yet with a 61-yard kickoff return to the Wave 31-yard line. It, too, was a waste of effort because Rutland was sacked on 3rd-and-8 for an 11-yard loss. At least McAdams' punt was downed at the four and soon the Green Wave was kicking it back to Pegues. This time he ran it back 23 yards to Tulane's 41-yard line at 6:17, which is when Conner was sent out to run the offense as he did all 2004 and most of 2005.
"Coach kept telling me all week that I needed as much practice as I could get, I just had a feeling I would go in at some point," Conner said. His first play produced a 14-yard throw to Burks, but it was a third-down throw to Dezmond Sherrod that really put a spark back in State. On the next third down Conner pulled it down and ran all the way to the two-yard line. A throw to tight end Jason Husband was a bit high but on second down halfback Anthony Dixon crashed right guard for the touchdown….the first points of 2006 for State of any sort.
State had one other first-half possession that went nowhere and Tulane opted to let the clock run to keep the score 14-7 at intermission. So the Bulldogs would have first turn in the next half and, presumably, a measure of momentum. "And we do nothing with it," Croom said. Or not enough as after Conner scrambled for one first down McAdams had to kick it away.
This was where Tulane took charge, as Ricard connected with Landry for 15 yards to the 39, then spun out of Brown's grasp and drilled a bullet somehow through a crowd and to Ratcliff at the 45-yard line. Jeramie Johnson had to drag him down at the Bulldog five to prevent the touchdown. For the moment, that is, because Ricard went back to the high throw on the left-most side of the end zone. This time it was Davis pulling it down over regular corner David Heard, at 9:47. The PAT kick missed so the margin was 20-7.
Conner threw for a couple of first downs to the 50-yard line before fumbling away the snap. "To be honest the ball never touched my hands," the quarterback said. "He (center Royce Blackledge) took a big step and I didn't guide him all the way through." Just a bit of rust from not having taken live snaps since last October, but it proved critical this evening.
Because Tulane went for the kill immediately. Receiver Brian King got behind Pegues to pull in Ricard's 47-yard touchdown throw in the end zone. "I stared at the quarterback a little too long and let the receiver get behind me," the cornerback said. "That's just not acceptable." This PAT clanked off the upright but by now that seemed irrelevant as Tulane expanded the lead one last time. After twice moving the chains again a Conner throw caromed off receiver Keon Humphries' hands and right into Jeremy Foreman's. The TU cornerback galloped 49 yards to the Bulldog eight-yard line and three snaps later Forte punched through the middle for the 32-7 margin with 4:04 left in the quarter.
Tulane's lead appeared entirely safe when State ended the period with a 4th-and-goal incompletion, with a wide-open Husband unable to come down with Conner's throw in the end zone at 1:01. But it wasn't completely over just yet, with special teams giving the Dogs a chance. TU punter Barrett Pepper bobbled the snap, tried to run and had the ball knocked free by safety De'Mon Glanton. Freshman Marcus Washington recovered and scampered nine yards for a Bulldog touchdown at 11:44.
Getting the ball back, Conner unloaded to Burks for a grab this side of midfield and the wideout made it to Tulane's nine before going down, a 78-yard play. On third down halfback Arnil Stallworth crashed the middle for a three-yard touchdown at 7:22, the kick pulling State within 32-21. Tulane wisely played for time, burning 3:49 and both of State's remaining timeouts before punting at 3:28.
Conner manufactured one last surge, taking a dozen plays to cover the 92 yards and scrambling into the end zone on 3rd-and-5 himself at 1:45. Conner also took care of the two-point play. But Tulane knew what was coming and Keith Andrew's bouncer went right into Wave hands.
"I thought we showed a little apark and kept playing MSU football," Brown said. Problem was, Tulane played better football for three periods and the Bulldogs couldn't catch all the way up in just one period no matter what Conner manufacture. The senior was 15-of-25 passing for 241 yards, with one pickoff, and he ended up State's leading runner as well with 71 yards on 13 carries. That was 312 out of State's 350 total. "Well, he came in and gave us a huge spark obviously," Croom said, confirming that Conner will be the starter next Saturday at Alabama-Birmingham.
"I was back home," Conner said. "I made a couple of plays." Burks had four grabs for 130 yards and Long four more, with just 26 yards netted.
With a third loss in as many outings, the Bulldogs are indeed struggling to find answers for what has gone wrong with, well, everything. Croom did not even praise his team's effort this time, saying only that such effort is what is expected by now. It was good to get on the scoreboard at last, and the fourth-quarter outburst gave State a chance to salvage the evening.
"But in football close just is not good enough," Croom said.