"We got off slow," said Bulldog quarterback Omarr Conner. "Like coach says, you can't come out against a great team like LSU slow. We came out intimidated and hesitant and they capitalized on our mistakes." It was State's sixth-straight loss to LSU and the 22nd consecutive SEC road defeat dating back to 2000.
Even without MSU mistakes the Tigers had the upper paw most of this day, as MSU Coach Sylvester Croom saw it. "The deal was when we got in one-on-one situations on offense and defense, their one beat our one."
And number-one in this beat-down was Russell. The junior was magnificent, or as much as he found necessary, in destroying the Dog defense. He threw for 330 yards in a success-shortened day, completing 18-of-20 throws including 14-straight in one span. None of his balls ended up in the wrong hands and he took only one sack, that for a fumbled. But if Russell wasn't perfect nobody was complaining.
"He's a great quarterback," safety Jeramie Johnson said. "He did read the field well because he was throwing to his open man, and he had more time than we thought he should have." It wasn't because State didn't try to get to the passer, just that reaching Russell was difficult and catching the 6-6, 260-pound playmaker almost impossible.
"A guy like that, you might as well be tackling a defensive lineman," said tackle Deljuan Robinson. "We had chances to get him down and didn't. it seemed he threw the ball better when we put pressure on him." Indeed, Russell's most spectacular single play came when he escaped a grab and unloaded long and true for a 55-yard completion. That throw didn't result immediately in six points, but did contribute to the 272 yards Russell produced in the first half alone.
"But when you've got guys wide-open it's pretty easy to be perfect," commented Croom. And Tiger wideouts were usually just that. Craig Davis caught three balls for 101 yards, Dwayne Bowe five for 95, and Early Doucet five more for 71. All three tallied touchdowns at the expense of State's defensive backfield. "Russell was throwing the ball around," cornerback Derek Pegues said. "We had a lot of busted coverages, he was getting a lot of time to throw and we didn't stay deep in our coverage. That was on the secondary."
The air game was so effective LSU barely bothered to rush the ball, at least for the first three periods. A troika of backs divvied up those duties and while Charles Scott netted just 27 yards he scored twice on 11 totes. Jacob Hester and Alley Broussard both tallied single touchdowns.
As explosive at the Tigers were, the Bulldogs unanimously accepted blame for not putting up enough of a fight. Especially early, as they gave up three touchdowns in the first quarter and were one play shy of making it four. If this had been a prizefight it would have been called a knockout by noon. Nobody was more surprised than the head coach how this one began and was too-early, too-easily decided.
"We just didn't compete as well as I thought we would early," Croom said. "Who knows, maybe they had more to do with it than I give them credit for. But I will still not accept the fact we could not play better than that early."
"I thought things would go better because we came in focused, we practiced well," Johnson agreed. "I just thought we would do much better. I don't know what was the difference."
Of course going 3-and-out four times in the first quarter was utterly different than what the Tigers were doing on offense. The Bulldogs did not produce a first down until midway of the second quarter, by which time they trailed 35-0. Just for contrast LSU never had to punt the ball in the whole first half. With LSU's defensive speed too much to beat, State's offensive staff went with a plan of attacking between the tackles to grind the ball forward, eat time, and hopefully set up play-action.
The results, or lack thereof, attested to LSU's superiority whether one-on-one or 11-on-11. Besides, "Our execution didn't go as well as planned," wideout Tony Burks said. The big, agile Tiger front plugged any seams before Bulldog backs could hit them, stuffing Arnil Stallworth and Anthony Dixon immediately. So State had to throw earlier and oftener than intended and Conner paid the price, obvious by his postgame wincings. Asked if he hurt the senior managed a grin. "A little bit. But it'll be OK."
Conner was 15-of-28 throwing and did end up with 212 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. He was sacked four times in the process as when LSU really wanted to come after the quarterback they did. State tried all sorts of blocking schemes, moved the line or the pocket or both. Still Conner was running for his hide all day.
"It's always tough when you don't have protection," Burks said. "But he was working with what he had."
It didn't take the Tigers long to get on their own scoreboard. Barely two minutes in fact, covering 56 yards in seven plays. Only three of them mattered and all were perfect strikes from Russell. He hit Davis for 20 yards, found Bowe at the nine-yard line, and on second down threaded the needle for Davis on a hard slant pattern. He made the grab in front of safety Keith Fitzhugh and stepped across the goal line at 10:55. The next drive was even quicker. On 3rd-and-8 Russell had all the time needed against a four-man rush and Bowe shook coverage coming from the right side. He got the ball at the 20 and was dragged down at the State six-yard line. Scott took care of that with a quick scoot up the middle at 6:47 for a 14-0 lead.
But those were sluggish surges compared to LSU's third touchdown ‘drive' of the first quarter. Because after a 22-yard punt return had the Tigers starting on State's 37-yard line, Doucet slipped behind any coverage for an easy scoring catch at 3:40.
"That's as open as receivers have been against our defense at any time," said Croom. "And we do have a secondary that's been out there before."
Only the clock running out kept LSU from making it a four-score quarter. Doucet made 15 on a catch-and-run on the left sideline. On the next snap Russell somehow evaded Titus Brown, then spun out of Deljuan Robinson's grab. He heaved it long where Doucet pulled it in and fell forward to the two-yard line. A roughing call on Michael Heard added a yard to the play. The Tigers had to take two shots at the goal to get the six with Scott doing it on the first play of the second period.
Five minutes later it was 35-0. For the novelty of it the Tigers began by running for a couple of first downs, then before Russell's arm got tight he was allowed to throw some more. A 21-yard flip to Davis made it first-and-goal and on second down Chris Mitchell got open in back of the end zone and pulled down a high bullet at 10:35.
Down five touchdowns all the Bulldogs had left to play for at this point was to avoid the shutout, preferably before halftime. They did, the hard way, with a 11-play drive. A flip to Stallworth netted nine yards and Dixon barely moved the chains on a lunge. Conner pulled in the rush and dumped off to Dixon for a 27-yard scamper down to the Tiger 27. A high snap cost nine yards but a shovel-pass to Stallworth netted 21, close enough that on 4th-and-9 Adam Carlson was able to knock through a 32-yard field goal at 4:50.
State had the ball back shortly as Heard knocked it out of Russell's hands for a fumble recovered by tackle Antonio Johnson at LSU's 43 with 99 seconds left to intermission. A couple of Tiger sacks meant the margin stayed 35-3. But MSU's lineups took hits in the last two minutes before the break as first Robinson and then guard Brian Anderson had to be helped to the sideline. Neither saw further action though the injuries, a knee and ankle respectively, were not serious.
Only five minutes of game-clock after leaving the locker room the Dogs were back in there. State had finally forced Tiger punter Chris Jackson to use the boot after a sack of Russell and had moved to LSU's 26 on a 23-yard grab and go by Burks when lightning halted play at 10:55 for almost 45 minutes. Upon resumption of action LSU blitzed Conner into a short throw, then on 4th-and-6 he hit Lance Long but the angle took the wideout out of bounds a yard shy of the marker. "We had ample time to turn up and get the first down, in my opinion," Croom said.
Russell was replaced after his completion string was snapped and Matt Flynn took over. He had to do so at his own 7-yard line after a Blake McAdams punt was fielded. On second down he tried to hit Brandon LeFell and left it low where Pegues could pick it off at the 23 on the left sideline. He ran all the way to the other pylon for State's first defensive touchdown in two years, at 3:07.
"It was bittersweet," Pegues said. "We were down a lot of points so I couldn't enjoy it like I wanted to."
LSU responded by sending Russell back in to stretch the margin back on a 80-yard, 10-play drive capped when Hester crashed through Fitzhugh for a five-yard touchdown blast at 13:01 of the last period.
Both sides added meaningless scores in the final quarter, State on a 79-yard drive. On a first down Conner rolled right and before taking a shot to the face unloaded deep. Burks beat backup corner Sammy Joseph for position and pulled in the 36-yard touchdown at 9:57. It was State's first aerial score of the season. That play also had a bitter taste to it because coach and players said it had been there all game, State just didn't take advantage or have throwing-time to. Burks finished with 103 yards on four grabs.
Flynn, and then Ryan Perriloux, came back out and directed a 13-play drive capped by Broussard's one-yard dive at 1:29 for the final margin of victory. Tray Rutland got to make a cameo appearance on the last MSU possession, throwing a deep interception.
For LSU to finish with ‘only' 446 yards was somewhat surprising, because the first half was so lopsided statistically. For that matter the first period was sufficient with 212 yards on just 14 snaps, a 15-yard average each time the hogskin was hiked. By contrast State managed only 14 net rushing yards and 226 total.
Yes, the Bulldogs were outmanned by a Tiger team that was both bigger and faster. And Croom knew it would take lots of execution and maybe as much luck to keep this game competitive. Still he was unhappy with how thunderstruck his team was. "You know you're playing an outstanding team, the idea was to look them in the eye and challenge them," Croom said. "We had some individuals who did that, but not enough."
And certainly not early enough to keep this a contest for long. Why was this so? "That," Croom said, "is the million-dollar question. There was nothing to make me think we would, absolutely nothing. We had a heck of a week at practice, they conducted themselves well on this trip, I thought we were focused. But we got out here and were not aggressive."