Another loss to LSU wasn't so shocking for a State program that has now dropped eight-straight and 15 of the last 16 meetings with their Western Division foe. Nor even the final margin as the Bulldogs haven't played a Tiger team close this decade. No, it was the manner of defeat that startled State's squad as they had a hand in just about all of LSU's scoring. Four of the touchdowns came after interceptions, as did the only field goal, and the last score followed a lost fumble. The remaining touchdown was on a routine drive-after-kickoff to open the second half.
Coach Sylvester Croom didn't have to analyze this defeat too deeply. "One key turnover can cost you a game," he said. "We had seven in one game." Six of those were interceptions off quarterback Mike Henig, tying a program record nobody wants to claim. Only once did a pick not produce Tiger points. And another ‘turnover' might as well have been charged when Henig bobbled a fourth-down snap that ended one of the few good chances State had to get on its own scoreboard.
Henig offered no excuses, just an opening statement before the question could be asked. "I'm man enough to say I'm the captain of this team, I'm the quarterback. And I made some mistakes tonight." The junior was 11-of-28 passing for 120 yards and sacked three times. That last number was actually a sort-of highlight considering the caliber of defense Henig and State were trying to attack.
In fact, "Protection was good," Henig said. "It was just one of those nights. Stuff happens." The wrong sorts of stuff usually. "The wide receivers' timing was off because I was off the first half," explained Henig. "I don't blame them, they weren't expecting the ball to hit ‘em and when I did they weren't ready. That was completely 100% my fault."
The top receiver was a runner, halfback Arnil Stallworth with three grabs for 33 yards. His alternate Christian Ducre had a pair of catches for just two net yards, while Lance Long topped the wideouts with two receptions and 16 yards. Henig's biggest plays were a 45-yard strike to Tony Burks and to Jason Husband for 26. Early on it seemed the running game might get off the ground, so to speak, with some nice hauls by Dixon. But he ended up with just 29 net yards on 13 tries, forced east-and-west more often than fitted his north-south style.
"We felt we had to keep some balance," Croom said. "We wanted to get some chunks in the passing game and run the ball enough to keep their rush off of us." To that end the State staff even threw a few gadget plays at LSU, such as a direct snap to Dixon with Henig flanked-out or a flea-flicker and deep toss, even a shovel-pass. None panned out.
Then again, not much works very well or often against the rightfully-touted Tiger defense. All State had to show for the damp evening's work was 146 net yards and a 2.5 per-snap average. "Against a team like that you have to make plays to take their confidence away," Henig said. "It just didn't work out for us."
LSU's offense was more productive, though not for most of the opening half. "You can't overstate how hard our defense played," said Croom, and the coach was correct. State's defense could have, should have gotten into the locker room with no worse than a ten-point deficit, if that. All the turnovers and field position holes added up in time however.
"It was pretty hard to keep momentum going," said safety Derek Pegues who was sidelined in the third quarter by full-body cramps from all the effort. "It wore down on us, but we still continued to fight." LSU's longest scoring drive needed 73 yards, that after the second-half kickoff; the rest were of 35, 38, 41, 8, 45, and 36 yards. "It's easy to march 20, 30 yards down the field," noted defensive end Titus Brown.
By game's end the Tigers had compiled a respectable 347 yards, 128 off the arm of Matt Flynn. He hooked up with favorite target Early Doucet no less than nine times, for 78 yards and one score. Jacob Hester led the ground-pounding with 68 yards.
In the harsh light of the final margin it was odd to recall how the Tigers struggled to get on the board at first. Their first drive even ended in a punt as safety Keith Fitzhugh broke up a Flynn throw at the three-yard line. Three snaps later though they had the ball back at State's 45 as on third down Henig overthrew Aubrey Bell and Danny McCray made the interception.
Hester broke off a fast 15 yards, Keiland Williams went around the right end for 13 more. Brown pressured Flynn into a throwaway and Chaney had Hester covered on third down so the Tigers settled for a 27-yard field goal from Colt David at 6:28.
State came back with a promising drive of their own as Henig hit Stallworth on third down for 13 yards to the 46 and two Dixon rushes moved the chains again. On 3rd-and-4 at LSU's 42 Dixon lined up at quarterback but gained officially nothing. State went on 4th-and-2 and was lined up, ready to go with apparent mismatches when the officials halted play for no obvious reason. "There was some concern about the clock," said Croom.
The snap was bobbled and Tigers took over at their 39, just as the rain started. "That was a big play, we felt if we got that first down we had a chance to score," Croom said. LSU was not able to score off this ‘turnover' as Brown sacked Flynn, but on second down Henig tried to hit Long down the right sideline with Jonathan Zenon both stride-for-stride and with inside position. His interception at State's 38 set up the Tigers' first touchdown drive. Doucet made a great high grab in front of Jasper O'Quinn for 14 yards, Hester had to be knocked out of bounds by Pegues at the eight-yard line, and on 3rd-and-10 O'Quinn interfered with Doucet in the corner of the end zone. It took two dives to get the two yards with Keiland Williams doing the honors at 5:52.
Pegues returned to the 41-yard line and despite a ten-yard holding call Henig hit Jason Husband at the LSU 43. Then State tried trickery with a flea-flicker, Dixon tossing back to Henig who fired long. Just not long enough, and Brandon McRae was double-covered in the end zone anyway with Craig Steltz intercepting. A holding call and sack of Flynn by Jimmie Holmes left LSU on their own two-yard line. Punter Patrick Fisher kicked his defense out of trouble with a 55-yard bomb, leaving State on their own 45 with 1:43 left to make something happen.
Just not what did as Henig overthrew Jamayel Smith badly downfield, with an alternate receiver on the sideline. Curtis Taylor intercepted and got to the Bulldog 41-yard line with 90 seconds left. Maybe LSU wasn't serious about trying to score but they did so anyway. A crossing pattern by Doucet went to the 22-yard line, and on 1st-and-20 a short throw to Terrance Toliver turned into a gainer as rookie Zach Smith missed a tackle and again Pegues had to save the day, this time at the 12. Hester netted nine on a middle catch and LSU called time at 0:12. Williams was stopped short and the Tigers used their last time out well, with Hester making it 17-0 as the horn sounded.
"That's what happens when you turn the ball over quickly and that far into your own territory," Croom said.
It only took 2:07 of the next half to expand the lead to 24 as Flynn and Doucet combined for catches of 10 and 12 yards, then the quarterback scrambled for 21 of his own to the 11-yard line. Doucet beat corner Anthony Johnson down the right sideline for the touchdown at 12:53.
"We were moving the ball, I felt good about how we were performing," said Dixon. "It just got out of hand."
Burks got in front of his defender and hauled in a Henig strike at the LSU 33 for 45 yards, only to have Dixon caught twice for losses and Smith watch a throw go way over his head. Blake McAdams hit the high punt perfectly and killed it on the one-yard stripe. Again Fisher hammered his punt, this time for 56 yards, and on his return attempt Pegues not only went down for nothing on second-effort but cramped-up in the process. Henig got up slow himself when a third-and-5 throw was off Smith's hands.
A series later Henig was on the ground again, though Flynn preceded him with a sacking by Holmes. His next throw could have been picked by Johnson and returned, but it was a break-up anyway. But after an arm-sack left State with 3rd-and-21 Henig threw behind Aubrey Bell. Steltz got his second pick and returned this one half the field to State's 8-yard line with Henig helping on the tackle. Even a penalty didn't stop LSU from padding the lead as Flynn slipped the ball to Charles Scott for a 31-0 margin at 2:09.
Henig took another lick as he unloaded deep for Bell at the Tiger 20, incomplete but with a shaky interference call made for a free first down at the 48-yard line. A flip-out to Stallworth produced 20 yards as the quarter ended. LSU star tackle Glenn Dorsey marked the start of the fourth with a sack of Henig for 10 lost yards. LSU sent the house on consecutive blitzes for incompletions, and on fourth down Jason Husband cut his route short for a long interception by Steltz again. Tackle Mike Brown stopped the long return at State's 44.
Backup Tiger triggerman Ryan Perrilloux was able to handle the fourth quarter's offense and direct two more scoring drives off turnovers. Perrilloux himself ran three yards at 8:20 for a 38-0 score, then at 5:45 after State rookie quarterback Wesley Carroll fumbled Perrilloux threw to Brandon LaFell for a 15-yard scoring strike. Carroll replaced Henig for the last three State series, the true freshman playing because junior transfer quarterback Josh Riddell was under suspension.
"They're hurt right now, no question of that," Croom said of the post-game locker room. "They thought they could win this game. Standing on the sideline I felt bad for them more than anything else."
Expectations of victory seemed absurd in the aftermath, yet Bulldog veterans of previous frustrating seasons gave no hints they fear heading down the same road as last year when State also was shut out in the opener. Their talk was just the opposite in fact. Senior Titus Brown confirmed that he'd made some strong statements to the squad when Croom finished talking.
"I specifically told the team if you're perfect then you can say something. I don't think anyone went out and did a perfect job today," he said. "It doesn't appear to be a good thing right now, but good things will come in the end."
Yes, far-fetched at it should seem, coach and players alike insisted better things area ahead for this team, this season. "I told the players my feeling about them have not changed, I still believe we are going to be a good football team before this season is over," Croom said, adding that the Bulldogs will still get the weekend off as planned. "I told them before had we won we'd take 24 hours to celebrate. We lost it, we're going to take 24 hours to mourn and put it behind us and move to the next one."
Henig affirmed that State will not crack in the first month as happened last September. "We're better than that as a team, I just have to pick my game up, come back next weekend and play better than that."
"We've still got all the confidence in Mike," Brown said. "We just have to stay strong and rally behind him and good things will happen."