"I don't have a lot of answers for you," the Bulldog coach said. "I didn't see this one coming."
Victory for the Mountaineers (6-1) wasn't entirely unexpected as the hosts were sizable favorites and playing to work their way back up the national rankings. What both puzzled and frustrated Croom was how the Bulldogs (4-4) lost this game literally from the start. West Virginia scored on their first offensive snap of the afternoon, then added three more touchdowns for a 28-0 lead after only a quarter. Anything and everything that followed was merely a matter for margins and statistics.
"We did everything that could have gone wrong for a football team in that first quarter," said senior defensive end Titus Brown. "We gave up too many points. We tried to dig ourselves out but it was obviously too late."
Far too late. While the defense gave up four fast scores, Mississippi State's offense did not produce a first down until almost five minutes into the second quarter, or complete a pass until the following snap. "They jumped on us real fast," Dixon said "We just didn't give a good showing today."
Croom was more blunt, saying the Dogs lost their poise. "Penalties, the turnovers, the things we don't do. That's what I don't understand. And when that stuff happens you can't blame nobody but me, so I've got to check me out."
Trying to take the blame was honorable, but it wasn't Croom making the on-field mistakes. Certainly he was not on the opening kickoff play that might have settled the issue instantly, albeit in a bizarre way. It was strange enough that State won the toss and opted to give the ball to the nation's sixth-best scoring offense, yet for a moment it looked like an inspired move. Croom said scouting showed a weakness in WVU's return tactics and sure enough Mountaineer Steve Slaton bobbled the ball. MSU's Anthony Johnson fell on the fumble.
But Croom knew it was for naught, as he'd seen Jarvis Kyles off-sides on the kickoff. "We haven't been offsides on a kickoff all year," the coach said. And as his players realized what had happened, the complete deflation on State's sideline was clear. "That was about the biggest high to the biggest low," said quarterback Wesley Carroll. "It would have been nice to start I guess in the red zone, we've been consistent there putting points on the board. That would have probably changed the game drastically."
Again, perhaps. What did happen was after the re-set, or re-kick, on his first snap Mountaineer quarterback Pat White faked the inside handoff, squirted around left end and cut back right. He crossed the goal line at 14:39, his one-play touchdown igniting the first-quarter onslaught. By the time the Bulldogs caught their breath they were down four scores with no chance of a real rally. "It just went downhill from there," said Croom. "We were shell-shocked."
White did all his shelling in just one half of action. The junior, still not entirely over a chest injury, finished with 89 rushing yards on five carries while completing eight of his dozen passes for 61 more yards. He was picked off once, but offset that with touchdown tosses of 12 and 10 yards in the opening quarter. And only once was he hit hard, never sacked.
Halfback Slaton ran for 127 yards on 23 totes with a touchdown and caught four more balls for 36 yards. The Mountaineer tandem had more ground yards between them than State's overall 214. "They're two great players," said Croom, who recruited Daphne, Ala., native White. Wideout Darius Reynaud caught three balls, two for touchdowns.
Dixon had a tough day with 61 hard yards on 20 carries and a touchdown dive. But ground lost on sacks or tackles behind the line meant MSU netted only 45 ground yards. Carroll was 18-of-35 throwing for 169 yards. He was officially sacked thrice and hit many, many more times, though the freshman ran his streak of passes without an interception to 108, breaking the MSU season record of 96 (Derrick Taite, 1996). Tony Burks had six of the grabs for 41 yards, and Carroll spread the ball around to nine targets.
Which would have meant more if this one hadn't gotten away instantly. "We felt we had a good gameplan," said Dixon. "I wouldn't say we got spooked but things didn't go our way and they got a whole bunch of momentum after that big run. And they were making good plays."
A lot of them on their second drive which took a dozen snaps, not including a couple of procedure flags. Still the Mountaineers covered the 88 yards successfully, as White threw to Slaton for 14 yards on 3rd-and-2 and kept for 24 more yards himself down to the Bulldog 25-yard line. On 3rd-and-7 at the 18 fullback Owen Schmidt took a swing-out throw and while hit at the two was flipped far enough forward to touch the plane at 7:46 for a 14-0 lead.
"That offense, it takes everybody to be in-synch on defense," Brown said. "It only takes one guy to get out of place, one to get out of coverage, one guy to mis-read a key, and a big play happens. We didn't control the big plays today."
But the Bulldogs could only blame themselves for the third home-team score, which was all the more frustrating after a 51-yard kickoff return from Derek Pegues. On first down Dixon lost the ball at the line of scrimmage with no cause from contact. "That was just all me," he admitted, "I went to tuck the ball but I tried to make a cut at the same time. It was like I ran away from the ball." The carom went right to linebacker Marc Magro and wideout Brandon McRae had to make a tackle at the 21-yard line to prevent—make that, delay—the touchdown. On 3rd-and-3 White rolled left and with MSU linebacker Jamar Chaney in his face still found Reynaud open in the end zone at 6:09.
After a shanked punt the Mountaineers were back in business two yards inside midfield. On 4th-and-2, even already up three touchdowns, the home team went for the first and didn't have to try as LB Gabe O'Neal jumped early. On the free play Brown put White down briefly. It didn't matter as Slaton did the job on a 26-yard scamper up the middle for the 28-0 lead. Incredibly, it got worse yet as after Dixon netted nine yards State fumbled the exchange.
If not for a block in the back on the return linebacker Morty Ivy would have had a touchdown. As it was WVU was on State's 30-yard line, and on the first play of the second quarter Pat McAfee booted a 42-yard field goal. For their part the Dogs were still being shut down and out.
"And we had good play-calls for the most part on the schemes they were running," said Carroll. "We expected a lot of the things they were doing and the alignments. We just stopped ourselves." The Bulldogs finally made a little bit of something happen, first on defense as a third-down White throw was tipped by K.J. Wright and caught by safety Demario Bobo at the 50-yard line. Then on 4th-and-inches Dixon muscled ahead for State's first first down of the day, right before Carroll threw his initial completion—to Aubrey Bell, for five yards. They were going on another fourth down, needing three, but tight end Eric Butler jumped.
With it 4th-and-8 McAdams punted, the ball downed inside the one-yard line. Which worked out well as the Mountaineers had to kick it back and short, giving State the ball back on the 30-yard line. Carroll instantly hit Jamayel Smith for 23 yards. There was no question of going for six on fourth down, nor who would get it even after a timeout. Dixon went through right guard at 3:51.
"We did a good job after we spotted them three or four touchdowns," Croom said. "But you can't let that team get that big of a lead on you." State had a shot at more after Carroll found Co-Eric Riley open in the middle for 30 yards, to the WVU 30-yard line. The Mountaineers resumed rushing the passer though for a sack and consecutive incompletes, keeping it a 31-7 margin at halftime.
State got first turn of the last half starting at the 42-yard line and put together a real drive by converting four times on third downs. The first three were on sharp tosses by Carroll, and to three different receivers for eight, 11, and 15 yards. The touchdown also came on a third down but on the feet of Christian Ducre as he went three yards through right guard at 9:50. With nothing to lose State went for two and the pass was off Smith's hands in the corner.
A swap of punts had the Mountaineers in good position as McAdams' strong kick was run back by Vaughn Rivers 42 yards, to the Bulldog 27-yard line. WVU almost overcame losing 15 yards to a clip, going on 4th-and-short at MSU seven. Schmidt's dive netted nothing. But the Bulldogs could do no more than one move of the chains, Carroll throwing behind and open Aubrey Bell at the needed spot on 3rd-and-16.
Brown scrambled for 13 yards and a first down, and Slaton busted the middle for 18 more down to the Dog 13. After two misses Brown found Reynaud just in front of safety Keith Fitzhugh for a 38-13 margin which held up the remaining fourteen minutes of game-clock. State did get to the WVU 35-yard line with first down but a reverse to Lance Long, which was setting up to be a flanker pass, lost a dozen yards to one un-blocked rusher.
The final margins of score and stats (346 yards to 214) were closer than the contest of course, which had been won in the opening period. Not that the Bulldogs could bring themselves to say it at the time. "I think we got over it real well," said Carroll. "We stayed together, they only scored three points in the second quarter and not much after that. We realized we were capable of hanging in there with them, like I said we beat ourselves."
"We were trying to show pride, for the fans that came we weren't going to give up on them knowing they came all this way," said Dixon. "For the conference, for everybody. Like coach said, we came out and kind of embarrassed ourselves for the whole conference and everybody."