Those giveaways—a fumbled kickoff, fumbled punt, and three interceptions tossed by starting quarterback Wesley Carroll—were the lowlights of a night that affirmed Croom's worst fears. "We are an undisciplined football team, that was very obvious. You can't blame anybody for that but me. I've got to find a way to get some discipline on our team."
An official 25,224 watched in-person at Joe Aillet Stadium and many multiples more on ESPN2 as the first Southeastern Conference squad to visit Ruston jumped to a 14-3 lead, then collapsed under self-inflicted damage. Some wanted to call it unbelievable, but the Bulldogs disagreed. "It's very believable," senior S Keith Fitzhugh said.
"They earned it," Croom said of the host Bulldogs. "They played hard throughout the game and didn't make mistakes to get them beat." Which put the onus back on the visiting Dogs who made the sorts of mistakes State had hoped to have moved beyond. Croom ran through a brief list:
"You can't line up off-sides, our defensive front did it in practice, we did it out here. Our kickers didn't kick well. We didn't handle the ball well. We fumbled the ball, we threw interceptions. We did everything you can to get beat. And the thing that disappoints me, we hadn't done that even when we were really, really bad."
This as much as anything made the way State lost really hurt, because the Bulldogs did do many things well enough to win. They finished with lots more yards, 348 to 269; won the first downs duel 21-16; and threw far more efficiently despite alternating quarterbacks Carroll (12-of-25, 172 yards) and Tyson Lee (10-of-15, 85).
Thus the frustration. "No question we showed we could make plays," Croom said. But the Bulldogs proved too capable of making the wrong plays, too, once they'd gone in front. "I hope they've learned a lesson. There's no question we have more talent than we have, but we don't have quite the discipline and the character that we've had the past couple of years. We didn't play as good as we can play, we didn't come anywhere close and it was reflected on the scoreboard."
Turnovers aren't listed on the board but they were the stat of most impact this night. Tech was not sinless in that area either, with two passes ending up in Fitzhugh's hands. But those Bulldogs shrugged off their fewer errors, aided of course by State's unintended generosity.
LT quarterback Tyler Bennett, a summer transfer from Georgia Tech, was just 14-of-40 throwing with one pick, a touchdown, and 175 yards. The other intercept was on a halfback option throw by Pat Jackson, who when he kept the ball gained 62 yards on 17 attempts with the other Tech touchdowns. Placekicker Brad Oestricher hit three field goals for the winning points, though he also had a PAT blocked.
Anthony Dixon had 91 rushing yards on 18 carries.
The most glaring turnovers of course came in kicking plays. Redshirt HB Wade Bonner lost a kickoff to start the third quarter; and senior WR Jamayel Smith misplayed a punt later in the period. They were fielding kicks because senior Derek Pegues was back in Starkville watching the broadcast, under a one-game suspension for missing spring semester classes. A lot of hard thoughts and even words were directed Pegues' way as his absence showed so painfully. Not by the coach.
"Derek didn't play in this game, so don't bring his name up," Croom said. "We didn't return the ball well. All we wanted out of our returners this game was to field the ball, that's all we were asking. And we didn't do that very well."
Croom had something else to say, aimed not at media or his team but the couple of thousand who followed State to Starkville and others tuned-in at home. "I apologize to the fans. I hope they don't give up on us right now because we will get it corrected."
Fitzhugh agreed. "We're going to be OK. We've got to keep the faith and keep on working. It's just tough, everybody is down on themselves. Right now we have to know we're a team and pick one another up. I'm going to be a man and my team is going to be grown men also, and we're fixing to step up as men and do our jobs."
Louisiana Tech showed early offensive ambitions by throwing on seven of the first eight snaps. Generous officiating, ignoring consecutive groundings, encouraged more passes and Bennett was able to find Phillip Livas for a 10-yard gainer to State's 42-yard line. A dump-off throw and poor State tackle netted another first down before penalties and pressure stopped this series.
The Bulldogs did nothing on the first series, beyond show three different formations…a sign of things to come. Their second turn began badly as Smith signaled fair-catch on Tech's punt but grabbed the bounce and ran. So State had to start from the 6-yard line.
Which made a 94-yard touchdown drive that much more impressive. Dixon provided room to work with by bulling for eight yards and a first down at the 16, and Carroll took advantage by delving deeper into the playbook. The best calls all involved WR Brandon McRae as he caught: a slant for 24 yards; a rollout on the right sideline for 16 more; and a straight shot over the middle for eight yards and a 7-0 State lead. It was McRae's first touchdown at State, and his three grabs were more than the two he had all of 2007.
Louisiana Tech mixed in more running and with Jackson busting off-tackle for ten yards got within range of Oestricher to hit a 48-yard field goal and get the home team on their scoreboard at 3:49.
If State had shown some new stuff so far, it was nothing compared to the first-down, double-reverse by McRae that went 79 yards, one-shy of the goal line…for a net of two whole yards as a hold by Co-Eric Riley at the Bulldog 32 brought it back. "That would have really turned the game in the first half," Croom said. "We had a bad holding penalty and it wasn't even close, it was holding."
Completions of 16 yards each to Aubrey Bell and freshman Delmon Robinson got a drive going to Tech's 43-yard line before Carroll, hit as he threw, let one hang for an interception by Antonio Baker.
The second quarter began with State possession at their 41-yard line. But after a false start left 2nd-and-15 Carroll overthrew McRae and Stevon Howze was behind in position for the easy pick and return of 19 yards just across midfield. On 3rd-and-20 State cornerback Marcus Washington slipped, allowing Josh Wheeler to get behind for a 39-yard catch down to the seven-yard line.
Tech tried some trickery too, with a halfback-option on second down. Jackson rolled out only to have Jasper O'Quinn right in his face, forcing a high throw that safety Keith Fitzhugh intercepted in the end zone. State had planned to play Lee anyway and figured this was the right time. The alternate quarterback converted on 3rd-and-3 with a nifty zip to Smith, but a big sack ended his first college series.
A swap of punts had the MSU Bulldogs starting on their 17-yard line. McRae got a dozen on a quick square-out; then Dixon, almost forgotten since early in the first quarter, busted for another 12 to the 41-yard line. A tight end reverse lost two but Dixon more than made up for it, getting the needed ground and hurdling a tackler to ramble a total 31 yards with Brian White making the saving stop at Tech's 27.
With 4th-and-a long one both teams used timeouts for talks. State's plan worked better as on a roll-right Lee flipped to Bell for first down at the 13-yard line. A slant to Bell nearly got the touchdown, the wideout dragged down by a pair of Techsters inside the one-yard line. Fullback Brandon Hart was given the honors, vaulting the line at center for his first career score and a 14-3 margin at 2:14.
Defensive end Tim Bailey made himself very well-acquainted with Bennett, breaking up his first down pass and crushing the Tech quarterback on consecutive pass tries. The punt was downed a balls-length from the goal line and, with Lee quarterbacking, Dixon officially avoided a safety on first down. He got a yard the next time, and Lee bootlegged to the eight-yard line to give some punting room. And, stayed in bounds so Tech had to call for time.
A good call, too, as Livas fielded Blake McAdams' hasty punt and got 28 yards to the Bulldog 13. On third down Bennett had time and found Jackson on the right numbers. The back bowled over cornerback Tay Bowser at the three-yard line and scored with 17 ticks left. Bowser got a measure of revenge by blocking the PAT for a 14-9 intermission margin.
Tech got a huge gift to open the second half as Bonner fumbled the kickoff return at the 30-yard line. Fitzhugh again came through with a third-down interception at the goal line, returned to the 13-yard line. A 14-yard Carroll flip to fullback Eric Hoskins and another move of the chains by Dixon let State punt safely. But fielding Tech's punt was another issue as Smith muffed the kick and the ensuing carom ended up in the home team's possession on the State nine-yard line. Jackson put Tech ahead with a second-down draw covering six yards at 6:30.
Trailing 16-14, State was able to get to the Tech red zone. Riley got 26 on a sideline grab as Carroll improvised, Dixon made ten on a draw, and rookie Robinson turned a short flip into a 14-yard gainer to the Tech 21-yard line. Carroll caught a break when his throw for Riley in the end zone was only swatted up at the goal line. But his next shot, again for Riley, wasn't so lucky. Deon Young picked it and went up the left sideline for 42 yards with ten tacked on by Hart's out-of-bounds hit.
Had Zach Smith played the ball and not the target he'd have had a returnable pickoff. State's safety took the sure thing by walloping his man in what an official judged was a helmet-to-helmet lick. It was a free first down at the 12-yard line. Tech didn't make full use as a safety blitz by safety De'Mon Glanton hurried a third-down incompletion. Oestriecher chipped the 28-yarder through at 0:09 of the third period for a 19-14 margin.
Lee, back under-center, used Robinson for another catch and go worth 25 yards across mifield before missing on third down. Starting from their 11, Tech devoured ground and clock by pounding right through the middle of MSU's tiring line. At 8:30 with 4th-and-1 Tech didn't hesitate, going on a quick snap; Fitzhugh and Dominic Douglas almost caught Jackson for a loss but he escaped for first down at the 40-yard line. That was absolutely crucial because three snaps later Oestriecher was able to crush a 50-yard field goal at 6:48 that made it a 22-14 margin.
And, the margin of their victory. Lee was still under-center for the pressure series only to throw two misses and take a sack. McAdams' punt glanced off a Techster though and was recovered by Zach Smith at the LT 47-yard line. Even this break wasn't sufficient for State as Lee was sacked, then on 3rd-and-10 hit Bell in the hands on a crossing route with plenty potential. Bell's hands didn't hold and needing ten yards State punted it away. Tech was able to run off all but eight seconds, taking advantage of a dragging Dog defense, and Robinson had no chance to make anything out of the concluding punt.