But that big play never came for Mississippi State. Instead it was Louisiana State that made the one big play, along with a few more routine sort, to grind out a 19-6 victory. The #3-ranked Tigers doubled #25 State in field goals four to two, and got a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Jarrett Lee to Rueben Randall for the lone offensive highlight. By either squad.
Never mind the respective kicker’s contributions. That 19-yard strike was the knockout shot both teams were trying for all evening, and LSU (3-0, 1-0 SEC) connected. State fell to 1-2, 0-2 SEC.
Coach Dan Mullen didn’t mince words. “We got our butts kicked out there tonight.”
The Tigers left with a nice collection of bruises too, as the Bulldogs managed to match punch for punch over three periods. It was no consolation. “I knew it was going to be a dog-fight whenever we play LSU,” LB Cameron Lawrence said. “No doubt we were going to come out and fight to the fourth quarter, and that’s exactly what happened. But it hurts.”
The Bulldogs were indeed expecting an entirely different challenge than their previous two tests, which produced a program record for yardage in consecutive games. They got it…the challenge, certainly not the yardage. State was held to just 193 yards on 59 snaps, a good quarter’s output up to now. And a proud Dog ground game which came in leading the SEC and #5 nationally was just about shut down, managing a mere 52 yards.
Tailback Vick Ballard was held to 38 yards on ten rushes; while quarterback Chris Relf netted ten yards total on 16 carries, forced keepers, and sacks. LSU, the league leader in rushing defense, proved it beyond dispute. “Physically, we just didn’t make the plays we needed to,” said freshman tackle Clausell, making his first college start in place of an injured senior. “That’s all we can say.”
Not quite. Forced into the air more than intended, the Bulldogs found LSU not much more vulnerable there. Relf was 11-of-17 for 96 yards with an interception, but that didn’t tell the full tale because his halftime numbers were 9-of-11 and 78 yards. Once the Tigers knew State had to throw their typically talented, fast, and aggressive defensive front came after Relf or substitute Tyler Russell without mercy…or much trouble either.
“Our offensive line didn’t do a very good job blocking them at all,” Mullen said. “Our receivers didn’t get off and makes plays. Their guys made plays, our guys didn’t. Really that was the bottom line of the football game.”
LSU did have the better plays and play-makers. Spencer Ware ground away for series after series netting 107 rushing yards on 22 hard runs, with Michael Ford getting 50 of his own. Soon as MSU pulled in support, Lee went to work with short and sharp deliveries that would have been tough to cover in any scheme. The way State played things made their jobs even easier.
“Obviously when you deal with the speed they have, we tried to play some zone early in the game,” coordinator Chris Wilson said. “After that we went with more man-pressures, and they were able to make plays. And we weren’t able to make that game-changing play.”
Right, the big play again. It came after LSU nibbled away for a couple of quarters with straight-across throws to ends who used the extra-soft cushions allowed. Four consecutive completions advanced the Tigers from their 20 to the Bulldog 43, with Ware punching through a tiring center twice for 13 more yards. Randle was ready to strike, making a quick double-move down the right numbers that lost cornerback Corey Broomfield and let him get into the end zone in front of hurrying safety Charles Mitchell.
Lee’s perfect throw made it a 16-6 score with 11:56 left. Though the game could just as well been called on TKO right then. Up to that point, down 9-6, the Bulldogs were themselves probing, seeking some opening they could use and take their own big swing.
They never found it. Not, of course, that Mullen wanted to play things this way. But the combination of LSU’s defensive prowess and some uncertainty by Relf how best to handle them kept State away from their best gameplan of power-running and play-action throwing. Relf was sacked three times outright, hurried more often, and a few times did well getting back to the line of scrimmage after delaying decisions.
“I never thought we got in much rhythm on offense, and Chris is much better when we get into a rhythm,” Mullen said. “But he did hold the ball long a couple of times. But they’re a talented team, they can cover you. (It was) Probably more on our receivers than on Chris, he’s waiting for guys to get open and get rid of the ball. But there’s times he has to know to get rid of the ball because we don’t want negative plays. That’s when you get behind schedule.”
By the same token Mullen changed quarterbacks at ten minutes of the last quarter. Russell was 3-and-out the first series, then intercepted by Morris Claiborne on second down of the next. The pick, Claiborne’s second of the evening, was in range for Drew Alleman to kick his fourth field goal at 2:53.
Alleman had hit from 21, 42, and 41 yards in the first half as the Tigers built their 9-6 lead. Twice State’s Derek DePasquale tied the score with a 26-yarder in the first quarter and 42-yarder in the third period. The best Bulldog chance for meaningful touchdown was way back in the first quarter as Relf and Ballard combined for most of a 57-yard drive down to the Tiger nine.
All this did was cut down on room for MSU to spread the ultra-quick defense, and three quarterback dives into the middle netted nothing. On the last Bulldog series Russell ran a 59-yard drive reaching LSU’s 15 before time ran out on an incomplete throw.
Unlike last week at Auburn, the Bulldogs did have some decent field position this game but did not take enough advantage. LSU actually was pinned down deep, often, either by Baker Swedenburg’s well-aimed punts and coverage or their own mistakes. The Tigers drew nine penalties and spent much of the third quarter going backwards. But only twice did they fail to make at least one first down, the latter time when Lee hung one where CB Johnthan Banks could pick it off in the fourth quarter.
“I thought our guys played tough, physical,” Mullen said. “We were right there, we needed to make a play at key times during the game.” Of course the entire game was one long key time that never produced that play, for State.
This was just the second time a Mullen-coached team was held without a touchdown of any sort.
The consecutive losses leave MSU in another early-season SEC hole, but as Mullen said that’s familiar territory. The 2010 team also dropped tough tilts to Auburn and LSU on consecutive weekends, and while this defeat will likely cost the national ranking it doesn’t derail the season.
“We’ll be alright,” said Mullen. “We played hard, our guys always rebound tough and we get to back right on this field in ten days. And this is right where we were last year.”
State hosts Louisiana Tech next Saturday with a 6:00 kickoff.