Even better, there was just enough room remaining for critique that Coach Dan Mullen can put to good use. "This week was great, a great result for us, I thought our guys got prepared," Mullen said. "But now it's time to take it to another level. You get going into the season at this point." Meaning next Saturday's matchup with Auburn's Tigers.
The SWAC Tigers might not care to hear the head coach's candid comment that State's season is still a week away. The fair fact though is Jackson State was paid $350,000 to visit Scott Field and take a beating. Mississippi State had every reason to regard it as a bargain after hanging 35 points on JSU before halftime. And before the guests scored their only touchdown of the evening against a scratch defense. By then Mullen and his coordinators were throwing all sorts of lineups together and letting them run. And throw, and tackle, and so on.
Starting quarterback Russell did throw his two touchdowns, both in the first half; and redshirt Prescott ran for his in the third period. Between them the two scholarship quarterbacks were 16-of-27 for 183 yards with no turnovers. And Mullen thought their numbers should have been even bigger, as Russell agreed.
"It was some throws I should have made and I didn't. That's what frustrates me, about coming in and not completing t hose passes. Because you're going to have to complete those against Auburn." Russell was 15-of-23 throwing for 175 yards, while Prescott completed just one of his four tosses, for eight yards. But he did score on that called keeper from two yards out while Russell only had to haul the ball once. For that matter neither was sacked, and they spread the ball around to eight receivers. By halftime, in fact, following Mullen's gameplan of getting everyone involved as soon as possible.
That included the four running backs as well, who divvied-up the carries so well nobody rushed more than eight times. Starter LaDarius Perkins got eight totes for 50 yards and scored on eight- and one-yard dashes in the first periods. The surprise leader on this list though was redshirt Derrick Milton, the second halfback to play; his eight carries produced 65 yards with a 19-yard jaunt for State's final points.
There was nothing at all fancy about their approach, said Perkins. "We just wanted to run our base plays and execute at the best of our abilities." Base offense was more than sufficient to dominate this matchup, even when early on—very early on in the case of one position—the offensive line began rotations. All units were able to execute against the outmanned Tigers.
"We had a lot of guys getting reps, and we gave a lot of guys some experience," Mullen said.
To their credit Jackson State did not roll over and play dead for the Dogs. The Tigers managed to make it interesting at times, and quarterback Dedric McDonald showed a strong arm with 136 yards and a touchdown toss. But he was often on the run too, sacked twice and forced into some risky throws. Two of these turned into turnovers and each went all the way back the other direction. CB Darius Slay and LB Matthew Wells both notched pick-sixes.
"It all starts with the d-line, they got pressure," said Wells. An adjusted line of sorts; instead of starting big nose tackle Curtis Virges, coordinator Chris Wilson moved DE Kaleb Eulls inside, alongside DT Josh Boyd. Then he put fast rushers Denico Autry and Shane McCardell on the ends and turned them loose.
And then, Wilson also began rotating a lot of linemen. "Take nothing away from Jackson State, I wanted to see how guys could line up and play without scheming them." Meaning he maintained a base defense in the middle-quarters, rushing just three or four of the less-experienced linemen. Not coincidentally the Tigers mounted their only successful drives against the alternate lineups, but the experience was worth giving up a few points.
"We were able to mix up coverages and show the quarterback different looks," said Wilson. "He threw us a couple, and I felt like we left a couple of other opportunities out on the field."
State was able to put up points less than four minutes into the new season, with a 66-yard drive capped by Russell's first touchdown throw. At the nine-yard line the quarterback bought a little time rolling left and saw WR Chad Bumphis all the way back of the end zone. Or rather, "When I threw that pass I wasn't even looking at Chad. I was looking at his feet. And I thought they were going to review it, I guess they thought he was in."
Bumphis was, barely, having planted his cleats a few blades inside the stripe for his grab at 11:19. The Bulldogs wasted a gift-wrapped opportunity after Slay got a hand on a Tiger punt for possession at the 26-yard line. PK Devon Bell had hit the PAT but missed his first college field goal, a 42-yard try.
But when the Tigers did get a good punt off, CB Johnthan Banks caught it on the fly and returned 22 yards to the Jackson State 23. Three snaps later Perkins bounced wide right behind TE Brandon Hill, blocking two Tigers at a time, and got inside the pylon at 4:33. Perkins got his other touchdown at 13:41 of the next quarter after a ten-play drive. Russell got it going with consecutive completions to WR Arceto Clark, and WR Jameon Lewis stepped in for a pair of wild-rushes to keep the drive moving.
Russell returned and had plenty time to wait for TE Marcus Green to get just in front of coverage coming across for the touchdown at 4:44. If any doubt remained about the evening, Slay sealed things. On first down at the JSU 38-yard line, the cornerback had a better read on McDonald's thrown than the Tiger receiver. He stepped up for the easy interception and took off the other way. Big DT Quay Evans cleared the last obstacle by crushing McDonald around the ten-yard line so Slay could complete his 52-yard return.
Jackson State had enough time left to get on the board before the break, going 93 yards on eight plays against a cobbled-together defense. McDonald found E.J. Drewery at 0:45 for the touchdown. The PAT missed though.
The Bulldogs got more back in the third on a drive of nearly six minutes, begun by Russell and completed by Prescott in his first varsity action. He was helped by a JSU interference on WR Robert Johnson at the one-yard line, meaning all he had to do was squirt through left guard at 5:55 for a 42-6 lead. Barely a minute later it was Wells' turn to score for the defense.
McDonald's throw was a bit high and hard and off his target's hands, caroming right to Wells in space. "And I made a play on the ball, got a deflection. I was just thankful to be in the right spot." His 22-yard return had much of the home crowd heading for early celebrations. All they would miss was a 25-yard Tiger field goal, and Milton's 19-yard burst at 6:55 of the final quarter.
The pair of pick-sixes inflated the margin beyond what the offensive statistics achieved. State did net nearly seven yards per snap, owned the clock, was 7-of-12 on third downs, and best of all never turned the ball over. Still there was the sense to Mullen the margins could have been even more dominating, though he qualified any criticism by checking the first-half numbers where the play-calling was close to 50-50.
"That's what we want to do, we want to be very balanced. We didn't end up that way but I thought we were balanced when we had our ones in there and we were going. I looked at the numbers at halftime and I was pleased with the balance."
And even if the air game had some flaws, "I thought the passing game ran real well," Clark said. "You can see we've been working on it since June and July and we showcased it on the field."
Defensively? "We had a pretty solid game tonight," said Boyd. "A lot of guys stepped up and had good games."
But of course what is good against a SWAC guest won't be good enough against some SEC Tigers. In post-game Auburn got more mentions than Jackson State, reminding just how focused Mississippi State has been on this week-two date since, well, since the 2012 schedule was published. So the Bulldogs had a quick celebration of business taken-care of tonight, and immediately turned attention ahead.
Especially Russell, who wasn't joking about next week at all. "I'm going to look at the film and evaluate myself and take it from there. I've got to be a lot better when we play Auburn."