The homestanding Tigers scored 17 unanswered second half points to turn a close and often entertaining contest into another victory. Their eighth, for an 8-2 overall record and 4-2 conference mark. This was after Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3) had converted a fumbled punt into a touchdown pass and 20-17 scoreboard. For the moment the Bulldogs not only looked in position to snap a two-loss league streak but to score the first victory in this series since 1999.
It wasn’t to be. The Tigers responded with a four-minute, ten-snap series for a field goal to stem State’s fragile momentum; then sealed the success on J.C. Copeland’s one-yard dive just eleven seconds before the quarters changed. This capped a 80-yard drive that ground the Dogs down in both body and spirit. The bonus points came at 1:13 of the game when Craig Loston turned a forced Russell throw for the end zone into a 100-yard interception return.
After consecutive weekends where the Bulldogs were beaten by halftime, by Alabama and Texas A&M, giving the Tigers a solid fight—in a venue where State hasn’t won since 1991—did encourage Coach Dan Mullen his team is adjusting to adversity better. But, “That’s not good enough,” Mullen said. “We’re here to win football games.”
“We came out and executed pretty good but none of that matters if we don’t get that W,” said RB Nick Griffin.
Mississippi State was closer to winning this one to be sure. They even reversed the recent trend by scoring first, on a nine-yard touchdown catch by TE Marcus Green; and still led 7-6 over half-way into the second period as the Tigers were held to a pair of field goals. But a couple of Zach Mettenberger touchdown tosses, as well as several more big passing plays, put LSU on top by halftime. And to stay.
“I thought we played a lot better this week than last week,” Mullen said. “I thought we had a good week of practice. And we improved. Not obviously to the extent we need to to win games.”
Not with LSU doing what they do most times to opponents, and almost always at night. The Tigers, still stinging from an afternoon loss to Alabama at home a week ago, did not dominate the Dogs. And their potent ground game never got going consistently, settling for 119 yards on 38 carries. But the quartet of Tiger runners did make some key first-down carries to sustain a few drives.
And Mettenberger made up a lot of difference. Having discovered new passing prowess in defeat last week the quarterback was sharp, 19-of-30 for 273 yards and those second-quarter touchdowns. He didn’t turn the ball over either. Favorite target Jarvis Landry abused Bulldog coverage, or lack thereof, with nine catches for 109 yards. That was a bit misleading though; he had eight of his grabs in the first half and six in the second quarter alone, for 79 yards. Matched up on over-matched safeties most of the night, Landry worked the middle at will and Mettenberger found him.
“He’s a good football player,” said a peeved CB Johnthan Banks, who often had to try picking up Landry out of the slot. “But most of the catches he caught were on mistakes we made. But he’s pretty good, no disrespect to him.”
Landry’s 19-yard catch—over the middle of course—at 5:31 gave LSU their first lead. Mississippi State responded positively by putting up some points before halftime, driving to the Tiger 26 before a holding call on a third down incompletion. LSU took the play and regretted it as the spot was in range for PK Devon Bell to hit a career-long 47 yard field goal, into a wind no less, at 48 seconds.
But that was more than enough time for LSU to trump three with seven, in no small part aided by the biggest Bulldog breakdowns of the evening. After finding Landry for 15 yards, Mettenberger hooked up with James Wright for 36 more to State’s 20-yard line. Mullen said a safety supposed to be in over-top coverage wasn’t there, much like on a big touchdown catch at Alabama. Before the half ran out back Spencer Ware got a step on LB Matthew Wells for the 20-yard touchdown at 20-10 halftime margin.
“It was huge,” Mullen said. “We went down and scored, and we were going to get the ball to start the second half. So we were in good position.”
The State position still had some positives despite having to quickly punt it away to open the third quarter. Because Tiger Odell Beckham fumbled and S Dee Arrington recovered at the 29-yard line. After WR Chris Smith was held on one pass Russell went to Bumphis in the end zone. “It was a corner route, and it was man-to-man and I beat it,” said Bumphis. The throw gave Russell the season touchdown pass record of 17, too.
But it was all the points the Bulldogs managed. The only other good chance came in the final quarter on a 13-play drive to reach the four-yard line with first down. But OG Tobias Smith jumped the hurried count and on second down under pressure Russell had to fire into traffic hoping Bumphis might come get it. Loston got there first.
Mullen shrugged the turnover/score off as taking a necessary chance. Otherwise he thought Russell had done his duty against a top-notch defense, throwing 26-of-38 for 295 yards and one score. “I put so much time into watching film this past week,” Russell said. “I knew what they were going to do before it even happened, so it was just go out there and take control and make plays. And we were able to do that at times.”
The other Bulldog touchdown pass was thrown by backup Dak Prescott, taking over for a first-and-goal on The Opening series. With LSU expecting the runner to run, Prescott play-faked while Green came open for the catch at 6:41.
But State mustered just 47 rushing yards on 24 carries, none by LaDarius Perkins who sat out the entire game after a mid-week quadriceps strain. RB Nick Griffin got his first start and rushed 11 times for 38 yards. Josh Robinson added 17 yards as a committee tried to fill Perkins’ place.
The receivers did it more successfully, as Russell threw a lot faster than the last two weekends and had targets to choose from. Bumphis had a career night of nine catches, for 140 yards and the touchdown. But WR Chris Smith had seven catches too, with 56 yards, and eight more Dogs caught a ball of some sort for 304 total gains. “I think it’s got a lot to do with Tyler and the ball placement,” said Bumphis. “We’ve got lot of trust in him, and he’s reading the defenses and putting the ball where it needs to be.”
Defensively LB Cameron Lawrence had a career-high 15 tackles, 11 of them assists, while S Nickoe Whitley added 13 stops. DE Denico Autry was a presence as well with a sack, another tackle for loss, and a forced fumble. But the only turnover forced was on special teams as nothing was intercepted for yet another week.
And to beat LSU in their lair, the Bulldogs needed to make some bigger breaks than they did. Mullen said there were few really glaring errors, beyond the costly coverage busts before halftime that really made the momentum move the wrong way. It was a whole lot of what he called the little things which negated a good deal of progress in other areas.
“But that’s going to be a big point,” Mullen said. “Good football teams continually improve throughout the year. They’re better in November than they were in September and October. And if we want to finish this and finish off what could be a good-to-great season, we need to improve this week and come out and perform at a higher level next Saturday.”