Mississippi State had hoped debuting against a ranked opponent would make a strong opening statement on the 2013 campaign. Instead the Bulldogs return home with much to think about and more to work on before they can think of their conference schedule.
"But this is the first game, we've got a whole season ahead of us and we can't let this game determine our season," said WR Jameon Lewis.
Coach Dan Mullen was able to thank Classic organizers for the opportunity, and even talk about positives he saw from the sideline. "It was a great experience for our guys," he said. "It's really neat to play in this big of a game and to really see where you're at as a football team."
That isn't what frustrated State fans want to hear one Saturday into the season. But Mullen was speaking to his team. And some veteran Bulldogs who've been through season cycles were hearing him. Perkins, for one, who was last to leave the locker room and first to suggest he'd like a do-over.
"I feel we played a pretty good team, but I feel we could have beat those guys. We just didn't execute on our level. I feel if we played again we'll beat them. We played with great effort, everybody played hard. We have to cut the mistakes out."
Perkins' positivism came primarily from the first quarter, because for a period the Bulldogs had the game under something like control. They produced 148 yards on 22 snaps and owned the ball 11:12. Those figures met and even exceeded highest hopes of how to control Oklahoma State's frenzied tempo attack: keep them on their sideline.
Yet it was failure to put up more points than a Devon Bell field goal, at 8:38 on the opening possession, which negated just about all the good deeds done. Once the Cowboys found something like their usual stride, no kick was going to suffice for margin of victory.
"I give Oklahoma State a lot of credit," Mullen said. "They found a way, dealt with some adversity early on, found a way to score some points and win the game." Not a lot of points by OSU standards, as they were held to their lowest total since 2009 and less than half their 2012 average. It was plenty as State's first-quarter efficiency evaporated. After eight plays of ten or more yards in that period, the Dogs had just five the rest of the day.
"I thought we did a great job early in the game," Mullen said of the offense. "We just didn't capitalize on things, and we started making some mistakes." State also stopped going for some of the strikes that worked so well initially. Some had to do with Cowboy defensive tweaks; some with Bulldog blocking that didn't, not very often as Oklahoma State took control at the line of scrimmage.
And some, Mullen blamed on himself and staff. "I should have done a better job taking shots down the field," he said.
Whether this would have worked out could be debated given how the Cowboy defensive front mauled their MSU opponents. Also Mullen acknowledged that his wide receiver group, all new to starting and some new to college football period, were trying to take on some experienced defensive backs. What they learned will accelerate development for SEC season but on opening day the difference showed. Stronger Cowboy pressure and coverage alike took QB Tyler Russell out of his early rhythm…and then a fluke knee to the head at 2:50 of the third quarter took him out of the game entirely.
Mullen said Russell, who was woozy on the sideline, was responsive afterwards but he couldn't update ht exact condition for another day or so. Russell was 6-of-10 passing the first quarter for 78 yards and a fluke interception as Perkins let a swing-pass go off his hand and into those of Cowboy Justin Gilbert. He finished 10-of-16 for 133 yards with the one pick and two sacks.
QB Dak Prescott was 7-of-17 for 89 yards with a fourth-quarter interception that only meant State wouldn't get any more points. He was sacked once but the biggest tackles were on third-and-shorts that in 2012 were his specialty. The Cowboys caught him both times, caving-in any blocking and stopping series."
"Those were big to the game and those were tough, not being able to convert," Prescott said. "I think that put a little dent in the offense right there." The real dent was a 2-of-16 afternoon on all third downs. "That's terrible," Mullen said. OSU was 8-of-14 by contrast.
Even so it took most of a half before the Cowboy offense showed some life against a Dog defense that had prepared well, and was well-rested in the early going watching long series eat up the clock. Taking over at 3:49 the Cowboys needed six plays to finally score and only three mattered, all keepers by alternate quarterback J.W. Walsh. On 3rd-and-1 he ran left and outside, breaking clear for 46 yards down to the Dog 14. It worked so well Walsh did the same for another eleven yards, then on 2nd-and-goal he did it again to the same side, same way, and for a touchdown at 2:16.
"They did a great job executing that series of plays," defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. Mullen said State had prepared for both Walsh and starter Clint Chelf but the zone-read caught the defense slow on the edge.
"I don't think they changed their gameplan all that much, they just found some success on some things and I don't think we adjusted fast enough to it."
S Nickoe Whitley blocked a Cowboy field goal on the last play of the first half, and CB Taveze Calhoun's return of the carom came up ten yards short of the end zone. But OSU had first turn of the last half and used it for a 11-play drive directed by Walsh. Even after having a touchdown catch overruled as the receiver didn't touch down fair, the Cowboys weren't stopping. Josh Strewart took it down to the one-yard line where Jeremy Smith could do the touchdown honors at 10:41.
State did stop another long third-quarter drive, on a fourth down, but the Cowboys got it back before the quarters turned. When they change direction it was to complete a 82-yard drive with Smith bouncing off traffic and taking the left sideline route for a 20-yard touchdown rush. He finished with 102 yards and two scores on 15 carries, while Walsh netted a game-best 125 yards on 13 runs with a touchdown. Walsh also threw for 135 yards on 18-of-27 passing. Starter Chelf was just 3-of-6 for 11 yards.
Perkins looked on his way to a huge day with 60 yards his first nine touches. He ended up losing a net of 11 on the next seven carries. RB Josh Robinson ran for 48 on eight chances. Lewis and TE Malcolm Johnson led the receivers with 55 yards each.
But nothing reached the opposing end zone, making an eight-minute MSU edge in possession time moot. State also had 11 penalties, for 74 yards, as well as the "terrible" third down production. And it had all begun so well…
In practically the same breath Mullen could speak of both the first-game mistakes, and big-game mistakes such as penalties, missed assignments, and so on; and then praise his team's effort and defensive adjustments. The messages were certainly more mixed than the final score but the coach wanted to see the positives. Or at least what he called "fixable issues, things we can get corrected."
Issues which included coaching, Mullen made clear. "We can do a better job as coaches, I can do a better job of making sure we're getting in the right situations, making adjustments faster and better. And we can do some other things to get this cleaned up for next week. (I'm) really, overall excited about our team and the type of season we can have." He clearly said the same things to his teams, as proven by Perkins' and Lewis' comments and looking-ahead to a home opener with Alcorn State at 2:30.
"We have to clean it up in practice this week," Perkins said. "We talked in the locker room, everybody is juiced about practice this week, playing in front of our home crowd. We just have to make sure we get this W."