With Mississippi State’s lead slashed to 21-19 in the third quarter the Bulldogs needed something special to stave off upset-minded Kentucky. Opportunity arose after pass interference by the Wildcats had first down on the 17-yard line. A month earlier, against Troy, the State offense had followed up a big strike with gadgetry; a throwback from Lewis to QB Dak Prescott. It had worked perfectly for a 36-yard touchdown.
So, why not try again against a defense on its physical and emotional heels? Especially because, Lewis said, “We worked on that during practice during the bye week. And I’m thankful Coach gave me the opportunity to do it again.”
If anything this second time worked even better as Kentucky bit harder, everyone tracking Lewis after taking the flip from Prescott to the right side. Lewis stopped mid-sweep and fired back across to an entirely open Prescott. This was an easier throw too, not only from the lack of any pressure but righthander Lewis was turning his body into the toss. Against Troy he’d been going against and almost left it too low.
Prescott did have one Wildcat to beat to the goal but did, diving across for what proved Mississippi State’s margin of 28-22 victory. “I don’t know what they saw,” Lewis said. “But I waited patiently, I knew it was going to be a touchdown. We had another one (called) but didn’t run it, but I’m glad they called it and I’m glad we executed.”
TRIPLE THREAT PT. II: This wasn’t the only excellent execution combining Lewis and Prescott. In both the first and second quarters, Prescott gave his receiver/runner the ball for touchdowns. The first was on an option-sweep where Lewis had to run a very long way to first catch, then pass his quarterback just to get the pitch. TE Brandon Hill took care of two defenders at one time to spring Lewis clear for the 19-yard score.
The other touchdown was a perfect play-action number by Prescott with Lewis getting open in the end zone for a 17-yard connection. So the Lewis line-score showed him scoring in all three offensive fashions, just as he’d done in the Troy game.
“Did he do that again today?” asked Coach Dan Mullen afterwards. “He ran for a touchdown, caught a touchdown, and threw for a touchdown. How about that, how many guys have done that twice in a season?”
The coach’s question wasn’t just rhetorical. In that Troy game Lewis and Prescott combined to make SEC history as both scored offensive touchdowns those three ways. League team records show it had never before been done twice in any game by the same SEC team, and NCAA records aren’t clear here. So maybe Lewis did achieve a season standard of some sort.
But it’s nothing more than the junior wideout expects of himself. “I feel natural because in high school I played quarterback. So to run the ball is no problem with me, and catching the ball. I’ve just been playing football my whole life, I just know how to utilize everything and do it to the best of my ability.”
Lewis ended the evening with 121 all-purpose yards and three scoring plays though just two of the touchdowns go into his personal account. Even so he has now accounted for nine touchdowns this season and is the only NCAA player with four or more via receiving, three or more rushing, and two or more passing.
The only thing missing to Mullen was a complete repeat of the Troy feats. “I wish we could have had Dak get a rushing touchdown,” the coach said, “We would have hit it again. It would be the double-double, we were the first to do it the last time. I bet we’d be the only team ever to do it in the same season. Dak’s got to run harder, go break some tackles!”
TAKING CHARGE: Or just evade a few, as Prescott was sacked three times for net loss of 37 yards. That was over half his 70 yards’ gained on 13 other carries, planned or not. But the sophomore more than made up for any lapses on the ground with career highs of 34 throws, 23 catches, for 268 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Yet, Prescott said, he and the offense ought to have been better. Especially so after holding a 21-10 halftime lead, because the Bulldogs once again struggled after intermission. “We just kind of missed a few plays, missed some blocks up front, and missed some reads as quarterbacks,” he said. “It’s something we’ve got to do better and fix, and we’ll do that. But we picked it back up again.” Meaning the clutch touchdown drive after Kentucky cut it too close for comfort.
Prescott correctly said ‘quarterbacks’ because senior Tyler Russell did take his rotation turn, for the third series. It got off to a good start but on 3rd-and-1 State used an odd formation, the backfield empty, and Russell back in the shotgun. Called or checked, he ran for the left (short) side of the field and was sacked on what was the last play of his night.
“He came in and sprained his ankle,” Mullen said. Indeed Russell had the left foot and ankle heavily taped after halftime, making mobility tough. “The trainers said he could got but he’s limping, he was available for us but Tyler and I talked. He said Coach I could go back in but I’m not 100% right now. It kind of made it an easy decision to go with Dak.”
EJECTED: The officiating crew made a decision for State when after drawing two conduct penalties in a four-snap stretch S Nickoe Whitley was ejected in the second quarter. Both fouls came in pileups, and the second meant automatic dismissal for the rest of the game. Mullen didn’t argue, instead going right to the senior free safety for a short talk.
“We’ll look at it,” he said. “That’s not acceptable, obviously. It’s not something I condone. I’m extremely disappointed, and it hurt the team as well. One, he’s not playing, two it gave them 30 yards.” Yards the Wildcats used to get in field goal position for the 21-10 score and renewed halftime hopes.
“Take that field goal away and they’re down two scores at the end,” Mullen said. “And from a fifth-year player. I didn’t see either of the penalties but we’ve got great officials in this league.” And by coincidence, the SEC’s director of officials Steve Shaw was at the game.
Whitley did last long enough to make three tackles, giving him 202 for his college career.
KICKED AROUND: An open date spent addressing his technical issues didn’t help PK Devon Bell’s accuracy. He missed a 47-yarder on the last second-quarter snap after an impressive and short drive by the offense to get within what should be routine SEC range. The kick had no lack of leg but was lined to the left. Bell is now 5-of-11 on the struggling season.
It wasn’t a lost game for the sophomore; he seems to have taken over as the ‘long’ punter now and took three shots at it with a fine 41.7-yard average. Veteran P Baker Swedenburg averaged 36.0 on his two punts, one intentionally put high for coverage but the other hit too low and returnable.
Yet, Bell had another breakdown. After an 18-yard sacking of Prescott left fourth down at the four-yard line Bell was receiving the snap inches inside the back line. Winston Chapman’s delivery was flawless, but Bell just dropped it. He did make the best of a bad situation by recovering and stepping out for a safety rather than risking a turnover and touchdown.
Using the placekicker to punt was based on practice performance, the coach said. “He had a great week kicking all-around in the bye week,” Mullen said. “He was 27-of-28 on field goals. And he actually punted much better than Baker did.” But, “He did drop that snap. There’s a lot of little learning things for him. We have to look at what puts us in the best position.”
DECISIONS, DECISIONS: In the last game, Mullen said his call to run a play on 4th-and-3 at the Bowling Green was not related to Bell’s problems. This game with 4th-and-9 at the 33, there was no question of kicking, though “You saw on the early field goal into the wind he had plenty of distance, just missed it,” Mullen said. “But that’s a tough situation to go put him in out there.” Instead State tried to pass and took a sack giving Kentucky a better chance from their 42 with two minutes and a timeout.
Actually Mullen didn’t lay the blame on the failed fourth down. “I didn’t like my play call there, that last drive those last two plays are really on me and not our offense.” Having got the ball at 8:09 and converted three third downs to the Wildcat 34, State only made Kentucky use one timeout in four plays. The sack was blatant but it was a third-down incompletion which left too much time.
“We’ve got to do a better job in those situations,” Mullen said. “I’m pretty critical of things and one thing I definitely can evaluate is me, because I don’t have to watch the film to evaluate myself. I didn’t like my play calls there at the end of the game.”
BENCHED BULLDOGS: Two regulars in their respective rotations missed Thursday entirely. WR Brandon Holloway showed up in a boot and did not dress. DT Quay Evans was not in uniform either. “He was suspended, for team rules,” Mullen said. As to the soph’s availability at South Carolina, “We’ll see going forward.”
AND, ACTIVATED ROOKIES: Not benched for game-seven were a pair of true freshmen, who made surprising college debuts. Impressive, too. TE Artimas Samuel not only played but caught one of the key passes of the evening, a 28-yarder from Prescott that led to the throwback touchdown in the third quarter after Kentucky had changed momentum their way.
Even more interesting was the use of a true frosh lineman, as Jamaal Clayborn entered in the second quarter in place of RG Ben Beckwith who has had some injury issues since the LSU game. Beckwith himself has taken the place of season-starter Justin Malone, out with a serious foot injury.
“I probably should have played those guys sooner, with as many injuries as we’ve had this year,” Mullen said. “Season ending injuries, long term injuries. So I probably should have pulled those redshirts sooner and put these guys in there so they’d be better prepared for this time.” Yet the newest varsity Dogs didn’t look a bit unprepared; other linemen drew holding or procedure penalties but Clayborn did his job without incident. And Samuel gave State a true big tight end that has been missing from a multiple-receiver scheme so far this season.
“I give them credit, they stepped in,” Mullen said. “Artimas made a huge catch, I think some pretty good blocking. Jamaal, I didn’t see a lot of glaring errors on his part. There’s some real big learning steps he has to take moving forward, but I give them both credit. They came in and played and did a pretty good job.”
State has now played nine true freshmen from the 2013 signing class.
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: Senior OG Gabe Jackson made his 46th-straight start, the most of any under Dan Mullen at State…New, or rather returning, starters for this week were LT Blaine Clausell, DE Preston Smith, and CB Taveze Calhoun. They were starting in place of game-six starters OT Justin Senior, DT Chris Jones, and CB Justin Cox…TE Rufus Warren got his first college catch, a 23-yard number before halftime. Though, the redshirt frosh also committed two ill-timed penalties in the third quarter on the same drive…LB Deontae Skinner had a career-best 11 tackles, while MLB Benardrick McKinney had 10 stops to stay one ahead in the season totals 46 to 45…Mississippi State’s win over Kentucky was the fifth-straight, the first time either program has won five consecutive in the series…Mullen is now 9-3 against SEC East teams…The Bulldogs won their first Thursday night SEC game since the 2001 Egg Bowl, snapping a seven-loss streak…State came in 13th in SEC third-down conversions and made good on 10-of-18…State gave up a safety for the first time since the 2008 Alabama game.