They being host and 11-ranked Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2 SEC) which did have the bigger numbers in Kyle Field lights. Not by a huge margin compared to other Aggie outings this season. But 51-41 was sufficient margin for SEC victory despite an unexpectedly prolific day for the Mississippi State (4-5, 1-4) offense.
“Give Texas A&M a lot of credit,” Mullen said. “Obviously they’ve got a lot of big-time playmakers and those guys made a lot of plays. They made a couple more big plays than we did.”
Plays really were made by both offenses, sometimes even by the overwhelmed defenses, and all over Kyle Field. Final tallies of 92 points, of 1,093 total yards, and 157 snaps-from-scrimmage kept everyone on edge. Not to mention in the stands, as few of the announced 88,504 left early. Partly it was the well-earned Aggie reputation for home-field loyalty. Partly, and obviously, it was the thrill-a-minute or often half-minute manner exciting plays came.
And over all of this was the potential for watching the final home game by Johnny Manziel. The third-year sophomore didn’t take part in any senior day activities, but with his possible early draft departure looming this was almost his day to take the bow over any upperclassman.
Manziel didn’t disappoint.
“He’s probably one-of-a-kind,” said FS Nickoe Whitley. “Just his ability to move around outside the pocket and make plays.” Lots and lots and lots of plays. Manziel tied his personal and program mark by throwing five touchdowns out of the 30 completed passes, with 446 yards. He also rushed for 47 yards though taking knees at the end knocked him just under the 500 personal total.
And it felt like even more to a dazed Dog defense. “They have a good team and he’s a good player,” OLB Matthew Wells said. “He’s just able to make things happen with his feet and he was good at making plays longer, extending the play and making big plays.”
Which was exactly what State feared. The Bulldog defense figured they could handle or at least slow down A&M’s designed offensive plays, and in a large part they did. The Aggies were only (by their standards only) 6-of-13 on third downs, and even had a few three-and-out series.
All the good defense did was force Manziel into his ideal element, doing things no scheme can account for. “You think you’ve got him a lot of times, and he slips out of there,” Whitley said. This factored into the purely explosive series by A&M. None of their scoring series needed more than six snaps.
“What he brings to the table, which is so hard to defend, is improvising outside of the framework of the offense,” Mullen said. “At times our defense played really well, we stopped their offense. We just didn’t stop him.”
This free-lancing approach works not only because the quarterback can keep, but his receivers kept moving while plays extended. Usually, finding open ground where Manziel could find them. Travis Labhart and Malcome Kennedy each caught a pair of touchdowns with 102 and 96 yards respectively, while league-leading wideout Mike Evans had a relatively low-key day of five balls for 116 yards and no scores. Backs Ben Malena and Trey Williams added a rushing touchdown apiece.
The Mississippi State offense provided their share of the show, though. And if his numbers couldn’t compare to Manziel, the effort by QB Dak Prescott was maybe more remarkable for it. A week after the death of his mother, sophomore Prescott came off the bench and took over the game. He rushed for a career-high 154 yards on 16 chances and was sacked just once, while throwing for 149 yards on 14-of-26 completions with two scores and an interception.
Prescott did not start, mostly from the personal stresses of the week-past as well as missing the primary practice days. There wasn’t any rust showing. “I know he’s been going through a lot, we just tried to keep him up and play for Dak,” WR De’Runnya Wilson said. True freshman Wilson certainly did with a team-high seven catches and 75 yards. That included a nine-yard touchdown thrown by starting QB Tyler Russell with 2:19 left, as Prescott was hit hard on the left shoulder during the drive and came out a play later.
Russell was 8-of-14 himself for 77 yards and the touchdown. Seven receivers caught two or more balls with touchdowns from WR Joe Morrow and RB LaDarius Perkins. RB Josh Robinson gained 73 yards on six carries, 51 of that on State’s first touchdown.
Odd though it seemed later, neither team scored on the first turn as both went three-and-through. The Bulldogs could have gotten first blood by driving to A&M’s 36 with 4th-and-one, but Perkins was caught for a loss. The Aggies struck six plays later after five double-digit gainers with Kennedy scooting up the slot while MLB Benardrick McKinney had to decide to hold his assigned spot or drop. He stayed and Kennedy went into the end zone for the 12-yard catch.
The lead was regained not by offense or defense, but when Sam Moeller used a missed block—“A guy went the wrong way,” Mullen said—to stuff P Devon Bell’s punt in the MSU end zone for a safety. A&M took the free kick and turned it into a 16-7 lead before the quarter ended with a 33-yard catch by Labhart.
That safety kept A&M in front in the second quarter when given a short field after a punt and penalty, the Dogs needed go just 35 yards to score. Perkins ran 20 yards down to the two, and on second down Prescott lunged forward, stopped, and jump-passed to Wilson. But there were 54 seconds still on the clock. The Aggies needed just 38 of them to score in four huge plays, with a 41-yard strike to wide-open Derel Walker before Labhart sliced just ahead of Whitley for the catch at 0:16. Quick as that it was a 23-14 halftime.
“It was a bust in one of the plays that got a big game,” Wells said. “It takes a little bit out of you. But you have to keep fighting, which we did.”
And the Dogs as Love got his second interception of the game by catching a ball off the hands of Aggie Walker. But all that came of it was a 40-yard field goal try by PK Evan Sobiesk, blocked. A&M rode the reversal of fortune into a 77-yard drive with Manziel and Kennedy combining for the last 21 at 7:34. Which only ignited further third-quarter fireworks. Whitley’s interception had State starting on the four-yard line, and going on a season-long 96-yard drive capped by Perkins’ touchdown catch at 0:44. A two-point try failed and that would loom very large later.
For the moment A&M made it seem moot. Evans lost coverage for a 75-yard catch and run to the Bulldog 15, with Williams bolting up the middle for a 37-20 lead. Yet Prescott ran 44 yards on the last play of the third quarter, and the reverse-pass play worked once again for State. This time WR Jameon Lewis threw for a receiver, not Prescott, and Morrow caught the 15-yard touchdown.
And more craziness was to come as Williams returned the kickoff 97 yards. But he chose to dive across the goal and this netted an unsportsmanlike penalty of 15 yards to negate his touchdown. No problem as Manziel ran to the two and threw to Nehemiah Hicks for the rest at 13:54. And the game seemed entirely iced after linebacker Daeshon Hall jumped up where Prescott didn’t expect for an interception. Malena made it 51-27 with a two-yard dive.
But Prescott wasn’t done, directing a ten-play drive that almost ended on the ninth as he ran for 17 yards and seemed to vault the pylon. Replay forced another snap with Perkins jumping the goal at 6:45, then Prescott running it in for the two-pointer. And when State got the ball back the needed just three minutes and a change of quarterbacks towards the end to pull within ten on Russell’s throw to Wilson. But Russell didn’t have Prescott’s running prowess and was stopped on a two-point keeper.
So the Aggies had a two-score margin to work with and ran out all but the last 31 seconds before punting. Russell’s last pass wasn’t caught and mercifully the clock operator let the remaining two ticks go so everyone could leave at last. Not that many had.
Mullen could count-off the breakdowns and busts, not least in the kicking plays, which offset so much good work. The Bulldogs won the turnover margin, three interceptions to one; had one more first down; and if measured in how called plays produced were presumably better in offensive execution. That long-ago slip by Perkins on fourth down was interesting in retrospect, as were the blocked field goal and a mix-up on the first two-point attempt where no receiver was near the throw to a spot but three Aggies were.
“When you’re on the road playing #11 in the country you’re going to have to take advantage of every opportunity,” Mullen. “We knew we were going to have to score a lot of points. They scored more.”
“I’m proud of the way our kids fight. There’s nothing about losing a game, so no moral anything. But I’m proud of the way our guys battled for four quarters and continued to fight and believe. We’re going to need that down the stretch, we have a bunch of tough games still ahead of us.”