Most pre-game attention is on offense, with speculations of quarterbacking. But way over on the…
Actually Prescott appeared to have run for a touchdown too, until his fourth-quarter dive to the left pylon was reviewed and the ball put back on the one-yard line. RB LaDarius Perkins got that handoff and score, as the Texas A&M defense clearly was looking for a quarterback keeper. Just, apparently, as they had been thinking when Prescott entered midway of the first quarter for his first snap. The Aggies, having seen Russell two series, adjusted the defense a little for the run-threat quarterback.
Prescott instead handed to RB Josh Robinson on a counter that cracked left guard and turned into a 51-yard dash, Mississippi State's first touchdown of an explosive offensive evening. Of the six touchdowns State scored, five came with Prescott in the shotgun (or once from under-center for a change to give Perkins that TD chance). Russell accounted for the sixth and last with a perfect lob-throw to WR De'Runnya Wilson.
Though Prescott hadn't started this one, "We decided to stick with Dak," Mullen said. "At halftime he'd led us to two touchdown drives and was leading us down the field." Plus, the head coach said, the Aggies had shifted their tactics slightly after Robinson's initial big break which only opened up the field for a running quarterback more.
"They were giving us some tailback runs a lot early and it seemed they wanted to take away the tailback but not the quarterback as the game went on. In that situation Dak is the better option for us there. He also was going to give us some good play-action."
This performance was all the more outstanding to those who understood how hard the week had been for the 20-year-old. The Sunday death and Wednesday funeral of mother Peggy Prescott cast a pall on the whole program, with Mullen, some staff and a few teammates making the mid-week trip to Louisiana for services. To the coach, the hardest part for Prescott might have been what happened upon leaving Kyle Field. Or not happened, rather.
"He has a lot of family that came to support him this game. He's going to have to go through a lot of tough things right now. But he's also got to walk out of the locker room tonight and his Mom is not going to be there. But we're here for him, and he's got a great family and very supportive." Mrs. Prescott had been a familiar post-game face to Bulldogs, so they too would have noticed an absence.
Playing the game itself? "That's where he's most comfortable," Mullen said. "His Mom was a huge football fan, loved it. I'm sure she was upset he missed two practices this week. But to go through what he had to go through, come out and perform, I'm proud of him. Dak is an amazing young man beyond being a football player. And a man most parents would be proud if their kids grew up that way."
Teammates were proud how their partner played under the stresses, of course. "I was screaming in pregame play for Dak, play for each other," said WR De'Runnya Wilson. "The performance he had, he trusted in us to get the job done and as wide receivers we did."
There was some suspicion game-morning Mullen might even start Prescott, to help the young man's mind. Practically though, the coach figured to start steady senior Russell. "One, Dak did miss two days of practice, especially the first-down day we put in all that stuff. Tyler had a couple more reps during the week, we feel really good about Tyler and his ability to start and what he's done for us. And I thought part of it, take a little bit of pressure off of him, let the game get going. Not just from snap-one, let him catch his breath a little bit."
The question now regards how hurt Prescott might have been after taking the late-game hit and landing hard on the left shoulder. He was with the trainers and did not meet with media. Mullen could not say post-game, and won't be able to update officially until Monday afternoon's press conference.
"But that's the benefit of the other guy, part of the reason you play both guys early. The other guy is in the flow of the game. And Tyler is very experienced."
BEAR-ING DOWN: Russell certainly showed this when he laid out a lovely lob on 2nd-and-goal at the Aggie nine, that the 6-5 Wilson was able to go over a shorter defensive back and grab just as designed. This was something the true freshman and basketball prospect was signed to provide State's offense, and his second touchdown of the year. Both have come against top-15 SEC opponents, too, LSU and A&M, which hints at Wilson's unlimited potential.
Maybe more impressive was a first half catch where Wilson had to reach out and down for a low throw, get the ball under control and tuck in time for contact. That too is something Mullen's offenses have lacked…up to now it seems. High or low, ‘Bear' Wilson led with seven catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns, the other coming on Prescott's jump-pass in the second quarter.
Looking for the rookie? Yeah, one could say so. But redshirt frosh Fred Brown made an awfully touch catch of his own, turning barely in time to find the ball almost in his ribs already and making the first of his three grabs. And while WR Joe Morrow had one embarrassing miss (see later) he also executed perfectly on a reverse-throw (also later).
"All week Coach told us big-time players make big-time plays," said Wilson. This game some of the big-play prowess was showing, in a bigger way that bodes better for balancing the offense.
"Coach told us all year about us having accountability and trust," Wilson said. "Dak and Tyler counted on me to go out and make the play. They trusted in me and I trusted in them to throw the ball."
Saturday was a big break-out of sorts for Wilson. He had two catches in each of the first two games, but in the next six contests just six balls caught. That, Wilson exceeded in an afternoon at A&M. It's part of the process, he said, as Wilson is still working on becoming a true football player and not just an athlete. "Every day I learn something new. My hard work and determination have put me at a high level, I just try to do the little things and that takes care of the big things."
LOOKING LONGER: Speaking of big things, Prescott's stat-line would have looked even better—and the game might have been different—had two of his best throws all day been caught. As noted before, Morrow had a baffling bust in the third quarter. He got wide-open about 15 yards down and out and Prescott fired for the right spot. Morrow miss-timed his steps or messed-up his turn or whatever, and didn't get there for the easy catch.
More memorable and frustrating though was a first period play that could have really impacted the rest of the game. With State on their own 11-yard line after a CB Jamerson Love interception, it was second and long. WR Brandon Holloway showed his speed by beating his defender down the left sideline. Prescott picked up the chance and fired to where Holloway's pace should have put him, except for whatever reason the freshman slowed a couple of steps. Holloway tried to regain stride but could only get a few fingers on the perfect toss that would have gone for an 89-yard touchdown.
Though that play didn't produce, it did show something just now developing in State's passing game: a genuine goal of going ‘vertical' as fans call it, or ‘taking shots' as Mullen prefers. It isn't the core to the passing attack, certainly not when Prescott is at quarterback…but the signs of bigger things are there.
Besides, "Sometimes you have to take big shots down the field," said Wilson. "We did that today and we executed on a lot of plays."
PICK AND CHOOSE: Love's interception itself could have changed the game, had A&M passer Johnny Manziel thrown the 3rd-and-6 shot at the goal line normally. Running to his left, Manziel put a little air under it and his receiver had to jump. As did Love who'd gotten inside position, and made the catch instead. Had it been a lower-trajectory throw Love would have been running the other way immediately with a good chance of going 99 yards. Instead receiver Derek Walker dragged him down on the eight.
Love came up with a second interception in the third quarter, literally up as Walker had a throw go off his hands and the ball land in Love's as he was on the turf in the perfect spot. It was Love's third interception of the season, along with his 70-yard pick-six in the Troy game; and a two-fer day gives him four career.
FS Nickoe Whitley ‘only' had one interception Saturday but it was a good one too. In the third quarter he was able to rotate over in support when Manziel fired for favorite target Mike Evans, and come away with an interception at the goal line.
On this first-down play from the Bulldog 31-yard line, Whitley's preparation paid off. "I knew he was going there. When he was making his check I knew if he was looking out one way he was going to come back to 13 (Evans) on this side. And he did." Of course it helped, in an obviously ironic way, that this was a play Manziel did not free-lance but stuck to a called play. Those, the Dogs defended reasonably well.
Whitley's pick gave him 14 for the career, which leaves the senior two short of the MSU record shared by former teammate Johnthan Banks (2009-12) and Walt Harris (1992-95) of 16. Not, Whitley claimed, that he's counting.
"I try to stay out of the media and don't really pay attention to it!" he said. Which is at least half-true, as this was the first time since August the senior had been interviewed.
Whitley is tied for the active NCAA career interceptions lead.
STEPPING IN: An undisclosed injury to LB Deontae Skinner kept the senior from dressing for this game. Instead of moving an available veteran into the outside position, though, Coach Geoff Collins gave redshirt freshman Beniquez Brown the job. He finished with four tackles in his first college start.
"We wish he could have played his game," OLB Matthew Wells said of Skinner. "But we all can fit in at any moment and play the position and I think Beniquez did a great job tonight filling in. And Chris Jones did a great job helping us at that position also."
Not at linebacker; Jones stayed at the line of scrimmage. But this true freshman was obviously on A&M minds. Jones lined up at end, at tackle, and a couple of times over the nose in a three-man front. Everywhere he went he drew doubled attention, and if Jones netted just three tackles (one solo, two assists) his impact was apparent.
HE'S PERFECT: Somewhere a stat-computer is smoking, calculating the ‘quarterback rating' of Bulldog receiver Jameon Lewis. For the third time this junior season the receiver/runner threw a pass, and for the third time it went for a touchdown.
But where his other two touchdowns were tossed to on a throwback Prescott, this time Lewis looked elsewhere. Prescott did make the initial pitch as Lewis ran left-to-right, and the quarterback did go out around left end to draw attention from a A&M defense that had scouted this play. But Lewis wasn't looking backwards, he was watching downfield where Morrow had gone down the right numbers into the end zone.
Lewis caught just two passes of his own, a slow day by his season standards. But he also came to life at last in punt return work, netting 36 yards in four chances. He'd come into the game with a minus-two yards all season on ten chances. Plus, on two of his kick returns Lewis was facemasked for even better Bulldog field positions. In fact half of A&M's ten penalties came on a kicking play of some sort.
KICKING UP A FUSS: Aggies issues paled compared to State's ongoing woes in the kicking game(s). The Bulldogs missed another field goal, this time by PK Evan Sobiesk as his 40-yard try was deflected at the line. He is 2-of-3 now on the season, while former starter Devon Bell was 5-of-11.
"That was about on the edge," Mullen said, which also says much about MSU's lack of confidence in what ought be a routine range at this level. Regardless, "I think we gave a little penetration, with a little of a low kick," said Mullen. "I was looking at Evan and said with the wind factor, we're right on the edge. He said I thought I hit it real good Coach and I think he did. He (the blocker) timed the jump really well and got a hand on it."
More painful was a second safety this season on an end-zone punt. Though this time the ball wasn't dropped by P Devon Bell, he hit it fine. He just had no chance at all as protection had vanished. "I know the punt block issue, we had a guy go the wrong way," Mullen said, without ID'ing the guilty party. "When they're bringing the house and somebody goes the wrong way you should block the punt, their kid was unblocked through the middle of the hole."
And worst of all was A&M's huge kickoff return just after the Bulldogs had made it a 37-27 scoreboard in the fourth quarter. Aggie Trey Williams fielded at his three and went all the way back across State's goal…though he chose to dive the last couple of yards for show. And a flag, as under rules officials could take away the touchdown and penalize 15 yards from the perceived spot of takeoff.
That only delayed the Aggie score by 59 seconds and three snaps. Just as State was getting in position for a real rally, breakdown in coverage kept the home team in charge. "That last kickoff return we had a couple of missed tackles, it looked like we had guys in position to make the play, give them credit they made the play and we didn't," Mullen said.
State also kept a A&M series going in the third quarter by roughing the punter. Mullen thought it was a roll-out punt which makes roughing semi-legal, but it wasn't called so and the kicker was hit hard after unloading. This mistake was erased on Love's second interception but Mullen had another kicking game gaffe to review in a very, very long 2013 list.
"It was huge, some of the special teams errors."
TROUBLE TIME: Just as huge was something all-too-familiar for State. Less than a minute before halftime, taking advantage of a A&M return-team facemasking of Lewis, the Dogs went 30 yards to make it a 16-14 score. But, there was 0:54 still on the clock. And anyone who'd seen this squad in similar settings understood press box quips that ‘too much time' had been left.
Four plays later it was 23-14 as the Aggies scored with 16 ticks to spare. The key play was a 41-yard pass to an open receiver when State had eight in coverage and three rushing. The most frustrating fact was, this wasn't new or even all that surprising. It was the fifth time the ‘two minute' defense had allowed points on the opponents' chance before intermission, beginning back on opening day when Oklahoma State got a touchdown at 2:16.
Since then scores have come at 0:17 LSU (touchdown), 0:00 Bowling Green (field goal), 0:31 Kentucky (field goal), and now the Aggies. "Obviously giving up the points right before halftime was a huge momentum killer," Mullen said. "It's probably cost us a couple of wins this year. It's a huge aspect on the season for us."
"That's really hurt us all season. We gave up the two-minute score at Auburn that cost us that game. Maybe that's a coaching issue, I'm going to have to really study what we're doing, how its working, why that appears to be our Achilles heel. We make two minute stops, maybe we have the reversal of fortune with Auburn and maybe we're playing Alabama for the West title and national championship opportunity. Obviously there's a lot more than that but that is something that has been a big factor for us this season."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: RB LaDarius Perkins had his first two-score game of the season, and his first rushing touchdown against a SEC opponent as a senior…WR Joe Morrow caught his first college touchdown pass…DT P.J. Jones got his first career sack with a 12-yard dropping of Manziel…MLB Benardrick McKinney has notched sacks in consecutive SEC games…QB Tyler Russell has 43 career touchdowns-responsible for, putting him alone in third-place all-time at MSU…State's 566 total yards were the most in a SEC game under Mullen…The four touchdown passes tied for the most in a Mullen SEC game…The 21 fourth-quarter points were the most of his tenure at State in any context…QB Dak Prescott's two-point play was the first successful two-pointer by MSU since 2006, against Tulane.