The visiting Golden Eagles saw quite enough, thank you. And, likely left Scott Field wondering if renewing a long-dormant series was a wise idea after all. Mississippi State did not merely win the first meeting since 1990, the Bulldogs utterly dominated. By halftime the 28-0 margin had media scouring the record book, and the final sent everyone way back.
All the way to the first time these schools played, under different names when State (or A&M back then) took a 27-0 shutout. Not until this evening was either side blanked again, and the 49 points were second only to the 51 State scored in a 1970 home victory. It was MSU’s first shutout win of any sort since 1999 against South Carolina, and the first home-debut blanking of a visitor since Vanderbilt the year before.
And for very good measure, this particular whitewash coincided with Mississippi State’s grand re-opening of expanded Davis Wade Stadium. The two-year process was worth the wait, obviously so because despite heavy afternoon and pre-game rains and a little distant lightning a new record crowd of 61,889 packed a facility officially listing capacity at 61,337. That is what opening a refreshed venue does for a fan base.
Lambasting an in-state opponent? That was the cake under all the icing for Coach Dan Mullen. “I’m proud of our team today, proud of the way we came out and played the opening game of the season.”
”We also had a fantastic crowd tonight. They were electric, our students and fan base were unbelievable.”
Count Southern Mississippi as believing converts. The visitors did not just roll over though; they were bowled over on both sides of the line. The Eagle offense mustered 282 yards and even held a four-minute edge in possession. Their defense came away with a fumble and a picked pass, and twice kept State from scoring points at point-blank range which would have made the rout that much more thorough.
But a game effort was overshadowed the same way their lineups were, compared to the bigger, stronger, SEC cousins who also had an edge in speed and…well, most everything that mattered. Not least because State’s staff had Southern scouted. “We pretty much knew what to expect,” said Robinson, who rushed for a team-best 87 yards and caught three balls for 49 more. Those ‘highs’ showed how well-balanced the Bulldog attack was.
And, generally, how in-control State was all evening. “And every time (momentum) started to slip, our guys did a great job,” Mullen said.
In his mind, QB Dak Prescott did a good enough job; 18-of-26 passing with four touchdowns to tie a school record, and a career-best 284 yards. Against it, he threw one un-forced interception in the end zone before halftime, and took a couple of sacks waiting for a big play to develop.
“I think I played well in the passing game, something I wanted to get better at. I have to eliminate the turnovers in the red zone but I feel it was alright for the first game.” Better than alright as he spread the ball around to backs, slot and wide receivers, and tight ends with equal efficiency. Backup QB Damian Williams took advantage of the big margin to play much of the third and all the fourth quarters, going 5-of-8 passing for 65 yards with a tossed touchdown of his own.
The 23 catches were spread among ten Dog receivers with WR De’Runnya Wilson and WR Fred Ross each grabbing two touchdowns; and TE Malcolm Johnson one.
If any feared all the spring, summer, and preseason buildup—not to mention all the weather—would have the Bulldogs over-amped for the opener, that was settled immediately. Southern Miss won the toss, deferred, and soon wished they hadn’t as Prescott directed an efficient 87-yard drive. With first down at the Eagle 25, he saw three receivers break open downfield; Prescott picked the one in the middle, with Wilson making the catch around the ten and bouncing off Jacorious Cotton for the touchdown at 12:35.
The defense set up a gilded instant opportunity to double that margin as rushing DT Kaleb Eulls deflected Nick Mullens’ pass, and DE Preston Smith came down with the carom. “I saw Kaleb’s hand tip the ball and it came right to me and I took it from there,” said Smith, tackled at the four-yard line. With 4th-and-goal at the one there was no reason not to try for it, but Robinson’s dive into the pile was stuffed.
Not cashing in might have stemmed MSU momentum, but change the entire offense surely stopped it as Williams couldn’t move the club. “That was planned,” Mullen said. “We put in the second series we played 11 players so we put in the whole ‘1B’ defense on the second series. And we said on the third series we were subbing in the whole offense and see if they can get into the flow of the game.”
The offense didn’t but both defenses were up to the task, forcing five three-and-outs in the first six USM series. This was around a Prescott-directed drive ending in a 40-yard field goal by PK Westin Graves that missed.
The next turn went much better as RB Nick Griffin rushed five times in six plays for 42 yards, the last an easy stroll across the goal at 12:22. Prescott’s pick foiled another drive but getting the ball back at 6:40, he mixed Robinson runs with well-timed tosses. Ross used a huge opening on the left side to catch Prescott’s throw at the 15 and run the rest of the way for a 21-0 lead at 4:15.
Southern would have settled for that deficit at halftime. But the Bulldogs got the ball back at 1:55 and showed how hard they’d worked on two-minute offense. It began with WR Fred Brown taking a short throw, spinning off a bad tackle and running 34 yards. Robinson got 11 more on a catch of his own, then Prescott simply ripped free of a 305-pound tackler for a scramble down to the Eagle 33. From the 23, he saw TE Malcolm Johnson using the same opening Ross had earlier found for an easy catch and jog touchdown at 0:25.
Southern Mississippi made a bid to avoid the halftime shutout, getting to midfield an in range for Mullens to heave it deep. And into double-coverage, with S Jay Hughes—a Hattiesburg native—making the end zone interception.
USM’s first turn of the last half ended quickly; and it did not take the Dogs a lot longer to resume scoring. Starting from their 47 Prescott mixed handoffs and throws advancing to Southern’s 24. With third down he threw a bullet to Wilson at the five-yard line; DB Kalen Reed tried to strip Wilson instead of tackle him, which allowed ‘Bear’ to spin free and get the touchdown at 10:52.
The next time though, Williams and Griffin didn’t get the handoff down and the fumble was recovered at State’s 30. The Eagles still couldn’t get to the end zone and settled for a 30-yard field goal attempt…which was stuffed by DE Preston Smith. Hughes scooped the loose ball and dashed 68 yards for the 42-0 lead.
All this while the Dog defense was making life miserable for Mullens & company. Mullens was only sacked three official times but took enough other contact for a full month. This was exactly what State wanted after scoring so few sacks last season.
“We emphasized just creating turnovers and pressuring the quarterback,” DT Chris Jones said. “That’s a big thing with our defense, Psycho Defense. We want to create turnovers in the game and get sacks and give a lot of pressure. Coach (Geoff) Collins called great plays to put us in position. And we went out there and performed.”
All that remained was settling the final margin of MSU victory, and seeing if it would be a shutout. Southern got across midfield twice on their own in the final quarter, punting once and being held on downs the other time. In-between Williams got to direct a scoring drive of 80 whole yards, throwing a 21-yard touchdown to Ross at 7:51.
The only thing that lacked was running out clock, which the Dogs didn’t do. Yet the Eagles were so beaten-down by then that they barely tried to score in the remaining 86 seconds, tossing bubble screens for short games and one final carry. Yes, Mullen cared about keeping a zero on that side of the scoreboard for his first Bulldog blanking.
”The shutout to me is a huge thing. The number-one thing about defense is not let them in the end one. They came up with the plays and made the stops.”
That defense saw so many participants that S Kendrick Market and LB Christian Holmes were the tackles leaders with just six apiece. USM’s Mullens was 20-of-42 with 212 yards and a pair of picks. On offense, State mustered 550 total yards with 349 of it in the air.
Mullen wasn’t completely happy, what with “silly turnovers” and two failures to convert inside the five-yard line. “But the great thing is you get a win in the opening game.”
With more to come, said Hughes. “We’re back, we’re not even done yet.”