For the third-straight week, Mississippi State lost by multiple scores to one of the best teams in the country. In fact, while MSU fell out of the polls, its last three opponents are all now ranked in the Top 10 in the country.
In this case, the final on the scoreboard doesn’t come close to telling the story, and in the opposite fashion. It was much closer than the 20-point differential indicates, and perhaps even closer than it seemed when you look at the numbers.
You can check out that story, all the numbers, pictures and plenty more here at HailState.com
Against Alabama and Texas A&M, the Bulldogs had full quarters and even halves where they played, to be frank, pretty terribly. Entire units had off games and nothing ever went right.
Look back at the most recent Saturday, and there were no glaring deficiencies, no ridiculous numbers of missed tackles by defenders or drops by receivers. The game, really, came down to a few plays.
When freshman running back Derrick Milton fumbled the pitch from Tyler Russell, the game turned. However, had the turnover never happened, and perhaps the final turnover on LSU’s interception return for a touchdown, it’s not totally unreasonable to think it could have been a one-score game, perhaps even in MSU’s favor.
Let’s just look at a few numbers here:
- Total offense: 351 for MSU, 392 for LSU
- First downs: 21 for MSU, 22 for LSU
- Passing yards: 304 for MSU, 273 for LSU
- Rushing yards: 47 for MSU, 119 for LSU
- Yards per play: 5.6 for MSU, 5.8 for LSU
- MSU’s top two receivers: 16 catches for 196 yards and one touchdown
- LSU’s top two receivers: 13 catches for 164 yards and one touchdown
- Yards per punt: 41.8 for MSU, 42 for LSU
- Third downs: 3-of-10 for MSU, 9-of-15 for LSU
The two numbers that stand out: third down conversions and rushing yards. If MSU was beat by anything other than turnovers, it was those two.
It should be pointed out, of course, MSU was without starting running back LaDarius Perkins, and surely he would have provided something of a boost, but I’m not sure he would’ve been able to run much better against LSU than guys like Nick Griffin (3.5 yards per carry) and Josh Robinson (3.4 yards per carry) did. LSU defensive line is just really good at stopping the run. There aren’t many better ways to say it.
And while the Tigers’ defense is good all-around, the case could be made Russell outplayed Zach Mettenberger. Russell completed 68 percent of his passes to Mettenberger’s 63, racking up 295 yards and one touchdown to 273 and two for LSU. Add in Freshman quarterback Dak Prescott’s one pass attempt – a nine yard touchdown – and the numbers stack even more favorably for MSU, not that there is just a huge difference.
You get the point I’m trying to make here. Mississippi State was out-scored, but it wasn’t particularly out-played.
Any coach will tell you there are no such things as moral victories. But, after the fashion in which MSU lost in the previous two weeks, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to take some positives away from the Bulldogs’ fall to LSU.
Besides, with two games remaining, there is plenty to play for, including what could end up being the best season MSU has had since Dan Mullen took over, as well as the best season in Starkvile in over a decade.
Now, for some thoughts and observations.
- After spending some time criticizing the offensive line in previous weeks, I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to coach John Hevesy and his unit. Outside of back-to-back sacks late in the game, MSU’s group of maulers did a pretty stand-up job of protecting Russell and keeping star defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo in check, no small feat.
- Russell himself was outstanding, and not just because of his completion percentage or his career-high yardage total. He played as intelligently as ever, making frequent audibles at the line. Often, he checked into a run, but his touchdown pass to Chad Bumphis – both a beautiful throw and a tremendous catch – came after he changed the call at the line of scrimmage. Russell’s 16-yard QB sneak for a first down: yep, audible. The first of his two sacks and the late interception are, mostly, the only negatives to stand out for Russell. It’s a shame, for him, to have one of his best games come in a loss. But it was impressive to happen against a defense as good as LSU’s.
- And hey, how ‘bout that Bumphis? Nine catches, 140 yards and one smooth touchdown. Heckuva day for him, and he looked great. He may have more SEC yards and touchdowns this season than he did in his three previous years combined. That might not actually be true, but it’s not total far-fetched either.
- Fellow seniors Chris Smith (7-56) and Arceto Clark (4-43) had strong showings, as well. MSU’s receivers have struggled some with separation recently, but they came through for Russell the majority of the game Saturday evening.
- In that passing game: it was great to see sophomore tight end Malcolm Johnson get involved again with a pair of catches for 24 and 16 yards.
- Speaking of tight ends, wide open people would watch Marcus Green’s touchdown catch and say, ‘Wow, he’s wide open.’ When Prescott fakes the run and pulls up to pass, it seems no defense is ever prepared, as we saw again on this scoring play.
- The running backs: not having Perkins certainly hurt, and Milton’s fumble was probably the turning point in the game. Before that, MSU was up 7-6 in the second quarter. After that play, MSU was outscored 31-10. Perhaps I’m imagining things, but it seemed the play not caused Mullen to lose confidence in Milton (he didn’t get another carry), but to lose confidence in the running game as a whole without Perkins. Neither Griffin or Robinson ran overwhelmingly great, but neither was particularly poor, either. Then, of course, by a certain point in the game, MSU was behind and had to pass to try and catch up.
- Defensively, I did love the game plan. After looking confused on defense the last two weeks, Chris Wilson’s group appeared to know what they were doing and have a specific plan of attack. Namely, they stacked the line of scrimmage and trusted their touted corners in press coverage. For the most part, the corners did their job, but despite having so many men at the line of scrimmage, LSU was still able to run effectively. What hurt worse was the way Mettenberger exploited State’s linebackers in coverage throughout the evening. Even Matt Wells, a former safety and one of the fastest linebackers, was beat down the field for a touchdown by a running back. The saying holds true for LSU: speed kills.
- Even if the end result wasn’t great, MSU cut the yardage allowed nearly in half after giving up 693 yards to the Aggies.
While the line didn’t have its best game, it also was far from the worst, and it was interesting to see how Wilson changed up the personnel. Massive freshman tackle Nick James played extensively, fellow frosh DT Quay Evans played early and often, sophomore end Preston Smith saw a fair bit of time and senior tackle Josh Boyd spent a bit more of the game on the sidelines than usual. Many of the young guys did well, and the light bulb truly does seem to be coming on for junior college transfer defensive end Denico Autry who had five tackles, two for loss, one forced fumble and MSU’s only sack of the game.
- Special teams, for the second week in a row, had a good game. Freshman Devon Bell nailed a 47-yard field goal which might have been good from 57, and he did it going into the wind. It was a big kick from the youngster to cap a nine-play drive as the first half dwindled down. Outside of one 41-yard return, MSU’s kickoff coverage was solid, LSU only totaled three punt return yards (MSU has now allowed seven on the season), and sophomore Robert Johnson was able to rack up 108 yards on five kick returns in place of Perkins.
Yes, the losses have been tough for MSU and its fans, but they’re not the end of the world, nor are they totally unexpected. The problem – and senior linebacker Cam Lawrence said as much last Tuesday 0 is the timing. MSU won seven straight, then dropped three straight. Had the losses been spread out over the course of the last 10 games, they wouldn’t seem nearly as hard. As we said, with two regular-season games and a bowl left to play, the best year for MSU in over a decade is in reasonable sight. The absolute worst case: a regular season that would still be better than last year’s.
The sky isn’t falling, and in fact, MSU could still be flying high.