On Mississippi State’s first possession Saturday, the offense looked sharper to the start the new season than it had to end the previous one. The Bulldogs drove down the field, receivers and runners alike finding room to move, sparking excitement in State fans watching both in Houston and at home.
On MSU’s last possession Saturday, the offense awoke again, albeit against a prevent defense, as backup quarterback Dak Prescott drove the length of the field. The potential points were inconsequential to the outcome of the game, but yards and scores would at least help MSU end on a positive note and give them something to build on.
Then, as State neared the endzone, the drive ended, MSU’s final possession dying with an interception.
It happened frequently Saturday, good followed by bad. Multiple great plays, only for 10 players to leave the field while one lie hurt on the ground. A big defensive stop, followed by being gashed by something new.
A long run for a first down followed by a drop.
Pick whichever you like, but those snippets of the game were symbolic of the day for MSU.
The question for players, and perhaps even fans, is which part they focus on. Were it a perfect world, every drive would’ve ended in a score and every tackle would have been made. But football is a finite sport. At the end of a game, only one team can win and only one team can lose and no team ever gets it all right.
Standing on the sideline hours before the game, well before the teams even began play, I held a cup of soda in my hand, wondering aloud why the press box didn’t have any coffee for my caffeine needs. Next to an army of Gatorade coolers and cups, a student on the training staff told me I had the wrong outlook. A cliché, to be sure, but she looked at the line of Coca-Cola hovering around the midway point of the plastic cup.
“That glass is half full,” she told me. “That’s just how you have to look at it.”
Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins came out of the locker room after the game sharply dressed in the suit he wore on the way into the stadium. Showered, buttoned and clean, Collins stepped in front of the waiting media looking as if he had run a marathon. The only visible skin, his face was beet red. His puffy eyes matched with a red shade of their own.
He’d been crying with Jay Hughes, Collins told us. Embracing the man he called the quarterback of his defense, heavy with loss both for himself and the team.
The junior safety, a leader of the team, Hughes was injured early Saturday and unable to return to the game. He may be back soon. He may have to wait until next fall. For now, neither he or us know.
But the tears shed with his defensive coordinator came from hurt both physical and emotional, sad for loss on many levels.
But he doesn’t want anyone to be sad for him, sad for themselves or sad for the team.
“We didn’t come this far to quit after one game,” he told them.
Pain is real, he said. It hurts. Nearly everything about Saturday hurt. But one game does not determine a team’s fate or tell the story of who they are. How they respond does that.
A supplication heard post-game offered the same hope for positivity as the trainer and the cup of Coke.
“Lord, we pray you take this loss and turn it to light.”
My favorite moment of the game came as a result of loss. In the second half, MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin took in the game from the sideline. He saw Hughes standing alone on crutches as he watched his teammates, wearing a precautionary boot until real tests could be done.
Stricklin walked up, touched his shoulder and talked with the team leader. I don’t know what was said, and it’s just as likely that neither of the pair remembers, either. But the intent from Stricklin seemed clear. Offer support to a member of the Bulldog family, remind him no one stands alone. Find the good in the bad.
That is MSU’s charge now. The same message Mullen shared with reporters after the game.
After every game last year, I wrote what I called the Sunday ThingamaBob. A hybrid of thoughts, observations and asides from Bulldog wins and losses. The general format stayed the same every week, if the content did not. I’ll have something similar to this after each contest this year, though the outline may be slightly different. This second portion is more of a football Xs and Os-type section, filled with a few random notes and thoughts.
Sizing up MSU’s offense is an interesting exercise. Three points is bad, obviously, and even Mullen himself regretted some of the playing calling, saying after the game he wishes he’d have taken more shots deep and needs to fix things.
But, the numbers, outside of 21-3: MSU had 17 first downs to Oklahoma State’s 22. 333 yards to OSU’s 432 and 70 plays to their 73. OSU had the upper hand in each, certainly, but not by that wide of a margin. Big plays didn’t do it, either. MSU had five go for 20 or more yards, the Cowboys had four.
The difference, both Mullen and I say, was finishing. To be specific, Mullen said MSU “didn’t take advantage of opportunities.” Fair assessment, frustrating as the end result may be for those involved.
The Bulldogs ran much more than they passed, but seeing juniors Jameon Lewis and Malcolm Johnson lead the team with five and four catches, respectively, for over 100 yards was encouraging. I’ve written and coaches have said how important those two are.
Speaking of that running game, sophomore Josh Robinson was a bright spot for MSU, averaging six yards apiece on his eight carries. Senior LaDarius Perkins had a great go of things early on, though somewhere along the way he started finding less room, being held to only 50 yards total.
We also learned a bit about true freshmen receivers De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross, who both played in their first college game. Wilson entered early and played often, though both had a learning curve playing in a real game for the first time.
Tyler Russell was sharp before leaving the game with an injury, but of the few passes he was off, a couple were very off.
The offensive line seemed to perform relatively well early on, but as Mullen said, the pressure mounted when MSU didn’t often stretch the field.
Defensively, it’s hard to be disappointed. 21 is an unusually low total for OSU, even if it was still too much in this game, and it may have been less with a bit more help from the Bulldog offense.
The season-debut for Collins’ unit was a touch reminiscent of Collins first game calling the shots, the Gator Bowl back on January 1. His defense played very well in both, showing multiple looks, applying pressure and generally tackling well, but eventually spent too much time on the field.
The Bulldogs would certainly take them back, but the loss of Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks seemed to be handled well by the secondary.
The defensive line showed a lot of promise, not recording many sacks against OSU’s quick-moving offense, but applying regular pressure. Mullen mentioned a few times in post-game how the defense as a whole seemed just fine handling the up-tempo offense everyone talked so much about, and in fact bottled it up pretty well early on.
Two defensive players who stood out: defensive tackle P.J. Jones and linebacker Deontae Skinner. Jones has come back after missing much of last year with a suspension and taken on a different role and mentality. His two tackles for loss led the team. Skinner led the team in tackles of any sort, recording 10, the only player in double-digits.
And one special teams note: we saw again why Jameon Lewis was an All-SEC returner last year. He nearly took one to the house yesterday and by the end of the game OSU had stopped kicking to him. His 148 all-purpose yards led the game – both teams – by a significant margin.