I think even the people who predicted it were surprised it actually happened.
Certainly, the 102,000 people at Tiger Stadium were surprised.
The only people not surprised that Mississippi State beat LSU was, well, Mississippi State.
“We really expected to win,” Dan Mullen said after the game.
And he meant it. He honestly did. He also didn’t consider it an upset, he added as an afterthought. Despite the fact LSU was No. 8 in the country and the Bulldogs were unranked. And State hadn’t beat the Tigers since 1999. And they hadn’t won in Baton Rouge since 1991.
Underneath every maroon jersey was someone who walked into Death Valley at night without considering the possibility they might not win. To call it an upset would be an affront to those players, though the technicality of an unranked team toppling a Top-10 giant does make it true.
But, while no one realized it at the time, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised Saturday night.
Mullen conceded last Monday that his team hadn’t truly shown much on either side of the ball. It was also known that this game had been a point of preparation for some time for MSU, and that may be the key.
MSU did things it hadn’t before, but it was just as successful doing things they had done all year. What was so impressive was how easily they did all of it.
On second down of LSU’s second possession, MSU safety Kendrick Market was deep in the secondary near State’s sideline before the play. A few moments before the snap, he lurched into action, yelling something at his teammates as he ran toward the line of scrimmage. The ball was snapped and immediately thrown to a receiver not five yards away from Market. It was a screen, and the Tigers had enough blockers to cover the cornerbacks already in the area, but they hadn’t banked on anyone else being there so soon.
Teammates say Market is the hardest hitter in MSU’s defensive backfield and he showed that off when he shot into the running lane the receiver was supposed to have and dropped him to the ground.
Something Market saw pre-snap tipped him off. He knew the screen was coming and he stopped it from succeeding.
All night long, sophomore linebacker Beniquez Brown was quietly the loudest communicator on defense. Before nearly every play, he’d use a wave of his hand to tell the other 10 guys on his side of the field if the next snap was going to be a run or a pass, and he was right just about every time. As a result, MSU held the Tigers’ vaunted rush attack to only 89 yards, a paltry 2.5 yards per carry. To compare, the Bulldogs racked up 302 yards on the ground at a clip of 6.2 yards per rush.
On offense, junior quarterback Dak Prescott had a career night, something he credits not to his athletic ability, but to film study.
“I pretty much knew everything they were coming with before the snap of the ball,” he said. “It paid off.”
In SEC football, a high-stakes game of poker, Mullen managed not to show his cards before he had to this season. But to those of us paying attention, he may have tipped his hand a bit.
For as happy and full of smiles as he was Saturday night, he was oddly the same way five days earlier at his weekly press conference. Before his team’s first conference game, a road trip against a Top-10 team in front of 100,000-plus people, Mullen should’ve been stressed. Annoyed at taking time away from preparation to speak with media.
But Mullen came in cracking jokes, talking to reporters about his favorite ‘80s music before he stepped to the podium. He laughed his way through the press conference that followed.
The rest of us were looking at rankings, but he saw the actual match-up for what it was. He saw a team he could beat. Don’t get me wrong, he respected LSU, but he had more faith in his own team.
And really, it goes much farther back than last Monday. In spring practice early this year, it was the same way. Mullen has the best collection of players and coaches he’s had in his six years at State, and he knows it. The team knows it. The staff knows it. They’ve known it for a while.
It just took the rest of us a little while to see what that meant.
Right before kickoff Saturday night, cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend was jumping, dancing and yelling with players on the sideline.
MSU opened the game by holding LSU to three-and-out then came strong with a touchdown drive on their first possession.
By the time 20 minutes had come off the game clock, the Bulldogs were up 17-0. Everything was going right and they knew it.
On the sideline in the second quarter, every one of them was smiling. They knew they were in control. They could feel it, and they weren’t surprised at the position they were in.
When halftime hit, MSU led 17-3. They were halfway to history.
Senior linebacker Christian Holmes ran by on his way to the locker room, slapped me on the back and looked at me with a big grin and bigger eyes, asking without having to say any words, “Do you see this?”
The gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on those players. They knew the history and what a win would mean to thousands of people. But, despite the fact they had never been in this position before, they knew how to handle it, too.
Senior defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls yelled to his teammates on the way back onto the field after the intermission.
“It’s zero-zero! We haven’t done anything yet!”
With momentum, a lead and the whole country watching, MSU came out in the second half and fumbled the ball away on the very first play. LSU scooped it up and took it in for a touchdown.
If there was a moment for the MSU of old to show its face, that was it. What had seemed like such a big lead was down to one score.
For the first time since kickoff, Tiger Stadium came to life. The Maroon and White fans in the endzone went quiet.
Before the kickoff following the touchdown, Prescott went to the sideline and assembled his teammates.
“I will respond,” he told them. “Just trust me and have my back.”
Prescott probably didn’t need to tell them that. They trusted him regardless and certainly had his back. But it was important to him to say it, and it was important to them to hear it.
Two minutes and four seconds later, Prescott crossed the goal line to finish his 56-yard touchdown run and re-capture momentum and control.
“That was a Heisman play,” one of the cameramen on the sideline said. “They’ll be showing that run all year.”
Yes it was, and yes they will.
By the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, it looked like MSU was going to win easily. Athletic department staffers and officials had surrounded the bench area, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughs and those same “are-you-seeing-this” eyes.
But shortly after, current CFO and former tight end Duncan McKenzie stood stiff and alone by the bench as LSU started to mount a comeback aided by an MSU fumble.
It looked like the famous Les Miles-Tiger Stadium voodoo was about to ruin everything.
However, even that wasn’t enough for LSU. MSU re-grouped, made their stand and ended the game the way they wanted: with the lead.
“Weird stuff certainly does happen here on a Saturday night,” Mullen told reporters with a big smile after the game.
MSU doesn’t beat LSU. It doesn’t happen. But on Saturday night, it did.
Prescott, a Louisiana native, said it’s just the beginning. But he also knows what Saturday night meant.
“It was huge. To coach Mullen, the A.D., everyone at Mississippi State, it was a big win,” he said. “It’s exactly what I wanted to do when I committed to Mississippi State.”