For a second, it looked like Davis Wade Stadium wasn’t one of the toughest places in America to play anymore. For a second, it looked like Mississippi State had lost the swagger it had in 2014. For a second, it looked like Dak Prescott had been figured out.
For most of a half, really, it all looked true.
Then, finally, for seemingly the first time all season, MSU started clicking again. The defense was controlling the line of scrimmage, constantly spending time in LSU’s backfield. The offense was rolling as Prescott racked up the majority of his 335 passing yards in the game’s final two quarters.
MSU out-scored LSU 19-7 in the last three quarters, as a matter of fact. As impressive and successful as the Tiger rushing attack was behind sophomore Leonard Fournette, LSU only managed one touchdown when starting a drive on its own side of the field, the one score they got for the entirety of the second half.
But for all the seconds it seemed MSU was down and the doubters were right, and for all the seconds it looked like MSU had re-captured the magic and proved them wrong, it was just a few more seconds that they needed. And they didn’t get them.
“Losing absolutely sucks,” Dan Mullen conceded after the game.
MSU was great in the second half, he did admit when asked. But his team is far past the point of moral victories. He doesn’t care that an early season loss is easier to recover from than a late season loss. He doesn’t care if he loses on Thursday or Saturday, this way or that way.
“I don’t care when you do it. Early, late, morning or night, by a lot, by a little. Losing absolutely sucks.”
It’s an odd type of frustration for Mullen and his team who came out tight and got beat bad in the first half, then came out loose and confident and generally dominated the second half, coming within seconds, within one play here or another there of making that magical comeback victory.
The 51-yard field goal attempt stands out as the game-deciding play, and as a technicality it was, but there were plenty of times the game could have been decided earlier. For LSU, it could’ve been any of the several big plays called back due to a penalty. For MSU, it could’ve been the two-point conversion attempt, which came so close to tying the game. It could’ve been a dropped pass that would have gone for a touchdown. Or it could just be a missed tackle on one of Fournette’s big runs.
That’s how football is in the SEC West, though.
“These types of games,” junior defensive lineman Chris Jones said, “It’s always going to be an old-school fight. You punch, I punch, you punch, I punch. The first person who flinches is who loses. That was a battle.”
Unknowingly, Prescott echoed the words of his coach when asked about the final back-and-forth punches.
“It sucks to lose, obviously,” a bit of the night’s emotion slipping out through his otherwise cool demeanor. “I’m sure if we make that field goal or we convert on that two-point conversion or whatever we do and we come out with the win, it’s the greatest game, it’s the greatest feeling. But right now it doesn’t feel so hot.”
It didn’t feel good at all for Prescott, for Jones, for Mullen and for any of the coaches and players they returned to in the locker room when they left their time at the podium. But they had a better moment in that locker room just a couple hours before.
Mullen left the sideline at halftime clearly aware of what his team needed. He’d seen them play what he called “just a weird game” in the season-opening win at Southern Miss, and he’d seen them take the field that night clearly a little off, seemingly uncomfortable in the home-opener on ESPN in front of what was announced as the second-biggest crowd in MSU history.
“Relax. Take a deep breath,” Mullen told the team in the locker room before the third quarter. “That was our halftime adjustment.”
He got what he wanted. In the first half, MSU’s longest drive was for 37 yards. It was the last one and the only one that got any points, a field goal with 44 seconds left. MSU had multiple three-and-outs on offense, including one drive that went for negative 15 yards.
Then MSU came back onto the field, held LSU’s offense to a three-and-out of their own, and MSU’s offense responded with its longest drive of the game. Two of MSU’s next four drives went for more than 80 yards and a touchdown each.
“It was the first time all season we were in a rhythm,” Mullen said.
It came from Mullen telling his players to relax. It came from his reminder that they are scholarship players, too. They can make the plays.
It also came from Prescott, the captain and quarterback, who found a way to adjust, to make those plays happen.
“I feel like the leader of the team and it was important for me to get the guys going,” Prescott said. “We scored, what, three points in the first half? That’s not like us … That second half, that was us. That really felt good.”
The crowd got back in the game, too. The 60,000-plus in the stadium had been waiting since kickoff for a reason to explode, a ticking timebomb of cowbells and yells looking for a reason to blow up. When MSU’s defense came out and controlled the majority of the second half, and when MSU’s offense found its rhythm for the first time in 2015, that clanga-bomb went off.
Tweeted Pete Thamel from Sports Illustrated, “Everyone in the stadium knows the ball is going to Fournette. Can Mississippi State stop it? It. Is. Loud.”
And MSU did stop it. Then they got their turn, one last chance in a game of chances both seized and squandered. In a hurry, MSU drove 60 yards down the field. Time was against them, but the crowd was for them and it appeared momentum was, too.
But, in the final moment, the hill proved too tall. All those seconds finally ran out, just when MSU had hit its stride. One more play, maybe, and MSU could have pulled it off. But they didn’t. The seconds were gone, and so was the victory, replaced with the sting of loss.
It’s a long season, though, and despite the score, the Bulldogs think they finally got their juice back.
“The best part about football is we’ve got another game in seven days,” Prescott said.