Mississippi State collapsed when it counted most
Mississippi State won its first 2 games pretty easily.
It beat Memphis, 49-23, at Davis Wade Stadium, then went on the road to beat Arizona, 39-17.
But Memphis isn’t in the Southeastern Conference. Neither is Arizona.
LSU is in the SEC, even if this year’s Tigers don’t figure to be much of a factor in the SEC West. The Bulldogs’ first 2 performances suggested maybe they could be a factor.
But State’s 31-16 loss Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., which featured a 21-0 fourth-quarter meltdown, suggested otherwise.
State led by 13 points in the second quarter and by 6 points at halftime and again at the end of the 3rd quarter.
Then when, with the game on the line, coach Mike Leach’s Bulldogs collapsed.
It was a reminder that defeating an SEC opponent – especially on the road – is a different task than beating teams such as Memphis and Arizona.
The first 2 games suggested Leach’s 3rd team might be more well-rounded than his first 2.
Will Rogers was efficient and the passing game put up big numbers – as usual. And the Bulldogs mixed in the running game more efficiently and the defense was outstanding much of the time.
But both Memphis and Arizona hung around for a good portion of their games before State put them away in the 4th quarter.
That pattern continued early in Saturday’s game.
On State’s 1st possession Rogers drove the team 87 yards, the last 37 of which came on Jo’quavious Marks’ touchdown run. And Rogers added a 13-yard touchdown pass to Rara Thomas for a 13-0 lead with 2:14 left in the half.
That’s when LSU went to a hurry-up offense, and when the Bulldogs lost their edge.
With Jayden Daniels using his arm and his legs, LSU zipped to a touchdown to get within 6 points at halftime.
State’s offense scored just 3 more points.
The Tigers got better as the second half wore on. The Bulldogs got worse. This time the opponent put State away in the 4th quarter.
After an exchange of third-quarter field goals, State finally surrendered the lead at the outset of the fourth quarter. Then LSU ran for 2 more touchdowns and pulled away.
The complete nature of the Bulldogs’ wins showed up in a negative way in the loss.
Rogers’ numbers were far below what he had averaged, the wide receivers dropped numerous passes and the running game averaged only 3.4 yards a carry.
Austin Williams, normally the most sure-handed of the pass catchers, mishandled a punt at the State 9 in a game-turning blunder at the end of the third quarter.
The defense wore down against an LSU offensive line that has started 3 different units in as many games.
And the Bulldogs missed another extra point as Ben Raybon failed on the first attempt a week after he was given the job, after Massimo Biscardi missed the first 2 against Arizona.
In other words, this defeat was as much a team effort as were the 2 victories.
And Leach’s play calling didn’t help.
He alternated between being bold (bordering on reckless) and timid.
On State’s first possession he went for it on 4th-and-1 at his own 22. Dillon Johnson gained 4 yards and the Bulldogs wound up with a touchdown.
On the next possession he went for it on 4th-and-1 at the LSU 40 and Johnson lost a yard.
Then he went for 4th-and-1 at his own 29 and Marks was stopped for no gain. That could have been disastrous but State got the ball back on a fumble recovery.
Then after the Tigers’ 1st touchdown, the Bulldogs reached their 49 with just 18 seconds left in the half. This time, in much more favorable field position with an opportunity to reverse the momentum of the LSU touchdown, Leach went conservative and punted.
Leach’s inconsistent decision-making was consistent with his team’s inconsistent play.
As the game wore on and the Bulldogs faced the reality of SEC competition, they weren’t up to the task.