Rapid Reaction: Defense not enough as Mississippi State falls in OT in Provo
Mississippi State looked like a completely different team than the one that got embarrassed at home last week by Auburn.
Despite the compliment, the Bulldogs couldn’t finish a game their defense kept them in, losing 28-21 in double overtime at BYU. It ended well past 2 a.m. on the East Coast as Mississippi State fell to 2-4 on the season, its unlikely bowl hopes riding on games against four ranked SEC teams the rest of the way.
What it means: Outside of a handful of extracurricular penalties, Mississippi State’s defense was really good. It was a step in the right direction but also highlighted how much better the team needs to be at quarterback. Nick Fitzgerald was 17-of-36 for 214 yards with all three Mississippi State touchdowns and a pair of picks. He missed open receivers in key moments, including the second overtime. That, combined with Westin Graves’ missed 42-yarder in the first quarter, continues to be a bad combo for the Bulldogs.
What I liked: Mississippi State set the tone on defense in the first half and looked like the defense that was supposed to keep the team in games until the offense figured it out. BYU’s Jamaal Williams entered the game ranked second in the country in rushing. By the half, he had 11 rushes for 38 hard-earned yards with a long of eight and finished with 76 yards on 26 carries (2.9 per carry for his second-lowest average of the season, though he did become BYU’s all-time leading rusher). Mississippi State held BYU to 311 total yards. A.J. Jefferson’s strip in overtime nearly ended it with an MSU win.
The Bulldogs’ two first-half touchdowns came directly after BYU mistakes, 12 men on the field and an offsides flag. That was plenty to take a 14-7 lead into the half as they held BYU to 126 yards through two quarters. Sophomore DB Mark McLaurin added a period to the half with a pick that ended a late BYU threat.
BYU’s scoring drive to tie early in the fourth quarter saw a facemask and a roughing the passer on Will Coleman that put BYU’s offense back on the field for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Otherwise, Mississippi State owned the line that just last week owned Michigan State 398 total yards to 206. The effort was steady. After a BYU pick in a tie game midway through the fourth, the Bulldogs held the Cougars to a three-and-out.
This was a BYU team that posted nearly 600 yards on Toledo. It isn’t a ranked BYU, but Mississippi State had to travel across the country for a game two hours behind its time zone six days after a demoralizing loss to Auburn. Even in a loss, the defensive performance was more than noteworthy. Freshman Leo Lewis and senior Richie Brown had a combined 22 tackles.
What I didn’t like: For the second straight week, the Bulldogs started a game with the momentum. Friday night, they got the opening kick and picked up four quick first downs in a tempo offense. Fitzgerald had a couple of nice completions to Fred Ross and Donald Gray, but after his only miss, Graves missed a 42-yard field goal.
Happened on the next possession too. A flag on BYU’s punt gave the Bulldogs the ball at their 40. But Fitzgerald overthrew Gabe Myles and then missed Gray, who had 10 yards of separation on a linebacker headed into the end zone. Fitzgerald entered the game completing only 45 percent of his passes on third down, one of the lowest percentages in the nation. On that particular third down pass, Fitzgerald was rushed, but he has to make that play.
The drive turned into a touchdown after BYU was flagged for too many men on the punt. The 44-yard touchdown dump Fitzgerald had to Keith Mixon — the Bulldogs’ second-longest pass of the season — was more in his wheelhouse, a play made on an run-pass option as he avoided multiple defenders. But he has to get better at the deep ball. And when he does miss throws on the opponent’s end of the field, field goals need to be made.
Who’s the man: Sophomore back Aeris Williams has been rarely used, which is inexplicable. He had only 15 carries for 67 yards coming into the game. In Provo, he had 21 carries for 82 yards and looked like the preseason back most thought he would look like given the chances he hasn’t yet been given.
Key plays: Facing a 3rd-and-18 in the fourth quarter of a 14-14 game, Fitzgerald took off for 22 yards. But two plays later, he was picked inside the BYU 20. The Bulldogs could have had a go-ahead field goal opportunity … With about 3 minutes to play, the Bulldogs had a look at a 48-yard field goal but chose to go for it on 4th-and-2. Fitzgerald slipped and turned the bowl over.