BATON ROUGE, La. — It definitely was a first. I’ve never seen a team with the following anemic statistic have a chance to win.
Mississippi State was 1 of 14 on third down Saturday night, yet got the ball with 2 minutes, 15 seconds left and a shot at a stunning victory before LSU’s defense buckled down to secure a 23-20 win.
It was a game that never felt close until the Bulldogs scored two touchdowns in 40 seconds late in the fourth quarter to turn a foregone conclusion into a nail biter.
And so the report card must accurately weigh a first half of domination, a third quarter in which neither team did much and then a suddenly furious turn of events when only the biggest diehards of either team remained in the stands.
We’ll try our best.
The Tigers finally scored in the first quarter. Twice! Leonard Fournette was the Heisman contender we knew he was, rushing for 147 yards and 2 touchdowns and treating tacklers like toys.
Danny Etling was plenty good, completing 19 of 30 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown — just what the Tigers needed to force the defense to respect the pass and open lanes for Fournette.
Malachi Dupre put his drop troubles behind him, catching every ball he got his mitts on to lead LSU with 4 receptions for 54 yards.
And a patchwork offensive line was able to neutralize Mississippi State’s pass rush despite losing both tackles and having 4 of 5 starters leave the field at some point with injuries. Defensive end A.J. Jefferson, who came into the game tied with Arden Key for the SEC lead in sacks, left Tiger Stadium empty-handed and only had a combined tackle for loss.
Yet, the Tigers didn’t score a point in the second half when just a field goal would have been enough to put the game out of reach. What seemed destined to be a great offensive performance became an incomplete one.
The only two drives to cross midfield in the second half were lost on turnovers — one a Fournette fumble that was recovered by the Bulldogs, the other a Fournette fumble recovered by LSU but awarded to Mississippi State as a turnover on downs when it was ruled Fournette lost the ball before reaching the line of gain. (The recovering team can’t advance a fumble on fourth down. Thank Nebraska.)
Things were going swimmingly until Damian Williams subbed in for a fourth-and-4 play that seemed somewhat meaningless at the time. But Williams hit Donald Gray for 24 yards to pick up the first down, and a couple minutes later, the Bulldogs were in the end zone with a touchdown that only seemed to matter for gamblers.
Instead, they recovered an onside kick and it took Williams only two passes, both to Fred Ross, to put a wave of fear through the crowd with another touchdown.
But like cats toying with their prey, the Tigers were just waiting for things to get interesting before going for the kill, which they got when Arden Key forced a bad throw from Williams on third down, then finished it off with a strip-sack on fourth down.
LSU finished with a season-high 6 sacks, 2 from Key. As mentioned above, they were dominant on third down. And Mississippi State only ran for 56 yards on 32 attempts.
Special Teams: C
First, the bad.
Not only did the Tigers allow MSU to recover an onside kick, but it bounced so far that the Bulldogs took possession at the LSU 32-yard-line — a 33-yard gain.
And when MSU did get the ball with 2:15 left, it only needed a field goal to tie because a Colby Delahoussaye extra point was blocked in the first half — the second blocked PAT against LSU this year.
But Josh Growden bailed out his team with an average of 49.2 yards per punt, including two that went more than 60 yards. A shank on Growden’s last punt would have put the Dogs in great shape, but instead he flipped the field with a 61-yard boomer. As they say back home in Australia, it was ace.
Les Miles got cute, going with a pair of failed gadget passes from Fournette and Dupre early in the game. To be fair, the Fournette play looked pretty, but he put just a little too much juice on the throw. If completed, Tiger Stadium would have been bedlam and the rout would have been on. Worth the risk.
Not worth the risk was a goofy second down end-around to D.J. Chark late in the game. The Bulldogs were not the least bit fooled, taking Chark down for a 4-yard loss that brought up third-and-11. Of course, LSU was forced to pass on third down, and the resulting incompletion allowed MSU to preserve its final timeout.
If not for Key bailing out the team with his relentless pressure, that very sequence could have been on Miles’ (or Cam Cameron’s?) coaching epitaph.
On the plus side, the offense finally opened up with a lot more three-receiver sets and the inclusion of Chark in the passing game.
This was pretty much like doing awesome in a class for a semester and then bombing the final. Luckily, the 80 percent of work done beforehand was enough to get the job done.
A performance like this probably will get the job done against Auburn and Missouri, but it would result in a loss against anyone else left on LSU’s conference schedule. This team still has to learn how to play 60-minute football if it’s going to compete in the West.