STARKVILLE — The script didn”t call for a clunker.
Throw out the 11-game losing streak to LSU and the disappointing loss Saturday at the University of Auburn. Thursday was going to be different.
Earlier in the day, Mississippi State broke ground on a $20-25 million football facility that is a beacon of the hope and promise surrounding coach Dan Mullen and his program.
Then there was the crowd of 56,924, the third-largest in the history of Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field and the 11th consecutive sellout, responsibly ringing its cowbells and doing everything it could to will No. 25 MSU to an upset of No. 3 LSU.
Instead, MSU fans needed to help the Bulldogs make a few more plays.
Five days after making multiple plays on offense and watching its defense resemble a sieve in a 41-34 loss at Auburn, the roles were reversed. MSU defense delivered an improved performance, but the playmakers who produced highlight after highlight in scoring 93 points in its first two games failed in the primetime spotlight.
“We got our butts kicked out there tonight,” Mullen said in his first comment in his post-game press conference. “That”s about the bottom line right there. The offensive line didn”t do a good job blocking them, the receivers didn”t get off and make plays. Their guys made plays. Our guys didn”t. Really that was the bottom line of the football game.”
Mullen could have ended his comments there, but he spoke for another nine-plus minutes, answering questions about defensive schemes, LSU”s athleticism and speed on defense, and his decision to replace starting quarterback Chris Relf with backup Tyler Russell in the fourth quarter.
The third-year coach was a mixture of resignation and frustration. If he was angry at his team”s performance, he did a good job masking his feelings in front of the reporters, television cameras, and Scott Stricklin, MSU”s director of athletics.
Mullen had a right to be all of those emotions because the Bulldogs had plenty of chances. Dropped passes, poorly thrown balls, missed tackles, soft play on the outside by the cornerbacks, bad penalties, and injuries on the offensive line help explain why the Bulldogs dropped their 12th straight game to the Tigers.
Oh, and let”s not forget, LSU (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) is pretty good, too. The Tigers may have the nation”s fastest defense, and that unit held up its end of the bargain, limiting MSU (1-2, 0-1) to 193 yards total offense, by far its lowest total this season.
“We never got into a rhythm,” Mullen said. “We played with a lot of offensive young linemen with all of the injuries we have been having (including one Thursday to former Columbus High School standout Tobias Smith). You get into that situation and you get into their strength, which is to get (you) behind and to have to throw the football.
“But we had opportunities. Our playmakers have to make plays at key times. At big times in the game we can”t drop the ball if you”re supposed to be our big-time guy. Their guys didn”t do that.”
LSU”s ability to control the line of scrimmage, particularly on defense, set the tone. The speed Brandon Taylor and Sam Montgomery showed in stopping Vick Ballard for a 1-yard loss on an option run on MSU”s first play and the quickness Kendrick Adams displayed in sacking Relf for a 6-yard loss was eye-popping.
Still, MSU settled in but never could got comfortable. One game after mixing the run and the pass, Relf looked tentative. Rabid defenses can do that to you. But when Relf had time his receivers didn”t help him. Ballard ran a route that was 3 yards shy of a first down late in the third quarter with the game still in the balance. Marcus Green also dropped a nice touch pass that Relf dropped in over the defense in the fourth quarter.
Without the reliable Ballard (10 carries, 38 yards) able to work his magic behind a revamped offensive line, LSU had its way and left MSU wondering who it will turn to when it needs a play to be made.
“We just have to keep grinding away,” Mullen said. “That”s something we”re going to continue to grind to do until we can get to that next level. That next step in the SEC is probably a national championship for us. In this league, you skip a step. … In this league, if you win the SEC West you”re the best team in the country.”
Mullen reiterated his promise that MSU will win championships, although the timetable is uncertain. A 0-10 record against all SEC Western Division teams except Ole Miss isn”t a good way to move closer to that goal. A little help from those playmakers would help change that outlook.
“That is the next step,” MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. “On any great team not only do you have a great plan, which I believe we do here at Mississippi State, you have players to complement it. We have really good football players. What you saw tonight were a lot of young football players out there competing and playing.
“You give LSU credit. They have a really good football team, and they will win a lot of football games. But I am very excited about our guys and the improvement they”re making every week.”
That excitement cools, though, when MSU continues to come up short in statement games. You can talk all you want about growing pains and injuries, but two losses in three weeks have virtually erased any chance MSU has of finishing above third in the SEC West. While that might not turn out to be all that bad in a national scheme, the reality is it puts MSU right back where it was last year, with a real chance of taking a step back.
With the echo of cowbells silenced throughout Starkville, MSU”s challenge is to make plays and to win six games in a row prior to the game against Alabama on Nov. 12 in Starkville. If the Bulldogs can do that, they”ll be back where they were Thursday, ready to make a statement or to show they”re not prepared to take the next step.
“The whole offseason it has been about getting that one extra inch,” linebacker Cameron Lawrence said. “We have fallen short the past two games, so we just have to keep working harder and do what we do.”
Said redshirt freshman offensive lineman Blaine Clausell, “We just couldn”t make that big play that we have been talking about all night. That”s the difference. You have to make those big plays.”
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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