MOBILE, Ala. — The Mississippi State football team hasn’t been challenged three weeks into the season.
The Bulldogs opened the campaign with easy victories against Southern Mississippi and Alabama-Birmingham, and the story was no different Saturday, when MSU finished its early season non-conference stretch with a 35-3 victory against Sun Belt Conference member South Alabama.
As soon as the clock hit zero in Ladd-Peebles Stadium, MSU’s best already were looking forward to the team’s Southeastern Conference opener against LSU at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN).
“We knew they were a good team, so we had to maintain focus,” said MSU quarterback Dak Prescott, who had 364 yards and three touchdowns. “But next week, we’re going from the preseason to the SEC, so everything has to improve. Going into SEC, every throw has to be better, every decision has to be better. We have been taking it week by week, and our goal was to get to LSU 3-0. This is what we wanted.”
MSU secured a trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as an unbeaten football team by taking care of business in Mobile. Despite a sluggish start, the Bulldogs used a 21-point second quarter to put away a pesky team that was playing before a sold-out crowd in the biggest game in program history.
Prescott, who entered the game with nine touchdowns, played a key role. The Haughton, Louisiana, native passed for 201 yards and a touchdown, rushed 14 times for 139 yards and another score, and added a 24-yard catch from wideout Jameon Lewis. The trifecta was the second of Prescott’s career. The 24-yard catch gave MSU a 28-3 lead late in the second quarter.
“That was just good playcalling,” Prescott said. “I think Jameon is 4-for-4 with four touchdowns. I think he has a higher QB rating than I do.”
Prescott wasn’t the only Bulldog who looked primed for SEC play. Junior tailback Josh Robinson rushed 12 times for 78 yards and a career-high two touchdowns, while Lewis caught a season-high six passes and added the touchdown pass.
Defensively, Preston Smith continued his sterling start. The senior defensive end dropped quarterback Brandon Bridge twice in the third quarter for his first two sacks. He added a blocked field goal and a forced fumble. Smith’s big day gave the Stone Mountain, Georgia, product two sacks, two interceptions, two blocked field goals, a touchdown, and a forced fumble this season.
“We took last week personally,” Smith said of MSU’s porous defensive performance against UAB, when the Blazers passed for 435 yards and scored 34 points. “We focused a lot on getting to the quarterback this week, worked on our pass rush a lot.”
It showed against South Alabama. The Bulldogs dropped Bridge five times and forced four turnovers, including interceptions by junior Will Redmond and sophomore Tolando Cleveland. Junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney, sophomore defensive end Nelson Adams, and sophomore defensive tackle Chris Jones also had sacks for a defense that has 11 quarterback takedowns this season, tied for first in the SEC.
MSU’s defense also has collected 29 tackles for loss, which is seven more than any other SEC team, and good for No. 2 nationally.
MSU defensive line was a key to the big win. The Bulldogs surrendered only three points to the Jaguars in their three trips to the MSU red zone.
“The red zone is a huge deal for us on both sides of the ball,” said MSU coach Dan Mullen, whose team improved to 3-0 for the second time in his six seasons at the school. “People think the red zone is just an offensive deal, but it’s a defensive deal as well. We were able to hold them to two (field goal) attempts and they missed one of the two. Those are huge momentum plays for us to get off the field.”
For South Alabama, the game resulted in the program’s first sellout. Despite the energy of the capacity crowd at kickoff, MSU’s 21-point outburst in the second quarter took the starch out of the crowd and the Jags.
“I wish we would have played a little better,” South Alabama coach Joey Jones. “But you have to play great to beat those guys, and we didn’t play great.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat