HATTIESBURG – In the past four seasons, the Mississippi State football team’s offense grew accustomed to Malcolm Johnson making big catches at tight end.
Johnson finished his four-year Bulldog career with 79 catches for 1,148 yards and 10 touchdowns and blossomed into a weapon quarterbacks Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott could use to exploit defenses.
Entering this season, the loss of Johnson to graduation created a lot of questions about how the Bulldogs would look at tight end without an experienced player at the position. Junior Gus Walley was the only returning tight end with any catches, but he entered the season opener against Southern Mississippi with only had four for 49 yards and a touchdown.
In a 34-16 victory Saturday night, the tight ends showed they are ready to pick up where Johnson left off.
“They did a great job,” MSU seventh-year head coach Dan Mullen said. “That’s always been a huge and critical position for us and there’s just new faces. I’m really pleased they made those plays, and hopefully that confidence keeps them moving into the season.”
Walley, senior Darrion Hutcherson, and freshman Justin Johnson were a big part of the offense. Walley led the group with three catches for 20 yards and a touchdown. Johnson had two catches for 17 yards and a touchdown in his debut, while Hutcherson had one catch for 2 yards.
MSU’s passing game struggled in the first half, as senior Prescott was 8 of 14 for 78 yards and a touchdown. The Golden Eagles showed a different scheme than the one the Bulldogs anticipated.
“We had to go back to our base offense,” Prescott said. “We prepared all week for a 1-high team, man-to-man team, but they came out and predominantly ran quarters.”
That opened up the tight ends and Mullen was happy with the decisions Prescott made in finding the tight ends.
“They were kind of really giving it,” he said. “They were playing off, playing a little bit soft and keeping everything in front of them.”
The Bulldogs stared at the Golden Eagles’ 21-yard line after Beniquez Brown blocked a punt early in the second quarter. Prescott hit Johnson for a 12-yard gain on third-and-10 to keep the drive alive. He found Johnson again for a 5-yard touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 14-10 lead.
“We made the move right before training camp to move him to tight end,” Mullen said. “I said, ‘You might have a great opportunity to play if you can learn.’ He got a lot of reps and did a great job, showed he could do it.”
Leading 14-10, MSU opened the third quarter with a nine-play, 95-yard drive that resulted in a Walley touchdown and made it 21-10. Prescott bought himself some time after the pocket collapsed on third-and-goal and found Walley in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown.
Prescott likes using the tight end, and the Golden Eagles focused more on MSU’s wide receivers than the tight ends.
“That’s just something they gave us,” Prescott said. “They’re always in the game plan. The tight end’s a good matchup if you can get a matchup with (cornerbacks) because of their speed or the safety because of their size. Any time they give us that matchup we’re going to take full advantage of it.”
Prescott was 22 of 38 for 237 yards and two touchdowns. The two passing scores gave Prescott the school record with 43. Russell had 42 from 2010-13. Prescott (team-high 72 rushing yards) put the game out of reach with a 7-yard touchdown with 5 minutes, 55 seconds remaining.
Junior Fred Ross led the wide receivers with five catches for 75 yards. Junior De’Runnya Wilson didn’t have a catch in the first half, but he had a 42-yard catch in the second half.
“The first half was a little sluggish, but I think the second half we came out and executed very well,” Wilson said. “We were able to do the little things better than we did in the first half.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.