STARKVILLE — At long last, the losing streak from hell is over.
After four long, grueling, miserable contests, Mississippi State found a vaccine to cure the spread of losing football games on Saturday: playing Vanderbilt.
The year 2020 will be remembered for plenty of unfortunate circumstances, but at least “Mississippi State lost to Vanderbilt” T-shirts won’t be printed.
And yet, a 24-17 win at Davis Wade Stadium left so much to be desired.
The Bulldogs nearly blew a 17-point lead after amassing 42 offensive yards in the second half. MSU’s offense failed to reach 300 total yards for the fourth straight week. Seven straight punts followed a 17-0 advantage. If the defense didn’t force five turnovers, a loss to a team with the worst roster in the Southeastern Conference would have been possible. Two of MSU’s three offensive touchdowns came when gifted with short fields.
Look, if you want to celebrate this win, I won’t stop you. But it’s important to note all of this happened against the Commodores, who are every bit as bad as their winless record indicates. They weren’t even at full strength, as only 58 scholarship players suited up, according to a report from Adam Sparks of The Tennessean. That’s five more than the SEC requires to compete in a game.
You would have thought MSU lost 41-0 if you listened to Mike Leach’s postgame press conference, though. He sounded like he was seconds away from blowing a gasket.
“They just saw us lined up, and they pressured us some, and basically watched us take turns screwing up, playing timid and sitting on the sideline with blank, wide-eyed faces,” Leach said, obviously frustrated by his offense mustering next to nothing in the second half. “And I’m getting sick and tired of that.”
The first-year MSU head coach’s frustration even extended to the fanbase. While Leach went out of his way to compliment the fans in attendance Saturday for their support, he grew irritated when asked about fans that may not yet be on board with his system after a 2-4 start. He said he “got a kick out of fans that felt like they’re upset by something” and recommended they try it from the players’ and coaches’ standpoint.
“But you know those that aren’t on board are impatient,” Leach said. “Maybe they can select another team, or maybe they can go coach their own team, and I think that you can evaluate how their team does and see how it all shakes out.”
A skeptic would say at least Joe Moorhead had a better record with the Bulldogs than Leach did when he told fans that were skeptical to “kick rocks and pound sand.” An optimist would say Leach’s teams always improve after his first year at a program and the Bulldogs will see a huge jump once the proper personnel is recruited.
Only time will reveal what reality MSU fans are in for.
All that can be evaluated at the moment is the current on the field product. Leach said the offense is still in its “training wheels stage,” but also made abundantly clear his coaching style is about to be no more Mr. Nice Guy.
If you ignore the countless red flags week after week from the offense, you could take pride in the fact defensive coordinator Zach Arnett’s defense continues to be downright stifling at times. Linebacker Aaron Brule is playing like a man possessed. Tyrus Wheat made multiple game-changing plays, including a strip sack that set up the game-sealing score. Erroll Thompson finally put MSU on the other end of a scoreless red zone possession for once with an interception.
But Leach made a name for himself utilizing his air raid, so that’s where the topic of conversation will always shift, for better or worse.
Making his first collegiate start, freshman quarterback Will Rogers earned faint praise from his coach after completing 35 of 46 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown. Leach’s “training wheels” comment wasn’t directed at Rogers specifically, but watching Saturday’s game certainly seemed like it, as you could probably count the number of times a pass thrown by Rogers went further than 10 yards on two hands.
Leach wouldn’t commit to Rogers the starter going forward and said he may not have a full-time starter before the year is out, so it may be wise to get used to the rotating door.
Lost in victory was the fact MSU refused to run the ball in the second half until there were less than four minutes remaining, and Bulldog running backs only attempted a combined seven carries.
In short, taking anything concrete from this game other than Vanderbilt will be lucky to win a game in the SEC this year is a tall task, so this is a good time to mention two things that happened that were really special.
How cool was it to see Kobe Jones, a Starkville High graduate, lead the team out of the tunnel holding the new state flag held high, the loudest cheers the socially distanced crowd produced all day? It was a surreal sight.
Let us also not forget the nice aesthetic of the return of the throwback flying M helmets, an ode to the late 1960s Mississippi State teams.
It’s better than remembering this offense has the task of trying to score against Auburn and Georgia in back-to-back weeks.
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.