STARKVILLE, Miss. — Last week, Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin’s 70-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter sparked a 20-point comeback for Mississippi State in an eventual win over Louisiana Tech.
On Saturday against North Carolina State, Griffin made his presence felt a whole lot faster.
The sophomore took the opening kickoff back for a 100-yard touchdown, and Mississippi State’s defense cracked down from there en route to a 24-10 win over NC State at Davis Wade Stadium.
“He can take it home any second,” running back Dillon Johnson said of Griffin. “Any time he touches the ball, he’s a home run hitter.”
After Griffin’s kick return gave them a 7-0 lead 13 seconds into the contest, the Bulldogs (2-0) held the Wolfpack (1-1) to 4.5 yards per play — with most of the damage coming in garbage time. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett’s unit held running backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person to 50 yards on 16 carries, while quarterback Devin Leary went 30 of 49 passing for 303 yards.
NC State scored its only touchdown with 1 minute, 6 seconds left in the game on a 4-yard pass from Leary to Thayer Thomas.
“We’ve got some dogs on defense,” Bulldogs safety Jalen Green said. “We played with a lot of swag and confidence. We’ve got a lot to show.”
Quarterback Will Rogers was 33 of 49 passing for 294 yards and two touchdowns for Mississippi State. Malik Heath and Jaden Walley each caught scoring passes from the sophomore.
“I thought he improved in the pocket this week,” Bulldogs coach Mike Leach said of Rogers. “I thought he took command of the offense and was kind of able to keep the energy going throughout the game.”
The Wolfpack missed their only chance for a tying touchdown in the first quarter when Green picked off a jump pass from Person in the end zone on third-and-goal.
NC State hit a field goal early in the second quarter before the Bulldogs extended their lead to 14-3 on a 21-yard touchdown from Rogers to Heath with 1 minute, 9 seconds left in the first half. The senior receiver made a tough grab in the back left corner of the end zone.
“He executed that in a contested part of the game against one of the ACC’s more respected corners,” Leach said. “I go whole practices and don’t see as good a technique as he had that play. We need him to do it all the time.”
Rogers found Walley for a 4-yard score in the third quarter.
Knight and Person each totaled more than 100 yards on the ground last week in the rout of South Florida as the Wolfpack ran for 7.3 yards per carry as a team.
The duo combined for just 50 yards Saturday as Mississippi State smothered NC State’s run game. The Pack averaged just 1.3 yards per carry Saturday night.
Meanwhile for the Bulldogs, Johnson put a fumble against Louisiana Tech behind him to have a big game for the Bulldogs against NC State.
The sophomore was his team’s leading rusher with 18 yards and its leading receiver with X catches for X yards. He had a big diving catch for a first quarter and led the Bulldogs on a night in which they had 22 rushing yards on 15 carries.
“Last week, I got my confidence kind of taken for a second,” Johnson said. “I had to let people know I’ve got to bounce back, man.”
Mississippi State got little pressure on quarterback Austin Kendall in last week’s 35-34 win over Louisiana Tech, forcing just one sack thanks to an intentional grounding penalty. Mississippi State’s pass rush was far more successful Saturday, sacking Leary five times and forcing hurries and missed throws all night.
Nine days after scoring 45 points in a Sept. 2 shutout of South Florida, the Wolfpack were limited to a 45-yard Christopher Dunn field goal in the second quarter and Thomas’ late touchdown catch. Person’s interception and a third-quarter fumble by Knight cost NC State chances to cut into Mississippi State’s advantage.
The Bulldogs, of course, squandered their own chances. They struggled to score for much of the first half, going three and out three consecutive times after Griffin’s touchdown return.
“I thought we played a good game against a really good team, although I did think we had several missed opportunities,” Leach said.
But the way Mississippi State’s defense was playing, it hardly mattered.
Up next, the Bulldogs will travel to Memphis (2-0) at 3 p.m. Sept. 18.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.