Ben Beckwith keeps a photo of the play in his office.
As if he would ever forget it.
In the picture, Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott stiff-arms LSU safety Jalen Mills into the Tiger Stadium turf. Those familiar need no help visualizing the rest of the now-famous play from 2014: Prescott running past Mills and into the secondary; Prescott cutting back to the right to evade cornerback Jalen Collins at the 15-yard line; Prescott diving into the end zone, holding the football in his outstretched arms.
Beckwith is in that photo, too.
The former Mississippi State right guard is behind Prescott as the Bulldogs star slams Mills to the ground. He’s not far behind his quarterback, hurdling Collins with surprising grace at the 15-yard line to reach the end zone. He’s the second teammate to reach Prescott as the celebration begins.
“It was just one of those plays I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Beckwith said.
In many ways, the photo is telling. Beckwith — and the “great group” he played with on the Bulldogs’ offensive line that year — always had Prescott’s back.
Eight years later, Mississippi State prepares to play at LSU on Saturday in a game with many similarities to that unforgettable contest in Baton Rouge.
And those who held down the Bulldogs’ line back in 2014 know what a win could mean for this year’s team.
“They’ll definitely have the opportunity to do it and they should do it,” Beckwith said. “We’ll see what happens on Saturday. If they go ahead and get this win, it’s lined up. It’d be similar to what we did in ’14.”
‘Nobody could beat us’
This year’s Bulldogs head to Death Valley at 2-0; the 2014 squad came in at 3-0. Both teams Saturday are unranked, but eight years prior, the Tigers were also unbeaten and ranked No. 8 in the nation.
Mississippi State hadn’t beaten LSU since 1999 and hadn’t won in Baton Rouge since 1991. The Bulldogs were heavy underdogs in a prime-time contest at Tiger Stadium.
MSU was talented but overlooked — a dangerous combination.
“None of us were top recruits in the nation, so we all had that chip on our shoulder that we had something to prove from Day 1,” left tackle Blaine Clausell said. “We knew that this year was going to be our year.”
Mississippi State had no trouble against Southern Miss or South Alabama, handling UAB 47-34 in between.
But the Bulldogs knew LSU presented another challenge altogether. Future NFL players were all over the Tigers’ roster — Collins, Mills, defensive end Danielle Hunter, linebacker Kwon Alexander, freshman running back Leonard Fournette and more.
While most coaches emphasize preparing the same way for every opponent, Malone said that wasn’t the case when LSU popped up on the schedule.
“You can’t go and play against the LSU defensive line the same way you would play against South Alabama,” he said. “There’s a little more on the line when you play against those bigger guys.”
Those big guys played in a big stadium, too. When the Bulldogs’ bus pulled up to rowdy Tiger Stadium, it was showered with cups of something. Whether it was beer or urine, Malone never knew. He might not have wanted to.
On the field, Mississippi State’s offensive line warmed up in a perilous spot — right in front of the cage containing LSU live tiger mascot Mike VI.
“I’m just sitting there looking back at him,” Malone said. “I’m just like, ‘Coach, there’s a tiger behind me.’ He’s like, ‘It’s going to be there. It’s OK.’ I’m like, ‘No, there’s a tiger behind me.’”
Despite the intimidating atmosphere, the Bulldogs weren’t fazed.
Before the game, head coach Dan Mullen insisted to his players MSU was the better team and would win the game. No one doubted him.
“In our minds, we were going to go undefeated,” Clausell said. “Nobody could beat us. That’s the way we thought, and that’s the way we played.”
Set up for success
Mississippi State came out that night and did what few teams have accomplished at Tiger Stadium: punching the home team in the mouth.
Prescott found De’Runnya Wilson for a touchdown. Running back Josh Robinson added another.
All three Bulldogs offensive linemen agreed that despite their own strong performances, the “two-headed monster” in the backfield. made MSU’s offense go all year.
Beckwith said Robinson — whose nickname was “Bowling Ball” — carried the ball as if he were covered in oil, too slippery to tackle. Dak, Malone simply said, “was Dak.”
“We were lucky that year to have two guys in the backfield who anytime could bust a play wide open — two extraordinary athletes and two guys who could do special things with the ball in their hand,” Beckwith said.
But the scheme Mississippi State came up with to beat the Tigers worked perfectly. The Bulldogs knew if they spread their receivers out wide, LSU would empty the “box” of defenders, with linebackers shaded outside.
That left the middle of the field wide open, and the Bulldogs were happy to take advantage. MSU had special plays designed for those scenarios, and Prescott was more than willing to audible into them if LSU showed what the Bulldogs were hoping for.
“They pretty much set themselves up for failure that day,” Clausell said. “We knew it.”
But the game wasn’t over yet. LSU recovered a fumble by Prescott for a touchdown on the first play of the second half, cutting MSU’s lead to seven points.
A perfect throwback screen to Wilson on third-and-10 spared a punt, and facing another third down, Mississippi State came up to the line on third-and-3 from its own 44.
The Bulldogs called for a quarterback run to the right, between Beckwith and right tackle Justin Senior.
The right guard surveyed the defense: cornerbacks and safeties to the outside; a linebacker way out wide.
It was perfect.
“Man,” Beckwith realized, “this is about to spring wide open.”
‘We want to win the game’
He was right.
Prescott shot through the wide-open right side as Beckwith and senior delivered perfect blocks. He shoved away Mills, the only defender within two ZIP codes, and ran free.
Beckwith was moving, too. He chugged down the field, seeing the fallen Collins pulling himself up. He did the only thing he could: leaping over the LSU defender and continuing into the end zone.
“I was like, ‘Well, either I’m going to run into him and potentially hurt myself, or I can try to jump over him,’” Beckwith said. “It just ended up working out where I cleared him and it was just perfect timing, and in the midst of that play and me in the background, it was just something out of a movie. It was definitely not planned by any means.”
After the celebration in the end zone, the Bulldogs walked back to the visitors’ sideline. They saw a beautiful sight: fans streaming out of Tiger Stadium bleachers and heading for the exits.
“It’s like, ‘Wow, we emptied Death Valley,’” Malone said. “It was a really nice feeling.”
“We talked about how quiet it was and how we could hear the guys sitting up in the nosebleeds crying,” Clausell added.
They weren’t crying for long.
Mississippi State added 10 more points to stretch its lead to 34-10, and Mullen pulled his starters from the game in the fourth quarter after the Bulldogs entered the red zone.
The O-linemen grumbled. Beckwith and center Dillon Day questioned the decision, but co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy wasn’t having it.
“We’re trying to take you out to honor you guys, and you’re going to come out here and say that you want to still stay in?” Hevesy queried.
“Yes,” Malone replied. “We want to win the game.”
The coaches’ move nearly backfired. MSU was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 5-yard line, and LSU reeled off a 95-yard touchdown drive.
Two plays later, backup center Archie Muniz snapped the ball over Prescott’s head. The Tigers pounced on it. It took them two plays to score. Suddenly, LSU trailed 34-29 with 1:27 to go.
“There’s a lot of cussing, a lot of chaos, and all of a sudden, ‘Hey, put your dang knee braces back on,’” Beckwith recalled. “‘You’re back in the game.’”
Even with its starting unit back in, Mississippi State went three and out, giving the Tigers the ball and a chance to win.
They nearly did. Will Redmond intercepted an LSU Hail Mary pass at the 1-yard line, sealing the victory.
“I was just sitting there holding my breath,” Malone said. “I was like, ‘This isn’t our fault. We did a great job. This is a coaching error.’
“I was kind of mad when it happened. I was. But we pulled it out, and it was just like, ‘You know what? Let bygones be bygones. We got the win. That’s all that matters.’”
Setting the tone
It mattered quite a bit for a Mississippi State team that finally had the signature win it wanted.
The Bulldogs entered the AP Top 25 the following week at No. 14, and they just kept climbing.
After a bye week, they beat No. 6 Texas A&M. They beat No. 2 Auburn and earned the first No. 1 ranking in program history.
“Nobody thought that we would do that,” Malone said. “It was a really big, good year and kind of a big f-you to everybody that told us that we weren’t going to be able to do anything.”
MSU was the top team in the country for five weeks before a loss at Alabama. Ole Miss also beat the Bulldogs, who wrapped up the season with a loss to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
But the win over the Tigers still “slingshotted” MSU into the best season in school history.
“That LSU game, going into Death Valley and winning convincingly like we did, that definitely set the tone for the rest of the season,” Clausell said. “To go into one of the toughest environments in college football and to win like that, it definitely gives you the confidence that you need to play ball anywhere else that you have to go and play.”
The MSU alumni hope that holds true for this year’s edition of the Bulldogs. After convincing wins over Memphis and Arizona, Mississippi State needs a win Saturday to have a decent shot at putting together a nine- or 10-win regular season.
The Bulldogs know a loss in Baton Rouge might take that possibility off the table.
“You don’t win this game, you can’t do all these other things, right?” Beckwith said. “The main focus for these guys, I think, is to go in, win this game and show the world what Mississippi State football’s about this year and show them that they have an opportunity to do it big and win some big games.”
After all, Beckwith knows about winning big games.
After that magical 2014 run, he’ll never forget.
“There could have been a movie made about that stretch of games we were in,” he said. “It was just an awesome moment, and I’ll never take that season for granted and that stretch especially for granted. It was unreal.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.