STARKVILLE — It’s not unheard of for a Mississippi team to win a football game at LSU.
Team Mississippi — whether Mississippi State or Ole Miss — has come away with a nice win a handful of times through my years as an eyewitness.
What made last week’s visit to Baton Rouge unusual was that so many people believed on the front end — myself included — that Mississippi State would win the game.
The Bulldogs weren’t two-touchdown favorites, but their experience and fast start through two games made them look more than capable against a rebuilding LSU team.
It didn’t end well for the Bulldogs, who lost 31-16.
Monday at his regular press conference, MSU coach Mike Leach used the word “fragile” to describe his team.
“I think we’re kind of fragile as far as getting discouraged when we face adversity, and we’ve got to fight through that,” Leach said.
That’s not the word you want to hear from a team that has 19 players with 10 or more career starts.
A year ago youth and inexperience were talking points for Leach, and those things were evident in September losses to Memphis at LSU.
But the Bulldogs grew. They beat No. 15 Texas A&M on the road, No. 12 Kentucky at home and had a nice comeback win at Auburn in November.
Those lessons appeared to carry over with the confidence the Bulldogs displayed in wins against Memphis and at Arizona in the first two weeks, all of which made their Baton Rouge trip more perplexing.
Later in his address Leach started splitting hairs, admitting the Bulldogs are experienced but saying, not for the first time, that they’re still not an “older” team.
Sophomore receivers Rara Thomas and Rufus Harvey are the only listed starters on this week’s depth chart who are not at least juniors.
What matters most is not that eight months or a year might separate an MSU player from the guy across the line but how much time the Bulldogs have spent on the field in Leach’s third season.
Age and maturity don’t always go hand in hand.
“The biggest thing is both of our trenches. We’ve got to take charge and take control of things on the offensive line and the defensive line. I think that’s where a lot of it starts,” Leach said.
LSU spent so much time in the MSU backfield it looked like the Tigers had a timeshare a yard and a half behind the line of scrimmage.
LSU returned a talented mix of experience and key transfers on the defensive line.
On defense, the Bulldogs gave up 117 rushing yards in the fourth quarter, more than half the Tigers’ total for the game, a result aided perhaps by an offense that had drives of four plays or fewer eight times.
There were hints of poor offensive line play in the first two weeks as MSU had surrendered 11 tackles for loss. Even so, the Bulldogs protected their quarterback much better than they did in their first SEC game.
MSU will try to regroup against a nonconference opponent, which means it’s another week — Oct. 1 against Texas A&M — before players can regain confidence against a conference opponent.
Where the Bulldogs go from here remains to be seen. Teams don’t typically stay in one place.
Three weeks from now, they’ll be better or worse.
Maybe the experienced players will help them come together in the former, not the latter.
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