STARKVILLE — Mike Leach knows how important a touchdown right before halftime can be.
During his press conference following Saturday’s 42-24 win over Texas A&M, Leach remembered a game from his past where such a score played a big role.
Leach’s team wasn’t playing well at all but scored on the half’s final play. The touchdown cut the opposing team’s lead to 17 points — still a sizable deficit.
It didn’t matter as Leach’s team headed for the locker room.
“We go in there all screaming, happy, excited and can’t wait for the second half, and then we hammered them,” Leach recalled.
It was a similar situation Saturday as the Bulldogs hosted the Aggies in Starkville.
The Dispatch examined Mississippi State’s final drive before the first half, which ended with a touchdown to put MSU up 14-3.
The Bulldogs have been on both ends of that, of course.
“It’s funny because those things can have an impact either direction, so always beware of both positive and negative to scores right before half,” Leach said.
Play No. 1: First and 10 at Mississippi State 30. Mississippi State lines up with split backs — Dillon Johnson to quarterback Will Rogers’ left and Simeon Price to Rogers’ right. Johnson takes the handoff for a 5-yard gain. He is the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with more than 300 yards this season.
Play No. 2: Second and 5 at the MSU 35. Rogers fakes a handoff to Johnson, who is lined up as the lone back to the right. Rogers fires over the middle to Georgia transfer Justin Robinson, who makes the catch at the 42-yard line, cuts back toward the midfield logo and is brought down at the Texas A&M 47. Robinson had his best game of the season, catching six passes for 50 yards. He had just three catches for 43 yards and two touchdowns in the season’s first four games.
Play No. 3: First and 10 at the Texas A&M 47. Mississippi State goes with split backs again and hands the ball to Johnson. He cuts to the right around a block from center LaQuinston Sharp and lowers his shoulder near the first-down marker. Johnson moves the chains at the A&M 37. In just three plays, the Bulldogs have gone 33 yards.
Play No. 4: First and 10 at the A&M 37. Johnson sprints out to the left flat with Price going out to the right, but Rogers targets neither back. He throws the ball deep to Rara Thomas, who is lined up in one-on-one coverage and has an opening down the right sideline. The toss goes over Thomas’ head as Mississippi State misses a potential touchdown opportunity. The Bulldogs, of course, later connected on a 75-yard touchdown from Rogers to Thomas.
Play No. 5: Second and 10 at the A&M 37. Johnson, lined up to Rogers’ left, takes a handoff and cuts to the right around defensive lineman LT Overton. The junior makes it down to the 32 with a 5-yard gain. His 6.04 yards per carry average ranks eighth among running backs in the SEC, and he has 50 attempts already through five contests. “I think y’all can tell that we run the ball a lot more,” Johnson said after the game.
Play No. 6: Third and 5 at the A&M 32. On the first third down of the possession, Johnson delivers a key block on the right edge to keep Rogers upright. The quarterback slings the ball to Lideatrick Griffin across the middle, and the speedster shakes off defensive back Jardin Gilbert before Deuce Harmon brings Griffin down at the 5-yard line. Griffin gained 27 yards on the play but finished with just 29 yards on three catches Saturday.
Play No. 7: First and goal at the A&M 5. Mississippi State dials up a play that could have worked but that falls just short. Rogers tosses a quick pass to Jamire Calvin in the front of the end zone, but the veteran receiver can’t make the play. Calvin dives but can’t make the catch, and the ball skitters free. Calvin did not have a reception Saturday; he has just 10 catches for 50 yards this season. Eleven Bulldogs, including three running backs, have more receiving yards.
Play No. 8: Second and goal at the A&M 5. Johnson gets his fourth carry of the drive, but he can’t make much of it. Running to the right again, he runs into a host of Texas A&M defenders and is brought down for a 1-yard gain. Strangely, the seventh and eighth plays of the Bulldogs’ drive resemble what Leach said Monday he was hoping to avoid. “Put it in play,” Leach said. “Make sure the ball’s in play, that there’s not some incompletion or that some running back runs into nine guys and gets zero yards.”
Play No. 9: Third and goal at the A&M 4. Rogers finds Starkville native Rufus Harvey, who turns around to make a great adjustment for a catch at the line of scrimmage. Tackled by Antonio Johnson, Harvey dives and stretches the nose of the football across the goal line. The touchdown is reviewed, but the call is confirmed. Mississippi State took a 14-3 lead with just 58 seconds to go, and the Bulldogs went on to stretch it out from there.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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