Three and Out: Leonard Fournette, LSU outlast Mississippi State rally
Here are three thoughts on the Tigers’ win:
1. LSU is firmly in the hunt in the SEC West
Nearly a year ago, quarterback Dak Prescott and the Mississippi State Bulldogs entered into the national consciousness with a convincing victory in Baton Rouge. For three quarters on Saturday night, the Bulldogs looked like a shell of the program that made their name against LSU and ascended to the No. 1 team in the country for five weeks.
The Tigers gashed the Mississippi State defense with runs, consistently pressured Prescott and carried a 21–6 lead into the fourth quarter.
But two Prescott-led touchdown drives and a two-minute drill helped the Bulldogs storm back with a chance to win in the final seconds. Mississippi State kicker Devon Bell’s 52-yard field goal attempt slid wide right as time expired, ending the comeback bid and jumpstarting LSU’s season.
The play that will haunt the Bulldogs came with eight seconds left, after they’d gone 55 yards in less than 90 seconds. The Bulldogs took a delay of game penalty with the clock stopped on a dead ball, an error that ultimately moved the potential game-winning kick back five yards.
The victory signals a potential revival for LSU, which went 8–5 last year and sputtered to a 4–4 record in the SEC. On a day when the conference struggled mightily, LSU announced itself as a contender. This trip to Starkville was viewed as huge for coach Les Miles, who would have started hearing the chirps of critics if the Tigers got whitewashed again by the Bulldogs. Instead, the Tigers escaped with a heart-pounding win thanks to the relentless legs of Leonard Fournette, who churned out 159 yards and scored all three of the Tigers’ touchdowns. “All in all, it was a very satisfying win,” Miles said.
The SEC’s rough day changes the paradigm in which LSU will be viewed in the league. The Tigers have Auburn coming to Death Valley next week, which was seen before the season as a much more difficult game. But after Auburn needed to scramble to come back to beat FCS Jacksonville State earlier in the day, LSU moves into the role of a heavy favorite and can take control of the SEC West with a victory.
“Most certainty,” Fournette said when asked if Saturday's win revealed LSU as a contender in the SEC. “We have the players, we have the coaches. It's time.”
2. The Bulldogs are feeling their absences
Mississippi State’s offense will be a work in progress for the rest of the season. The Bulldogs have the SEC’s best quarterback and a high-end set of receivers. But their ability to showcase that will be severely undermined by an offensive line that appeared to be auditioning as a sieve and a turnstile for most of the night. Mississippi State’s three new starters looked overwhelmed by LSU’s defense, which included 12 tackles by linebacker Deion Jones.
Prescott is a returning first-team All-SEC quarterback, but he struggled to find his rhythm Saturday night while under constant duress. He also ran infrequently, as he carried the ball 10 times for minus-19 yards. Some of that garish total can be attributed to LSU’s three sacks. But last year against the Tigers, Prescott finished with 22 carries for 105 yards on a night when Mississippi State totaled 306 yards on the ground. The departure of tailback Josh Robinson clearly hurts Mississippi State’s running game. But not as much as the 107 games of experience that graduated with center Dillon Day, tackle Blaine Clausell and guard Ben Beckwith.
The Bulldogs finally looked crisp in the fourth quarter, especially on a six-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that pulled them within two. Receiver De’Runnya Wilson capped that drive with a five-yard touchdown catch, but tailback Ashton Shumpert couldn’t hold on to the two-point conversion pass from Prescott. That prevented Mississippi State from tying the game and epitomized a day in which the Bulldogs just weren’t quite sharp enough to win.
Mississippi State found a default identity, as Prescott finished 34 of 52 for 335 yards. Coach Dan Mullen would prefer more balance, as the Bulldogs finished with 26 rushes for 43 yards, but balance will be hard to achieve if the line can't open holes.
3. Leonard Fournette may be the SEC’s top RB
An aura of mystery surrounded LSU heading into this game after its opener against McNeese State got cancelled because of rain. Just about the only certainty about LSU was the bruising sophomore tailback Fournette, who arrived in Baton Rouge as a potential once-in-a-generation recruit and has done nothing to dissuade anyone from thinking that’s true. In the opening game of his sophomore year, Fournette emerged as a Heisman candidate and made a loud case to be the best tailback in the SEC. He’s a rare blend of speed and power, which he showcased on his three touchdown runs, leaping over the top on a direct snap for a one-yard score and bursting around the end for touchdown runs of 16 and 18 yards. Fournette put a finger over his facemask on his third-quarter touchdown run. But after running like he did Saturday, it will be hard to quiet the hype.
The best development for Fournette on the night was the completely functional performance of sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris. LSU is clearly easing in Harris, who started for the second time in his career. His debut was a 3-for-14 disaster at Auburn in a blowout loss last season.
Harris finished 9 of 14 for 71 yards on Saturday and threw the ball with zip and placement when needed. He’s far from him a star, but he’s not a total liability anymore. Plays like his fearless 14-yard rush on a third-and-11 in the fourth quarter epitomized his strong decision making.
“If you become one dimensional,” Miles said, “You become very easy to stop.” He added later about Harris, “You're going to see a guy who can throw the football.”