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STARKVILLE — After faking a hand-off to Aeris Williams at the 3, Nick Fitzgerald rolled to his left. There was a small window to then make the pass between two LSU defenders to Williams in the end zone, but Fitzgerald didn’t release the ball. Instead, Fitzgerald absorbed a hit and plowed through the end zone for a touchdown just before halftime.
Fitzgerald then pointed toward the sky. The crowd at Davis Wade Stadium erupted.
Cue the pyro. Cue the cowbells. Cue a special season?
In a week filled with hype — from Mississippi State’s annual Cowbell Yell, Bulldog Bash downtown and the SEC Network on hand — the Bulldogs didn’t just live up to the noise that surrounded them heading into Saturday.
No; they added to it.
By beating No. 11 LSU 37-7, Mississippi State made a statement: It’s time to name the Bulldogs as the second-best team in the SEC West.
If you think that’s a knee-jerk reaction to an upset win, consider how questionable No. 17 Auburn (2-1) has looked through the first three weeks compared to how Mississippi State (3-0) has outscored its opponents 143-28.
“This,” Fitzgerald said, “is the perfect way to start the SEC season.”
Mississippi State won’t wait long for the chance to make another statement, either. Up next for the Bulldogs is No. 13 Georgia (3-0) in Athens. The way the Bulldogs have looked, winner likely gets to be called second-best team in the entire SEC.
Yes, this is escalating quickly. No, that doesn’t make it wrong.
“I don’t know … We’re 3-0 and we have a long way to go to get six wins,” coach Dan Mullen said. “We have a huge challenge next week on the road.”
The caveat the first two weeks of the season for Mississippi State was its dominance came against inferior competition. And that was fair and accurate before this game. The story changes now because the Bulldogs beat the Tigers in Starkville for the first time since 1999 and bullied LSU around in the process.
Mississippi State’s defense answered every motion-call, swarmed to the ball and made play … after play … after play. This defense is playing with a swagger under Todd Grantham and it indeed looks for real; the Bulldogs held Derrius Guice to 76 yards and without a touchdown on 25 carries.
So is Mississippi State’s running game, which was established early on. Fitzgerald’s touchdown run just with 7 seconds left before halftime was a turning point because that play gave Mississippi State a 17-7 lead. The crowd was at its loudest at that point for good reason; it received confirmation that, yes, this was really happening. Over by the LSU sideline, Ed Orgeron stared at the scoreboard as his tongue touched his top lip almost to say, “Really?”
But those who have watched this team the last three weeks probably weren’t as surprised. This was Mississippi State at its best — relentless defense, power running and, hey, Jace Christmann even made three field goals without missing — but it also appears sustainable.
Two key reasons were showcased on Saturday.
Mississippi State’s depth on defense was again on display.
Braxton Hoyett stepped in for the injured Cory Thomas at defensive tackle and looked sharp with two tackles, including one for a loss. The Bulldogs also have proven they have four talented safeties in Brandon Bryant, Johnathan Abram, Mark McLaurin and J.T. Gray who can handle coverage just as well as they can move into the box and make a play against the run. Abram’s pass deflection in the first quarter when he was tested one-on-one and then his combined tackle with McLaurin on the very next play was the best example of this.
“We never gave up the big play,” Mullen said. “And Todd got our guys ready for an NFL back.”
Offensively, Mississippi State’s rushing attack is dynamic and punishing enough that when Fitzgerald looks to pass off play-action, it’s easy for opposing defenses to get burned. Even when LSU switched to a 4-3 in the second half, it still couldn’t slow down MSU.
“We knew we had to run the ball to have success,” Fitzgerald said. “We aren’t surprised to be 3-0. We knew we could win this game.”
Fitzgerald rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries and Williams added 146 on 23 carries by showing patient vision coupled with bursting speed. The duo broke LSU’s defense down all night, so when Fitzgerald looked to pass on play-action in the third quarter, Keith Mixon (who had 97 receiving yards) was wide open for a 45-yard touchdown.
“We had (LSU) right where we wanted them,” Mixon said. “I think we knew from the first drive, with the way we ran the ball.”
The cowbells started ringing loudly then. They kept ringing from there. In fact, they rang all night.
Things could stay that way for a while around here.