It wasn’t just that Mississippi State moved the ball on then-No. 12 LSU; the Bulldogs have an excellent offense and will move the ball on just about anybody.
It wasn’t just that Mississippi State shut down LSU’s offense; the four best defenses on the Tigers’ 2016 schedule all did the same.
No single aspect of MSU’s dominant 37-7 win over the Tigers, MSU’s first multiple-score win over LSU since 1991, was particularly shocking. That it all happened, however was.
Whatever your thoughts about LSU in 2016 — bad quarterback play, an attack that was too conservative, etc. — the Tigers were competitive in every game. They lost games to Wisconsin, Auburn, Alabama, and Florida by a combined 23 and didn’t allow more than 18 points to any of them.
So ... what exactly happened? How did Mississippi State dominate Ed Orgeron’s team in a way that nobody else, including Alabama, could last year?
1. Mississippi State created a size advantage and worked the right side of the line all night.
If you were Dan Mullen and offensive co-coordinators Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy, and you were doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis against Dave Aranda’s speedy LSU defense, you would probably list “size” in your Strengths portion. Your quarterback (Nick Fitzgerald) is 6’5, 230 pounds. Your running back (Aeris Williams) is 6’1, 217. Your starting offensive line averages 6’4, 316.
In the Opportunities portion, you might also put “size.” LSU is fast as hell, and the secondary is certainly big enough. But Aranda’s three-man line only features one starter over 300 pounds (not small by any means, but not enormous either), and his outside linebackers are 228-pound Corey Thompson and freshman K’Lavon Chaisson.
Even with all-conference pass rusher Arden Key returning for LSU, MSU still boasted a size advantage and figured out how to use it. That frequently meant pulling a guard to take on either an end or OLB on the right side, and it created an opportunity for Williams.
I charted the first three quarters or so of this game (I stopped when MSU went up 37-7). On rushes I categorized as off right tackle, MSU carried 11 times for 125 yards and a 64 percent success rate. Four of those rushes went for at least 18 yards. Williams’ ability to make quick cuts, combined with MSU’s ability to clog up LSU’s vision with big bodies, created a lot of success. These 11 right-tackle plays accounted for only 30 percent of the rushing plays I charted, but 52 percent of the yards.
2. The game state was perfect for the Bulldogs.
LSU wants to physically dominate you, especially on offense. More often than not, that will mean a heavy dose of not only all-world running back Derrius Guice (42 carries for 224 yards in the first two games of the year) but also capable backups Darrel Williams, Nick Brossette, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (combined: 41 carries, 223 yards). The Tigers didn’t create a ton of big plays against BYU or Chattanooga to start the season, but they were relentlessly efficient on the ground.
And though LSU’s defense might be a hair undersized against some teams, it can pin its ears back. The Tigers came into the game ranked third in the country with a 22 percent passing-downs sack rate. Once you are leveraged into awkward downs and distances, or once you’re behind a bit and have to become more one-dimensional, you’re toast.
It was pretty easy to see that whichever team built an early lead might craft a huge advantage, then. If LSU had gotten on the board a couple of times early on, the Tigers could have settled into a ground-and-pound rhythm and would have had more opportunity to go after Fitzgerald.
Instead, the Bulldogs and Tigers fought to a draw for the first 20 minutes, and then MSU made its move. They worked the clock perfectly, scoring a touchdown with seven seconds left in the half to go up 17-7, then receiving the second half kickoff and tacking on a field goal. The Tigers were down 10-7 the last time they touched the ball in the second quarter and were down 20-7 the next time they got it.
Some teams are equipped to play from behind. LSU is not. Not only did the Tigers have to pass a bit more than they were comfortable with — after averaging 41.5 carries per game, LSU backs combined for only 23 — but their pass rush was also neutered. It was like every down was a standard down for MSU, and Fitzgerald was sacked only once in 24 attempts. LSU defenders grew increasingly frustrated, and two ended up ejected for targeting on Fitzgerald after he threw passes.
3. LSU self-destructed.
Orgeron’s Tigers came in having committed 21 penalties for 160 yards in two games. It’s okay to play with an edge, and penalties don’t correlate with losses nearly as much as you might assume.
Technically, the Tigers’ per-game average went down on Saturday — they committed only nine penalties, dropping their rate from 10.5 per game to 10. But some were drive-killers and others were reckless, the mark of a team that had lost its cool and had no idea how to get it back.
MSU nose tackle Jeffery Simmons might have sensed this and did his part to egg on LSU.
About an hour prior to the start of LSU’s Southeastern Conference opener in Starkville, Mississippi, the Bulldogs’ nose guard Jeffery Simmons ran down to the Tigers’ end zone where he began taunting in the face of LSU’s Saahdiq Charles and several other offensive linemen.
Simmons then ran back to the MSU side of the field before returning to about midfield to begin taunting LSU players again.
He eventually shoved an LSU player, which is when both teams rushed to midfield and shared a few words before respective staffs split up the heated group.
LSU committed personal fouls on MSU’s second, fourth, and fifth scoring drives of the night. And again, two different Tiger defenders were ejected for late shots on Fitzgerald.
They self-destructed in a different way, too. Down 20-7 on their first drive of the second half, they advanced to near midfield, but on third-and-5, Russell Gage dropped a perfect Etling pass that would have moved the chains. He then exploded on the sideline, slamming his helmet on the ground several times. And on the next drive, Etling found go-to receiver D.J. Chark, who had gotten behind his defender, over the middle. The pass didn’t hit him perfectly in stride (which could have meant a touchdown), but it hit him in the hands all the same. And then it fell incomplete.
(The Tigers’ first drive was killed by a different kind of receiver malfeasance — a 67-yard touchdown pass to Chark was called back because of an offensive pass interference call on Stephen Sullivan. I’m going to let this slide, however, because I thought it was an awful call. It contributed to the unfavorable game state, though.)
Etling was maybe LSU’s second-best player behind Guice, who managed 76 yards in 15 carries. But game state took Guice out of the game, and the rest of LSU took itself out as well.
Mississippi State is a big, physical, exciting, and mature football team.
This might be Mullen’s best squad yet, and while we don’t know if the Bulldogs can stand up to Alabama for 60 minutes the way they did to LSU, they have thus far proven themselves worthy of top-10 consideration.
Meanwhile, when punched in the mouth for the first time all year, Orgeron’s Tigers lost their cool. And while plenty has changed since Orgeron was Ole Miss’ head coach a decade ago, his new team looked far too much like his old team for anyone’s comfort.
And they now bear the burden of proof in a way they didn’t even bear in Les Miles’ last days in charge. At least you knew Miles teams weren’t going to get pummeled in Starkville.