LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) rushes past Mississippi State safety Isaac Smith (20) for a second half touchdown during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Starkville, Miss. LSU won 41-14. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
LSU delivered the Mississippi State Bulldogs a beatdown, 41-14, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates.
STARKVILLE — SEC football is back in Mississippi.
For many of us that’s thrilling, but the buzz was gone early at Davis Wade Stadium Saturday. Mississippi State, erratic with its new offense in two tune-ups, could do nothing as LSU bolted to a 24-0 lead.
The Tigers won 41-14 in a beating that wasn’t as close as the score indicates.
With 3 minutes, 24 seconds left in the first half the Bulldogs had just 7 total yards. They approached the 50-yard line like it was a nuclear landfill.
Veteran quarterback Will Rogers, the holder of 29 school records, the SEC career leader in plays and No. 7 in passing yards, looked bewildered in the offense of new coordinator Kevin Barbay.
Finally, LSU missed a tackle and Woody Marks ran for 52 yards to the LSU 20. Five plays later, Tulu Griffin scored on a 9-yard run.
But the effort required for that bit of success was not sustainable.
The win was LSU’s largest in the series since beating State 59-26 here in 2013.
Eventually the Bulldogs’ offense made some plays, enough to show some life and spark hope, but then a sack here, a false start there, and a promising drive stalled.
Even then it wasn’t about winning as much as it was about pride and trying to find confidence in the new offense heading into a trip to South Carolina.
State had 143 total yards before its final possession when reserves helped lead a 58-yard march for a second touchdown.
In the decisive first half, Rogers and receivers miscommunicated. He threw to empty spaces.
His offensive line offered virtually no resistance. There were some dropped passes, but that wasn’t the story of the day. The pressure bothered Rogers, but elite SEC quarterbacks make plays anyway. They get the pass off an instant before catastrophe or they throw over the top of the rush.
It’s not the preferred path. It’s certainly not how you draw it up on the white board, but much of life isn’t. It’s about adapting.
On Saturday, it was LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels who adapted.
A year ago in this game Daniels was in his first season as a transfer portal kid, a guy who left Arizona State for the chance to excel on a bigger stage. It was a wobbly beginning, but he got better that day and that season.
Fans love to love the players that love them back.
Will Rogers is the son of a Mississippi high school coach. He’s one of us, and when Signing Day came he stayed in state.
“He missed some throws he needs to be able to complete. He was not getting a whole lot of help in protection. We didn’t hold up to their pass rush early on. I’ll have to watch tape and see exactly what those issues are, but it’s not very fun playing quarterback when you’ve got the pocket collapsing on you,” MSU coach Zach Arnett said.
A Different Daniels
A year ago Daniels was 22-for-37 for 210 yards and a paltry 5.7 yards per attempt.
Saturday the portal pick-up outplayed the Mississippi kid. Daniels completed an uncanny 95 percent in the first half hitting 21 of 22 attempts. He didn’t take off and run at the first sign of trouble.
He finished 30-for-34 — 88 percent — for 361 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bulldogs at first played to contain him. Later there was success collapsing the pocket, but Daniels remained calm.
When his best target, Malik Nabers, got any amount of separation, and sometimes it was a lot, he made the Bulldogs pay. He finished with 13 catches on 13 targets for 239 yards and two scores.
It makes you wonder, if this is LSU, what is Florida State?
Arnett said these losses can become “commonplace” if players and coaches don’t respond in a manner that prevents that slide.
“It is as bad of a defeat as you could have. They dominated that football game,” Arnett said.
What’s next for Mississippi State?
First-year coach Zach Arnett put up some solid defenses in support of Mike Leach’s pass first and ask questions later offense. In 2022 the Bulldogs ranked in the top 40 in total yards, points allowed and rushing last year, No. 20 in pass defense efficiency, the year before No. 12 against the run.
If a tempo-passing offense doesn’t stay in rhythm a defense can spend a lot of time on the field.
You never heard Arnett complain about that, yet it was clear soon after his hire that there would be changes on offense.
What the Bulldogs showed last week in their first game against a Power Five foe was a radical shift.
You knew this team would run more, but what did that mean? It’s not hard to run more than a Leach offense.
In their 31-24 overtime win against Arizona the Bulldogs ran the ball almost 70 percent of the time.
They averaged less than 4 yards a carry against a defense that was No. 124 against the run last year.
You can’t speak a new offense into existence. Blocking schemes are different. Plays that were second nature may require a split second of thought, and in the SEC a split second could be disastrous.
“It was very poor execution by us and very good execution by them. When we play the game right, throw the quick throw it goes for a first down. The next play we’ve got a shot play dialed up, and a guy gets through there, and suddenly you’re behind the chains,” Arnett said.
Line play remains a work in progress, but State’s got the backs to do this.
There were questions, of course, in the preseason about how Rogers might adapt to this change. Leach was the only college coach he’d known.
In two games, the offense had flashed. Other times, it had coughed and wheezed.
But when Rogers retreated to pass against Arizona good things happened. He completed 13 of 17 attempts and threw for three touchdowns.
I’ve been of the opinion that football intellect is required to achieve in any system the way Rogers did in the Air Raid and that his smarts would help him to a smooth transition to State’s new ways.
Saturday he tested that theory.