Bulldogs Go 2-0 Beating Arizona in OT

Bulldogs Go 2-0

It wasn’t pretty! Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett, uttered those exact words when talking with SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic. He also uttered a bleepable (sic) word, but by that time, at least MSU fans didn’t care. It was a heart-stopping finish as the Bulldogs go 2-0 beating Arizona in OT, 31-24. The Wildcats won the toss in overtime but deferred to State to get the ball first. The Dawgs scored a touchdown first and then it was UA’s turn. In the end, it came down to inches, an elbow, and a booth review, and the Wildcats were unable to get a first down, ending the game.

At times the Dawgs’ play seemed brilliant on both sides of the ball. Other times it was downright sloppy.

In his typical fashion, Arnett put much of the blame for the sloppiness on his shoulders. In his post-game press conference, he said, “Frankly, I don’t think we had good enough plans. I didn’t have a good enough game plan,” Arnett said. “The players overcame my coaching in this game, and so they earned it. I’m incredibly proud of the resiliency of this football team.”

Let’s take a look at some of the highs and lows for the Dawgs.

How ‘Bout That D?

Defensive Highs: The Bulldog defense forced five turnovers, four interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Three of the interceptions occurred in the first quarter on Arizona’s three consecutive possessions. Those resulted in two scores for State.

At times the secondary’s play was just like the coach drew it up. The Wildcats’ difference-maker, quarterback Jayden de Laura, repeatedly could not find a receiver open in the first half. De Laura used his legs, which proved to be a defensive challenge unto itself.

Defensive Lows: The defense could not handle Arizona or de Laura once he started running up-tempo. Just before halftime, de Laura covered 77 yards in three plays. It took less than 40 seconds. He continued to speed things up in his next two scoring drives.

As much as the secondary held off the Wildcats in the first half, the total passing yards at the game’s end tell a different story. De Laura racked up 342 yards in the air to the Dawgs 162. The Dawgs defense allowed 431 total yards compared to 307 for State’s offense.

And on Offense?

Offensive Highs: When the Bulldogs were consistent, they were hot. It helps to have a veteran quarterback in Will Rogers. It also didn’t hurt to have receivers with whom he’s in tune.  In the first half, he was in sync for two scores after turnovers.

Woody Marks continued his stellar performance running for over 100 yards and receiving four passes for 32 yards. He needs one more reception for a new team career record.

Tulu Griffin was another bright spot, finally getting some meaningful reps at wide receiver. He scored two touchdowns and led the team in receiving with five receptions for 83 yards.

Of course, the most impactful high for the offense was the tenacity to keep getting up after being knocked down. It’s that kind of character that can bode well for Mississippi State as it enters the SEC scrub board.

Offensive Lows: In large part, the defense couldn’t have served up better opportunities for the offense. Four turnovers in the first half and only two that counted for scores.

But the most outstanding low of the night was the play-calling of offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay. It was run-heavy, Barbay calling in 39 such plays, to the point it became predictable. Rogers went 13/17 in passing, or 76%. In other words, he was not given the passing reps to improve on that. This was the first time since 2020 that he threw for less than 200 yards. De Laura, on the other hand, threw 32/46 or 69%. Perhaps this contributed to his 342 yards in passing.

Vandy transfer Mike Wright made a huge impression in the season opener with his running ability. In the Wildcat formation, he ran five times for 95 yards. Wright had a handoff and one run for a negative three yards against Arizona.

Who Were the Bright Spots

Jett Johnson and Bookie Watson have acquired the moniker The Bash Brothers, at least on the SEC Network. After Saturday’s performance, they seem to be on track to lead the SEC in tackles like they did last year.  Johnson had 11 tackles, seven solo, two for a loss, a sack, and two interceptions. Watson, not to be outdone, had 10 tackles, three solo, and one interception.

Safety Shawn Preston Jr. had an impressive night as well. He forced a fumble that was picked up by Hunter Washington. He scampered 23 yards after the scoop and run.

Marks continued to impress following last week’s game-changing performance. This week, he ran 24 times for 123 yards and the second touchdown of the evening. He has exceeded 100 yards for the second week. He never went above 100 in his previous three years with the Dawgs.

Tulu Griffin finally got the chance to show off his receiver talents. He got two touchdowns for the night and led the team with five receptions for 83 yards.

Jeffery Pittman got his chance and made the ultimate difference in the game in OT. Despite a 10-yard holding penalty, Pittman took a pass from Rogers and went 29 yards for the winning touchdown, breaking a tackle to do so.

Rogers could be considered the elder statesman of the team after four starting seasons. One cannot dismiss his impact on the will of his offense, pardon the pun. In his interview with Cubelic, Rogers related what he told the team in overtime. “When it comes down to the fourth quarter and you need that drive,” Rogers said. “I kinda politely told Coach Barbay I’d like the ball in my hands to win the game “ And he did. It’s usually a leader like him that can turn the tide.

On the Horizon

Suffice it to say that the Bulldogs’ 2022 nine-win season is a distant memory. It’s more of a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” feeling. However, State fans are faithful if anything else. They head into week three and the first SEC game of 2023 with some optimism. After the Arizona game, it’s hard to believe there isn’t some anxiety lurking.

The Wildcats proved to be a much more formidable foe than State’s opening opponent. However, that was expected since this season Pac-12 teams seem to be taking no prisoners in their last gasp at breath. Interestingly enough, Mississippi State’s win over Arizona was the first defeat the left coast conference had so far. The second would come at the hands of Auburn later that evening, beating Cal 14-10. At least it was the SEC that spoiled their undefeated 2023 record up until now.

In his SEC Network interview, Rogers related something he said to his team in overtime.  He rallied his fellow veterans. “This is on us,” Rogers said. “We’re all seniors. We’re doing this. We’re going down to score. We’re going down to win the game. Get that in your mind right now.”

It’s probably that kind of spirit that allowed the Dawgs to overcome the Wildcats’ onslaught. That spirit will surely be needed against their first SEC opponent LSU this coming weekend. Be sure to watch for our preview of that game this week.


Bulldogs Go 2-0

Photo courtesy: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports