By JOEL COLEMAN
Lined up just inside the left hash with less than 10 seconds to play, Mississippi State kicker Westin Graves put his foot to the ball looking for a game-winning 28-yard field goal against South Alabama on Saturday afternoon. The ball sailed through the air, hit the goalpost and bounced away.
With that, the unthinkable became reality. South Alabama became 21-20 winners over MSU at Davis Wade Stadium.
The Jaguars rushed the field to celebrate the biggest win in the program’s history and earned a meaningless unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as a result of their exuberance. The Bulldogs were left wondering what on earth had just happened after squandering a 17-0 halftime lead.
“I was saying in my head, it shouldn’t have even come down to a field goal,” Mississippi State wide receiver Fred Ross said. “We’re up 17, so we’re supposed to come out in the second half and just keep rolling.”
A three-score deficit didn’t phase the Jaguars. South Alabama sophomore quarterback Dallas Davis, making his first career start, lit up a banged-up Bulldogs secondary that is without senior cornerbacks Tolando Cleveland and Cedric Jiles. Cleveland is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Jiles will miss the first half of the season with a broken right arm.
Davis threw for 285 total yards and two second-half touchdowns to set the groundwork for an upset South Alabama believed all along it could get.
“We are supposed to do this,” South Alabama wide receiver Josh Magee said. “We go out there to battle just like (MSU) does. They put their pads and pants on just like we do. We were confident going into this game. All we had to do is pay attention to detail and do what we practiced.”
Davis’ 4-yard touchdown toss to Gerald Everett with 57 seconds left turned out to be the game-winner for the Jaguars. It was South Alabama’s first lead all day after Mississippi State had pulled away in the first two quarters thanks to a stellar first half from quarterback Damian Williams.
Nick Fitzgerald earned the start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in the first game of the post-Dak Prescott era. Fitzgerald lasted only two series though, both three-and-outs.
Williams entered with 5:48 left in the first quarter and immediately sparked the Bulldogs. MSU scored all of its points on the first four series that Williams was in the game.
Williams led touchdown drives of 60 and 80 yards to start his day before putting the Bulldogs in range for a 37-yard field goal from Graves with 4:41 left in the opening half.
Williams finished the day with 143 yards passing and a touchdown. He also rushed for a team-high 93 yards, but couldn’t get the MSU offense going in third and fourth quarters.
“(Williams) played hard,” Ross said. “He gave it his all. He did everything he could to close it out. He ran the ball and threw the ball well. I just feel like the offense as a whole has to come out with better intentions in the second half.”
South Alabama posted its first points on its opening drive of the second half. Davis found Magee from 20 yards out to cut MSU’s lead to 17-7.
After a 48-yard field goal from Graves pushed State’s advantage to 20-7 later in the period, the Jaguars’ visions of a program-defining victory started to come into focus.
In the fourth quarter, following a Logan Cooke punt that pinned South Alabama at its own 1-yard line, the Jaguars drove 99 yards for a score. Tyreis Thomas pushed the ball across the goal line for South Alabama with a 4-yard run to get the Jaguars within six points.
The score held until Davis’ go-ahead touchdown pass to Everett.
Williams answered by driving the Bulldogs all the way down to the South Alabama 11-yard line before Graves’ second missed field goal of the day ended MSU’s hopes to avoid a disastrous loss.
“With the kicker position, one minute you are the hero and the next you could be falling off the face of the earth,” MSU senior defensive lineman A.J. Jefferson said. “(Graves) made two before that. I just feel like these things happen and that is something that he can fix and work on. You cannot simulate that during practice, with that pressure being on you at the end of the game down by a point.”
Mississippi State now heads into its Southeastern Conference opener next week against South Carolina needing to overcome a deflating defeat.
The season is only one game old, but courtesy of South Alabama, MSU is already searching for answers.
“We had some opportunities to win that we didn’t take advantage of,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “(South Alabama) made plays when they needed to. You have to make plays to win the game. For us, we have young players out there playing and they have to learn the critical moments to step up and be able to make the plays to win.”
With the Gamecocks coming, Ross and the Bulldogs are left to figure things out quickly as they discern exactly what went wrong against the Jaguars.
“I just feel kind of numb,” Ross said. “They came out, played hard and played the whole game. They kept fighting and we didn’t.”