By JOEL COLEMAN
Games aren’t played on paper. That much was reinforced on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium when South Alabama, a school that didn’t even have a football program eight years ago, came to Mississippi State and shocked the Bulldogs 21-20.
MSU had planned to use its game against South Alabama to figure some things out. The Jaguars finished tied for fifth place in the Sun Belt Conference a year ago, seemingly making for an ideal opponent to iron out kinks against before Southeastern Conference play begins for MSU.
Instead, South Alabama perhaps gave State more questions than answers.
In years past, the calming, encouraging presence of former quarterback Dak Prescott would have been there to guide State though the difficult times. Now, a new crop of Bulldogs are about to test their leadership skills as MSU looks to bounce back.
“We’ll be alright,” Mississippi State wide receiver Fred Ross said in the moments following Saturday’s stunning upset. “It starts with the leaders. Guys like me, Richie (Brown), A.J. (Jefferson) and Brandon Holloway, it starts with us. If we come out at practice and we let this kind of linger, then it’s going to linger on for the rest of the season. If we come out hard and we get on the guys and we hold ourselves accountable, we’ll be alright.”
Ross took ownership of the offense’s struggles in the third and fourth quarters against South Alabama. The Bulldogs built a 17-0 first-half lead against the Jaguars, then put up just three points the rest of the way.
In the past, the burden would have been put on Prescott to rally the troops. That was before the most illustrious quarterback in MSU history became the starting quarterback for the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys, leaving State searching to replace his presence.
“I think (Prescott’s absence) kind of showed (on Saturday),” Ross said. “We’ve got to come out stronger. We’ve got to come out with that intensity. It starts with the leaders. Me, myself, I’ve got to get the wide receivers going. I’ve got to get the (offensive) line going. I need to get the offense going as a whole.”
While Ross is taking ownership of MSU’s offensive woes, Jefferson is doing the same defensively. Though State’s offense bogged down in the second half against South Alabama, Jefferson felt like that shouldn’t have even mattered.
“(Defensive line coach Brian Baker) said it best,” Jefferson said. “We lose out there when they put the 21 points up. That was solely on the defense. We didn’t have any turnovers. We could have helped out a lot, especially by flipping field position if we had got turnovers and stuff like that. We had a big part of that.”
Jefferson struggled to explain how things slipped away from the Bulldogs. He said it’s on veterans like himself to make sure something similar doesn’t happen again.
“I guess we just got kind of comfortable,” Jefferson said. “We kind of played back. The coaches kept preaching to us to stay on them and to keep the thumb down on them. With such a young defense, it has to come from within so I feel like I can do a better job of preaching that to them. That’s something I can fix myself.”
The schedule does the Bulldogs no favors. MSU opens up SEC action against South Carolina at home this Saturday at 6 p.m. It’s a chance for Mississippi State to hit the restart button after faltering against South Alabama.
Perhaps a win against the Gamecocks will wash away the bitter taste of losing to the Jaguars. Ross said he is doing his part to make sure one loss doesn’t snowball on the Bulldogs in the weeks to come.
“After the game, I got the team together and told them we’re together through thick and thin,” Ross said. “We’re together through the ups and we’re together through the downs. We’ve just got to stay together and stay focused as a team. We’ve just got to come out at practice (this) week and hit it in the mouth and get ready for South Carolina.”