By JOEL COLEMAN
BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU running back Leonard Fournette was wrapped up. On a simple run starting at the Mississippi State 48-yard line early in the first quarter on Saturday night, MSU safety Brandon Bryant was in perfect position to bring the bruising tailback down near the line of scrimmage.
With a mighty shove of Fournette’s right arm, he pushed Bryant away and slammed him off the playing surface at Tiger Stadium on the way to an 11-yard run. Fournette was just too much.
So, too, were the Tigers on this night, but just barely.
Fournette’s performance served as the catalyst for LSU as the Tigers topped Mississippi State 23-20 in Death Valley, narrowly fending off a furious late comeback attempt by the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State trailed 23-6 with less than five minutes to play before scoring a pair of late touchdowns and getting the ball back on its own 23 with 2:15 to go. State’s hopes ended when quarterback Damian Williams was sacked on fourth down, forcing a fumble that LSU’s Davon Godchaux recovered.
“We fought hard and came back,” wide receiver Fred Ross said. “I feel like we left some plays out there on the field. We’ve got to make those plays and I think we’ll be fine.”
Long before MSU (1-2, 1-1) came ever-so-close to the dramatic, come-from-behind win, Fournette was seemingly putting the game out of reach for LSU (2-1, 1-0).
Fournette ended the night with 147 yards rushing and two touchdowns. His stadium-shaking stiff arm of Bryant served as the highlight of the evening, but the junior was solid all night long despite entering the game battling an ankle injury that kept him out of LSU’s game a week ago.
“(LSU’s) offense goes through him,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said of Fournette. “They want to get him the ball, so that’s the guy you’ve got to stop.”
The MSU defense struggled all night to find an answer for Fournette. He was consistent on the ground, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and added four catches for 27 yards to aid LSU’s air attack.
Tigers quarterback Danny Etling, making his first career start at LSU, shined as well. The transfer from Purdue completed 19 of his 30 pass attempts for 215 yards and a touchdown.
While Fournette and Etling carried the Tigers, the Bulldogs couldn’t find any offensive consistency. LSU built a 23-3 lead by halftime as the MSU offense sputtered. State put up just 80 yards of total offense in the first half and scored its only points of the first two quarters on a 41-yard field goal by Westin Graves.
“I thought (the early offense) was okay,” Mullen said. “I was kind of disappointed in some missed opportunities that were there. There were plays to be made that we didn’t make. To win football games you have to go as hard as you can. If you have an opportunity to make a play, you need to make it.”
Meanwhile, LSU was rolling. Moments after Fournette’s violent stiff arm on Bryant, Etling found DJ Chark for a 37-yard touchdown pass. Later in the period, Fournette punched in his first touchdown run from five yards out for a 14-0 LSU lead, then added a 25-yard scoring rush with 8:25 left in the second quarter. Colby Delahoussaye missed the extra point, but the Tigers held a 20-0 advantage.
After Graves’ field goal closed the gap for the Bulldogs, Delahoussaye kicked a 27-yarder later in the period to answer and give LSU its halftime edge.
LSU wouldn’t score again. Following the intermission, MSU fought back.
First, Graves hit a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter to cut MSU’s deficit to 23-6. Then, with time winding down in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs started to find magic.
MSU’s Dez Harris forced a fumble that gave the Bulldogs possession with just 6:50 to play. On that drive, State starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald had his helmet knocked off, forcing him to leave the game for a play. Williams then entered and stayed in the rest of the contest.
“He completed a pass, we were in our 2-minute offense and didn’t want to sub (Williams) out,” Mullen said. “He led us down for the first touchdown drive.”
Williams had a one-yard score on the ground to pull State to within 10 points at 23-13. After the Bulldogs recovered an onside kick, Williams led a quick, two-play, 32-yard touchdown drive culminated by a 7-yard pass to Ross.
Down three points, MSU’s defense forced a three-and-out to give the Bulldogs a chance. State wasn’t able to capitalize offensively in the end.
“I think it all comes down to effort,” Mullen said. “I liked the effort our guys played with at the end, but we came up short.”
Despite Williams’ late success, Mullen said nothing has changed with MSU’s starting quarterback situation moving forward, meaning Fitzgerald will remain the starter.
Fitzgerald will look to help MSU move past the loss to LSU next week when State battles UMASS at the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Kickoff time for that game is set for 2:30 p.m.